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Beyond the Public Sphere in the Modern Middle East

October 10, 2011

When will we stop looking for technology to drive political revolutions? asks Albrecht Hofheinz of Oslo University.

Accounts of mediated relations between the state and society have long been dominated by the concept of “the public sphere,” introduced into social theory in 1962 by Jurgen Habermas. Unfortunately, complains Albrecht Hofheinz of the University of Oslo, it’s a theoretical paradigm that lacks explanatory power where the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings are concerned.

The “Public Sphere,” for those unfamiliar with it, refers to those parts of society where “private individuals come together into a public,” as Habermas says. Habermas considers the realm of everyday life, labor, commodities, market exchange, and so forth as making up “the private sphere.” It is contrasted with the “sphere of authority” comprised of the state, the ruling class, and its apparachiks, such as the police, state security personnel, and so forth. The public sphere mediates between these two domains, generating public opinion and so putting the state in touch with the needs and desires of the people.

Habermas original conceptualization was that the development of a public sphere was a necessary part of the evolution of democratic government. Whereas authoritarian governments merely speak to the people (including through pageant and pomp), “legitimate” governments listen to the people governed via a vibrant public sphere in which people can engage in debate.

For anthropologists, as I remark in Anthropology and Mass Communication (Berghahn 2003), looking at whether a public sphere is developing as a precursor to democracy is both premature and more than a little ethnocentric. Rather, if the concept of a public sphere is useful it is that it points us to a web of relationships that require empirical description and that we would expect to be quite different in different contexts.

In “Nextopia: Beyond Revolution 2.0” Hofheinz complains that the classic focus of communications literature in the Middle East on “the Public Sphere” has left us without strong theoretical and methodological tools for understanding what is occurring now.

Hofheinz begins by pointing out that every new medium from radio to the Internet has been hailed as a technology that promised to transform political realities, often in a democratic way. And always, these claims have turned out to be hyperbolic. The fact that the world has now produced two political and social transformations that can really be called in some sense social media revolutions (“Revolution 2.0” as Wael Ghoneim called it) does not change the fact that there have only been two.

“Will the Internet, will blogging, will podcasting, Facebook, or Twitter bring democracy?” It is almost as if we are continuously searching for political utopia through the next generation of technology. “nextopia,” if I may borrow the expression from a Swedish marketing professor…

Efforts to bracket revolution and instead explore the place of blogs, Facebook pages and Tweets in the emerging Middle Eastern public sphere(s) are likewise flawed, he argues, because they focus so narrowly on the political, almost to the exclusion of the social and cultural.

He offers

a plea for a shift of paradigm: to study more seriously the social and cultural effects of internet and mobile phone use; to find out what impact the use of these media has on conceptions of the individual and its role in the construction of knowledge and values; and how these dynamics are embedded in more long-term historical developments promoting a greater role for the individual vis-à-vis established authorities.

Hofheinz is one of more than 30 communications scholars have contributed papers to a special issue of the International Journal of Communication focused on the role of information and communication technologies in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings.

Interestingly, I met Jurgen Habermas in Egypt when he came to speak at the American University in Cairo. We spoke briefly at a party, but he was not really interested in talking with me about the public sphere; that was work he’d done 20 years earlier, after all.

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