Political Communication Research Paper
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Research Paper on Political Communication and the Public Sphere
I have started my paper with the citing of Emmanuel Kant for the reason that it insists of the usage of rational thinking instead of following advices and being influenced by the state and the church. The same thing is with connections of public sphere, public opinion and political communication- people are just consuming what they are proposed in newspapers, magazines, TV programs, commercials and Internet and gradually lose their ability to think analytically. People now do not receive information for making personal conclusions, they are receiving conclusions instead.
For the thorough examination of political communication through the frame of public sphere it is essential to understand constituents of public sphere and history of its emergence as well as such terms as civil society, bourgeois constitutional state, literary and political public spheres, etc.
In this paper I will evaluate in what way public sphere matters to us, its influence upon society and upon political communication.
2. Public sphere
Speaking about the definition of “public sphere”, it becomes obvious that it should contrast with “private sphere”. It can be defined as the part of life in which people are communicating each other and interact with society in general. This notion is very much connected with concepts of identity and identity politics. By saying “public sphere” is generally meant that first it is the domain of social life in which public opinion is being shaped. A little bit from public sphere can be followed in every conversation of individuals which tend to form a public body that speaks about matters of general interest.
2.1 Jurgen Habermas’s definition of public sphere
Public sphere as a separate issue was introduced by Jurgen Habermas in his work “The structural Transformation of the Public Sphere- an Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society”. There Habermas provided historical and sociological overview of this particular notion. This term included such issues as, social sites or places where various meanings upon different subjects were born, distributed and negotiated as well as collective bodies constituted by the “public”.
There are several main principles of public sphere, which Habermas identified as models of norms and modes of behavior, which would ensure functioning of public opinion as a tool at least for the first time. They include: general accessibility to information, elimination of all privileges of data distribution and discovery of general norms and rational legitimations. A legitimate decision does not represent the will of all, but is one that results from the deliberation of all. It is the process by which everyone’s will is formed that confers it legitimacy on the outcome, rather than the sum of already formed wills (Habermas 446).
Public sphere is a relative notion, which, according to Negt and Kluge, denoted different institutions, practices and agencies. It is also a general social experience where there is no single meaning of something. Taking into the consideration the definition, it becomes clear that “public sphere” mostly regards such professionals as politicians, editors and other public people. But it as well concerns everyone on subconscious level.
As to the historical and philosophical context of the Habermas’s works, he was evidently influenced by such authors as Kant, Marx and Hegel. His ideas about what ‘public sphere’ means are mainly Kantian, as well as Habermas develops “central category of civil society” of Hegel into the foundation from which the public opinion forms. Civil society, according to Hegel, is the domain of the production and exchange that form the part of private sphere and is different from the state. By the definition this issue is very close to “economy”, but contains other social institutions as well. There are particular laws in civil society, and through public sphere it represents its interests in the state.
Returning to the influences upon Habermas’s works, it becomes obvious that the Marxist social theory of the Frankfurt School has also essential influence. For the information, the Frankfurt School was the group of philosophers that were connected with the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt in the early 1920s. They adapted theories of Marx to the studies of modern society and culture.
But Habermas also influenced many other writers with his works. It became especially evident with when the translation into English of his works was made.
2.2 Literary public sphere
Habermas was the first who provided the definition of what “public sphere” is, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist earlier. In the 18th century in United Kingdom it existed in its full meaning. There were coffee-houses that were centers of literary and art criticism, which later transformed to political and economic issues discussions. If there appeared any new work- painting, book or sculpture- it should have received legitimacy in such places. In coffee-houses opinions for public discussions were born. But as history shows, women, working class and minorities were not allowed to participate in public sphere.
Development of capitalism laid a strong platform for emergence of new form in public sphere- discussing modern government and privatized economic relationships. The new bourgeois public sphere emerged from the private realm that consisted of public economic relations and private relations. These new groups contained individuals who were supposed to discuss and regulate civil society by means of constructive criticism. This was very much supported in the 18th century by liberal democrats, as emergence of bourgeois public sphere provided an opportunity to establish such institutions, as newspaper and discussion forums, publishing houses, and promote democratic press. The key goal of this public sphere was no diminish church and government influence. The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public (Habermas).
Later in the 19th century the new term “bourgeois constitutional state” was introduced. This notion was created to connect the public sphere with the idea of law. It guaranteed people particular basic rights, which were aimed to establish the public sphere as the public institution. State was not supposed to be the dominating force in the provision of this link.
2.3 Public opinion
Public sphere is much interconnected with public opinion, which is formed by means of media, elections, accessible courts, etc. In those cases of opinion formation there is one important aspect- undistorted communication channels. Habermas emphasized that speeches that would probably influence this process should possess four key characteristics: truthfulness, sincerity, comprehensibility and appropriateness, which can also called adequateness or relevancy. Although objectively greater demands are placed on [public opinion], it operates less as a public opinion giving a rational foundation to the exercise of political and social authority, the more it is generated for the purpose of an abstract vote that amounts to no more than an act of acclamation within a public sphere temporarily manufactured for show or manipulation (Habermas).
2.4 Political public sphere
Political public sphere relates to public discussions that are concentrated upon the activity of the state as well as represents people who group together as a public for the critical use of their reasons. State authorities are usually equaled to ‘public’ authorities, deriving from their mission of caring the prosperity and well-being of citizens. This type of public sphere was developed from the other type- literary one.
2.5 Current situation
Nowadays it is no more a manipulative type of publicity, as false public is created and manipulated by politicians, PR and advertising agents. Speaking about modern development of public sphere, I must say that the increase of advertisement and PR popularity makes government control this particular sphere for the interest of the market.
Medias of public spheres includes newspapers, magazines, radio, television and World Wide Web. By the way calling Internet a public sphere is very argued as some authors claim that public sphere presumes face-to-face communication when people can talk as equals. And Internet presumes virtual communities and virtual communication during which there is no guarantee that people speak frankly and you cannot be always even sure with whom are you speaking to- with an authority during some forum or with a secretary which is only the mean of information transformation. The same thing with citizens asking questions at sites of political parties, they never know who answered them. Barber (269) argues in the following regarding Internet – information seekers are mostly after porn and pulp while chatroom visitors, when not also pursuing sex, seem to be asleep… . Even on the handful of “serious” sites that can be found, what is available is mostly superficial information about political parties, platforms, and candidates of the kind you can get by mail, or polarized debates around the conventional talk radio extremes with little in the way of real facilitation, discussion, or persuasion.
3. The Transformation of the Political Function of Public Sphere
The transformation of function of publicity principles can be clearly seen in the shift of its main media- the press. It becomes very much commercialized. Simultaneously with the development of the press, political functions are added to solely economic. Newspapers and magazines are not only carriers of public opinion, but they tend to form critical debates, even though their primary function is just the transmittance of information and news. Advertising plays one of the key roles in this process, as press development is affected by advertisement. Advertising can be viewed even as result of private interests transformed to the public sphere. Public relation in this extent is trying to manipulate public opinion and make people believe that it is they who actually formed that opinion. This is subconscious process and people usually believe that they are provided with all necessary information for them to think critically and shape their personal opinion. So, step-by-step techniques of manipulation are becoming more and more sophisticated.
Institutions that involve public relations techniques are usually privately owned and connected with civil society: political parties, pressure groups and charities. They are very powerful as they control and form public opinion and its power.
During elections, political marketing managers are aiming to influence the public. Public is programmed to the definite response to the politicians speeches.
The [public] sphere remains a site for the production of public opinion that is given concrete form by surveys and polls which, to a degree, actually fashion the opinion through the process of asking certain questions (and not asking others). Because of an excess of goods and risks competing for attention, the sphere continues to be a contested arena; however, much of the excess is manufactured by people and institutions with money, moral clout, or other forms of power. The mass media play out a double role here, both as the vehicle for competitive spectacles and as the source of news, a different kind of discourse, though again a monologue and now contaminated by the ubiquity of publicity (Rutherford 274-5).
4. Political communication and public sphere
“Reframing the discussion for a moment, one could say that journalism has been doing its best to deny the mounting evidence of difficulties in the classic Enlightenment formulations — a refusal to air the relevance of such disputes for its own activities.” Peter Dahlgren
By starting this part with this particular quote I wanted to agree with the author that definition of democracy in modern world do not presume expression of people’s will, but rather choosing alternatives form what they are proposed through mass media channels.
Politics by definition means the process through which groups of people are making decisions. And political communication involves not only those particular groups that make decisions, but also public, mass media and government. Political communication can thus be defined as the process by which a nation’s leadership, media, and citizenry exchange and confer meaning upon messages that relate to the conduct of public policy (Perloff 8). This definition can be divided into several parts. First of all, political communication is defined as the process. It can not occur accidentally or happen automatically. It is a complex and dynamic activity. Politicians supply journalists with materials for news and journalists in their turn by means of deadlines and news values constrain actions of public officials.
It is obvious that citizens are influenced by mass media, but they shape it as well by submitting polls and participating in discussions to define what issues they consider to be the most crucial. Mass media remains the communication tool between citizens and political leaders. Citizens and politicians rarely communicate directly to each other. So, mass media plays dominant role in impacting to the content and form of the information that is presented to the public. I agree with Curran who calls media to «assist the realization of common objectives of society through agreement or compromise between conflicting interests. The media should contribute to this process by facilitating democratic procedures for resolving conflict and defining collectively agreed aims» (Curran 103).
Second thing goes about that there appear to be three key constituents of political communication process: the media, the public and political authorities. Those constituents have many sub sets as well, including different types of authorities- on local, state and national levels, appointed or elected ones, who have power or who have not, etc. There also huge amount of different media, starting with giants of this particular market and ending with small political newsletters with comparatively low circulation. And there are also millions of citizens with different levels of knowledge and interestedness in politics, as well as access to power units.
Third that I wanted to mention is that political communication is the process of exchange and interpretation of messages. All constituent members of political communication process, including politicians, journalists and citizens, tend to interpret information received from various channels quite differently, for the reason that they all have different frames of reference stipulated by their different positions and assigned roles in the society and political system. Political authorities can also try to incline mass media and citizens think the way the do upon certain events. Contemporary political communication is powerfully influenced by the mere fact that so much of it occurs via the mass media. We no longer see our leaders give speeches on tree stumps or from railroad cars, but we see them on television, after their speeches have been prepared by staffs of speech writers, or we read about their decisions, once these decisions have been interpreted, decoded, and encoded by reporters (Perloff 9-10).
And the final issue relates to the messages that are broadly concerned with governance and authority or conduct of public policy. Political communication does not concern elections only. It has more broad meaning and can be defined as the process by which society comes to agreement on the issues of policy.
Communication has always played key role in politics of the United States. It remains the part of the great experiment that was launched 200 years ago by founding Fathers of America. It is interconnection with an issue of democracy and democratic ideal, the idea that people are able to govern themselves and that the society can exist only upon democratic rules and regulations. Just as the ability to read and write and freely communicate gives power to citizens that protects them from the powers of the state, the ability to surveil, to invade the citizens’ privacy, gives the state the power to confuse, coerce and control citizens. Uneducated populations cannot rule themselves, but tyrannies can control even educated populations, given sophisticated means of surveillance (Foucault).
American system of political communication and politics remains really strange and full of paradoxes.
US is a country that has more media than any other country, as correspondently more coverage of political issues in media, as well as electoral campaigns, politicians, researches held, etc. But American people seem to neglect the opportunity to use primary sources for making conclusions and particular decision upon political issues by using news as the best data tool for getting information.
Since politics is fundamentally about the pursuit and use of power, political communication necessarily involves power considerations….leaders, mass media, and citizens frequently jockey for control of the public agenda. Although leaders have more power than citizens and media, in that they control society’s resources, they are not always able to shape the agenda — or the issues under public discussion — in the way they would like. This makes political communication
dynamic and volatile (Perloff 10).
In the conclusion I would like to summarize key points of the paper and express my personal opinion upon discussed issues.
So, public sphere is undividable art of every day life of every person. It is the sphere that goes between the society and the state and therefore it is very important as well as public opinion. Public opinion is the derivative of public sphere, which should not matter a lot and be crucial in decision-making process in democratic society. Political communication has negative influence upon public sphere, as it brings its own rules, which are incompatible which what public sphere truly is.
As to the positive political communication in the society, it should allow people to organize and plan events, and group together to provide their opinion more weight. The key issue should be the idea creation and support. Citizens should feel that their opinions are taken into consideration and valued.
To my opinion public sphere is a purely democratic issue. When public sphere is corrupted, it looses its primary sense. Information should be delivered clearly and concisely. It should not be interpreted or orders. And people should be more conscious regarding what they “consume” upon day-to-day basis. We should try to think critically and in the ideal variant try to use primary sources for making decisions and opinions regarding political authorities and definite events.
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