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    The Public Sphere Debate as a Matter of Methodology

    | 2007-10-24 | 09:36
    temos: filosofija,mokslas ir technologijos,sociumas,VMS

    This text is based on the presentation made in VMS3 in 17th of October, Vilnius.
    Perhaps not the best thing one can do is to begin a text with disclaimers. But sometimes it is necessary.


    Firstly, I must apologize, for being imprecise with my formulations, because this is still some kind of work-in-progress. I hope it will not prevent the reader from understanding my point.

    Secondly, I should alert you to the fact that my aim is to show the problem as I see it, not to propose a solution. The ideas discussed in this text should be considered provocative thoughts, and not as a revelation of truth.

    One more important (actually, the most important) thing is this: this whole text is based on one basic axiom: Social Sciences are important for social movements, including media-activism. If you reject this axiom and deny the importance of the social sciences to any forms of social activism, then our views are rather incommensurable and most likely we hardly have anything to discuss on the issue.

    What do social sciences have to do with the problems of the public sphere and politics? In my opinion, it is a matter of the applicability of social sciences. This year’s Nobel Prize winners in physics Albert Fert and Peter Grunberg were awarded for their work with information technology, which facilitated the reduction in the size of computer hard discs and an increase in their capacity. The same applies to the social sciences and social activism. Social activism is not the only to which the social sciences are applied, and sometimes, in contrast to governmental social policy, it might be more successful in doing that. In order to reach any result, I believe, social activist should be consciously aware of their “scientific” positions.


    In constructing various strategies and tactics for social activism, particularly in media activism, one should be methodologically conscious, be aware of methodological issues. The most relevant issue here is a controversy between so called methodological individualists and non-individualists. I recall the famous proposition by Margaret Thatcher, that “there is no such thing as society, there are only individuals”. The answer to the question whether you agree with the Iron Lady or not changes a lot in your approach to various social phenomena, including the public sphere debate. This answer implies whether you are on the side of so called methodological individualism or on the side of non-individualist approach in the social sciences. While this elucidation of positions is over simplified I will not elucidate it further, here.

    The doctrine of methodological individualism was introduced as a precept for the social sciences by Max Weber at the beginning of the 20th century; the term was coined by Joseph Schumpeter at the same time. Methodological individualism claims that social phenomena must be explained by showing how they result from individual actions, which in turn must be explained through reference to the intentional states that motivate the individual actors. It is also sometimes described as the claim that explanations of “macro” social phenomena must be supplied with “micro” foundations (see Jeffrey Alexander; Joseph Heath “Methodological Individualism” )

    A contrast between methodological individualism and methodological holism is usually tendentious, since there are very few social scientists who describe themselves as methodological holists. There are, however, forms of social-scientific explanation with more active adherents that methodological individualism precludes or dismisses. These include concepts gathered under the sign of continental philosophy, including: functionalism, evolutionary cultural explanation, psychoanalysis, and “depth hermeneutic” methods .

    Joseph Agassi briefly sums up both, as he calls them, traditional positions (Joseph Agassi “Methodological Individualism” The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 11, No. 3. (Sep., 1960), pp. 244-270):

    Non-individualism (holism)


    Society is the ‘whole’ which is more than its parts (holism).

    Only individuals have aims and interests (individualism).

    ‘Society’ affects the individual’s aims (collectivism).

    The individual behaves in a way adequate to his aim, given his circumstances (rationality principle).

    The social set-up influences and constrains the individual’s behavior (institutional analysis).

    The social set-up is changeable as a result of individual’s action (institutional reform).

    One should especially avoid mistaken assumptions evinced by the writings of famous advocates of individualism Karl Popper and Friedrich von Hayek, who often asserted that methodological individualism is related to liberal political principles and the denial of it leads to social collectivism and political authoritarianism. The “fathers” of individualistic methodology Weber and Schumpeter saw no connection between individualistic methodology and political ideology.


    Now let us turn to aspects of this controversy in the public sphere and media discourse. The discourse was introduced by German philosopher Habermas, who believed that the rise of modern public spheres (not only in Viennese cafés but also in newspapers and thereafter in other mass media) was the primary source of modern deliberative democracy. Habermas was balancing between individualism and non-individualism and was trying to reconcile the two traditions, although in his communication theory he tends to be an individualist. The main problem of Habermasian theory is this: how does the social theoretical model of communication, where individualism and non-individualism seem to be reconciled works? It is not absolutely clear, how the consensus achieved in this public sphere could be imposed on wider society.

    Another answer was provided by the theorists, who, more or less, followed the holistic approach. To name only a few: Marshall McLuhan, Michel Foucault, and Niklas Luhmann. The holistic idea is that holistic structures of society (or power) affect individual aims through mass media. This impact is so profound, that it enables us to speak about mass society, where particular individual means not much, if anything at all.

    These theories were criticized by Michel de Certeau and, especially, by Umberto Eco, who argued that the interpretation is always present during the interaction between the mass media and their consumers, his answer to the question “does the audience have bad effects on television?” was positive. Eco argued that the interpretation may change the TV message even beyond the possibility of recognizing the original one.

    While the discussion still goes on, the two positions are clear: individualists emphasize the importance of actions and intentions of individuals; they deny the notion of mass audience and ipso facto underrate the mass media. The non-individualists, on the contrary, emphasize the importance of mass media and its possibility to manipulate (or educate) the audience.


    Successful social media activists are faced with the Habermasian problem: how should one reconcile these two opposite approaches? It seems to me, that at the moment the most popular position among media activists is to ignore the controversy and believe in both theses at the same time:

    Individualistic: individuals are free to interpret and resist the unifying effects of mass media, so the effects of the mass media are not “universal”.

    Holistic: mass media has a huge impact on its consumers and that it is possible for media producers to change the consumers’ minds — to suit their ends.

    This engenders a dilemma about which of the two is possible?

    temos: filosofija, mokslas ir technologijos, sociumas, VMS |

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