Nancy Fraser

Wikipedia entry


In "Rethinking the Public Sphere" (1992), Nancy Fraser says…


The concept of public needs to be revisited   

With: Historiography  

Toward: Social Equity   

Theoretical Lenses: Feminism, Critical Theory

The public and a public(s) or subaltern counterpublics

-Habermas’ four assumptions (p. 117)

    1. It is possible for interlocutors in a public sphere to bracket status differentials and to deliberate

    as if they were social equals; the assumption, therefore, that societal equality is not a necessary

    condition for political democracy


    2. The proliferation of a multiplicity of competing publics is necessarily a step away from, rather

    than toward, greater democracy, and that a single, comprehensive public sphere is always preferable

    to a nexus of multiple publics


    3. Discourse in public spheres should  be restricted to deliberation about the common good, and that

    the apprearance of private interests and private issues is always undesirable


    4. A functioning democratic public sphere requires a sharp separation between civil society and the

    the state


- “as if”

    The bourgeois public sphere, idealized by Habermas, " was importantly constituted by a number of

    significant exclusions (e.g. women, racialized groups, a lack of property ownership).

    The bracketing differences in public spheres masks social inequity and hinders people's ability to

    speak their own "voice". Instead, Fraser considers public spheres which contestational discourses

    against "the"--singular, masculine, hegemonic public form/are formed by.


-Multiplicity of publics and their functions

    Multiple publics (of women*, racialized groups, non-heterosexuals...etc) always existed. These public

    spheres "function as spaces of withdrawal and regroupment...they also function as bases and training

    grounds for agitational activities directed toward wider publics." These functions of counterpublics,

    to Fraser, are the origins of "emancipatory potential" that multiple publics offer to the public at large.


*Here's a cool example of a counterpublic of women in the colonial era. I had an opportunity to work

on this project while at Columbia.

"Reading and Writing Women Wiki"


-Notions of private and public 

Habermas conceptualized public sphere as space where "private" persons gather to discuss common

interest. But "privacy" can be a powerful tool for the public (of dominant groups) to "delegitimate"

voices of subordinates by privatizing issues as economic or domestic matters, which in turn considered

not worthy of common interests.


This is a rather common experience even within a counterpublic.  Consider the gay public sphere ("as if"

such space is in a sigular form). Disidentification with the main-stream gay image--white, male, successful,

urban and American--could mute others' voices.

1) 219.pdf



-Weak publics and Strong publics    

Habermas saw the need to separate the public sphere from "civil society", as such autonomy supports

ciritical opinions of the public formed against the state. Drawing on the example of an independent parliament

that has functions of both opinion forming and decision making, Fraser differentiates two types of publics

--weak publics and strong publics. Fraser then suggests that further proliferation of publics might be achieved

through interactions between weak publics (external, opinion forming) and strong publics (internal, self-managing).




-How do we avoid cultural relativism or fragmentation? Is accountability enough?

Is there a difference between a culture and a public? If not, then in arguing either for or against cultural relativism we end up with a kind of cultural absolutism that claims society's cultures (publics?) to be of supreme ethical value - a philosophy that looks for unchanging communities of wholeness and unity. I might be bringing up an old argument (Rhoda Howard (1993) Cultural Absolutism and the Nostalgia for Community)  Maybe the only way to avoid it is to move to the question below and focus on contemporary and changing forms of sociality that are more impermanent and mobile and where there is possibility to step outside of social norms and talk about new things in new ways.




Mary's Comments (from 1/19):

I wasn't sure how you go to cultural relativism with Fraser. Feel free to elaborate an argument. That's what we are constantly practicing in academia. It's hard to take that center stage position, but you can only claim it. It won't be conferred. And it's ok to take up that space. <tip>

I am also unconvinced that cultural relativism is a problem. That, of course, is a long argument. But if you are a post-structuralist, then multiplicities of meaning is not problematic. Patti Lather provides an excellent analysis of 'relativism' in her Getting Smart book. Meaning, in this view, is contingent. It's absolute undecideability is not problematic, unless you are working with an ontology of absolutes.

I promised to respond to these comments here...and now it's been more than a month! Sorry!

I've been thinking about this question of cultural relativism and here's my attempt. In my view, cultural relativism refers to just what Mary points out above, the view that there is not an absolute truth/meaning, and that those things are "culturally" situated/relavant. However, I was responding to this popular notion--especially in academia--of "relativism=bad" (  I learned that the term cultural relativism has specific history in social sciences [wikipedia entry], originally in Anthoropology, and has a variety of uses and meanings. As graduate students, we are constantly warned against the casual use of terms without understanding their historicity and I think I have fallen into the trap again. I was under impression that cultural relativism will inevitably lead to fragmentation and separation. That it would lead to an unproductive view of democracy where "anything goes."


My concern with Fraser's articulation of counterpublics was that while these public spaces seem to provide people with sites for production of knowledge that is otherwise not afforded in the dominant culture, it was not so clear how the engagement with "the" public is supported and maintained.

Fraser writes: "In stratified societies, subaltern counterpublics have a dual character. On the one hand, they function as spaces of withdrawal and regroupment; on the other hand, they also function as basesand training groups for agitational activities directed toward wider publics" (p. 124).

Reading these passages, I understood that counterpublics are formed through the processes of disidentification (with the dominant culture) and identification (with a certain worldview within a social group).

Then the questions arised: When we identify with the worldview and meanings that are generated within a culture, are we also engaged in a political contestation with the dominant culture? What gives us a sense that what we learn and do in a counterpublic culture have political consequences? How does this function effect on the structure of "the" public?


However, Fraser also says: "In my view, the concept of a counterpublic militates in the long run against separatism because it assumes a public intract discursively as a member of public, subaltern or otherwise, is to aspire to disseminate one's discourse to even widening arenas" (p. 124)

"[T]he discursive relations among differently empowered publics are as likely to take the form of contestation as that of deliberation" (p. 125).

Here, Fraser is arguing that a counterpublic is not just a group of people gathering. The second function (the public orientation) of counterpublics brings different voices to the public sphere.

As I re-read this text, I realized she is differentiating forms of communication--"contestation" and "deliberation", and arguing that the relationship between different publics is "discursive."

These points I guess undermine my questions about how is it that these counterpublics are related to each other in the public sphere. I guess Warner's piece would supplement our understanding of the "discursive" nature of these contestations. This also relates to the second question I had below.

Fraser gives us a way to think about democracy and public more critically and inclusively. Though, I am still wondering, and am interested in hearing what other people think, about how this theory might look like in our everyday politics and educational practice, and the conditions to achieve social equity and change--is anyone doing final project around this (I am, kind of)?

Phew! I might need to reedit this later (Dai).



-How is a counterpublic formed and mediated (connection to Warner)?

Kevin McDonald's (2006) book looks like it might be interesting in relation to this question.  He argues that new forms of social movements - publics? - are being formed not by political belief or social location but by forms of practice or doing and also by emotion - pleasure seeking, spontaneity. They are characterized more by creative and aesthetic response - dwelling spaces made of routes and nodes rather than place. He writes "rather than understand social movements in terms of talking - this opens a more complex and richer understanding of action, one that recognizes the plurality of senses that give access to the world, the self and the other.  This places the sensuous at the centre of the movement experience."