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Sociology, the public sphere, and modern government: a challenge to the dominance of Habermas

Wickham, G. (2010) Sociology, the public sphere, and modern government: a challenge to the dominance of Habermas. The British Journal of Sociology, 61 (1). pp. 155-175.

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There is an unfortunate tendency within some branches of sociology - particularly those usually called 'critical', that is, those associated with 'critical social theory'-to treat with disdain the understanding of the public sphere that many modern governments use daily in making and implementing public policy. The majority of sociologists in those branches seem to prefer, as part and parcel of their normative commitments, Jürgen Habermas's Kantian understanding of the public sphere, which focuses primarily on reason and morality and insists that these two forces are of a higher order than politics and law. This paper offers a set of criticisms of the Habermas-Kant understanding, arguing that its focus on reason and morality, were it to become more widespread, would steer sociology into public policy irrelevance. The paper goes on to describe a very different understanding of the public sphere, a politico-legal or civil-peace understanding which operates as the public policy focus of those governments that have relegated questions of salvation (whether religious or ideological) to the private sphere. This understanding emerged from early modern attempts to carve out a domain of relative freedom and security against the deadly violence of religious disputation sweeping across Europe. The paper readily acknowledges that some 'non-critical' branches of sociology already employ a version of this understanding.

Item Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Social Sciences and Humanities
Publisher: Blackwell Publishing Inc.
Copyright: © London School of Economics and Political Science 2010
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