Jürgen Habermas's concept of the public sphere is a realm within social life in which public opinion can be formed and which is accessible to all. The engagement within the public sphere according to Habermas is blind to class positions and the connections between activists in the public sphere are formed through a mutual will to take part in matters that have a general interest. The public sphere, according to Habermas, is a product of democracy.
For Jürgen Habermas, the concept of "public opinion" is the control and criticism of organized political authority which is officially manifested by the public come elections.
Habermas examines the history of the public sphere and hold that in medieval times there existed no separation or distinction between the private and public sphere, due to the class pyramid of the feudal system. This system for Habermas positioned greater power at every level and to this day conventions regarding the ruler persisted, with political authority retained by the highest levels. Rulers saw themselves as the state and not as representatives of the state – meaning that they represent their power to the people and not for the people.
According to Habermas, by the late 18th century feudal institutions were finally disappearing along with the church's rule, making way to public power which was given autonomy. Rulers become public entities and professionalism bore the first signs of the rule of the bourgeois which became autonomous in relation to the government. Representational publicity was pushed over by a public force that formed around national and territorial sentiments and individual struggling with public power found themselves outside its collective power. The term "public" did not refer to the representation of a man with authority, but rather became the legitimate power of exercising power. The public sphere, according to Habermas, was the final stage of these developments.
Habermas sees the liberal model of the public sphere as something which is unprecedented in history. Different state constitutions contain clauses specifying the liberal model of the public sphere – private people joining together to form a public and thus mediate the relationship between the state and the bourgeois society in order to supervise over and educate the political government. In the second half of the 18th century, Haberman holds, literary journalism is on the rise and it is no longer just a supplier of news but rather a weapon in the politics of parties, taking on a new journalistic vocation: editing. Information trade is now the name of the fame, trading public opinion – the quintessential symbol of the public sphere. In other words, Habermas claims that the public sphere as we know it was formed when journalism became a public institution with the aim of promoting public debate. Only after the establishment of a democratic-bourgeois constitution could newspapers deal with public opinion for the purpose of commerce and not only for taking sides in a social-political debate (we are talking 1830's onwards). Due to the flow of private interests into the newspapers and mass media did changes in the public sphere begin to take shape, such as ideological content, commercials and so forth.
But according to Habermas, the liberal model of the public sphere does not sit well with the modern industrialized democratic state, since the ideology involved with this model of the public sphere is tied with values that have changed since the 18th century. Journalism and propaganda have expanded as well as the boundaries of the public and the public sphere. In addition, the public has lost it cohesion due to the high standards of meritocratic education which have created classes, gaps and conflicts which once resided in the private sphere but have now migrated to the public sphere. The private and public spheres have mixed with each other, social and political organizations are now invading each other. Thus, according to Habermas, a new feudalization of the public sphere is brought about.
The contemporary public sphere is characterized according to Habermas by the weathering of its critical roles and capacities. In the past publicity was used to subject people or the present political decisions to the public. Today the public sphere is recruited for the use of hidden policies by interest groups. For Habermas, the principles of the public sphere are weakening in the 20th century. The public is no longer made out of masses of individuals but of organized people that institutionally exerting their influence on the public sphere and debate.
Habermas' / The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society - summary