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date: 02 December 2022

Public Culturefree

Public Culturefree

  • Robert HarimanRobert HarimanDepartment of Communication Studies, Northwestern University


The concept of public culture refers most broadly to the dynamic negotiation of beliefs, values, and attitudes regarding collective association through media and other social practices that are defined by norms of open access and voluntary response. The concept is a recent innovation and applies primarily to modern societies, where public culture is the envelope of communication practices within which public opinion is formed; those practices can include news, entertainment, the arts, advertising, social media, and many other means for representing and judging any individual, institution, or custom having collective significance. The term “public” emphasizes relatively unrestricted communication across civil society regarding governance and other matters affecting the general welfare. The term “culture” emphasizes that public opinion depends on contextual factors that emerge through multiple media and embodied responsiveness. These considerations provide a basis for analysis of distinctively modern relationships across civil society, media technologies, and political action in a global context.


  • Critical/Cultural Studies
  • Communication and Culture
  • Rhetorical Theory

The Public Domain

Public opinion, public interest, public affairs, public service, public transportation, public access, public place, public park, public library, public toilets, public nuisance, public meeting, public office, public law, public figure, public defender, public controversy, public spirit, public assistance, public corporation, public debt, public enemy, public intellectual, public health, public school, public hospital, public utility, public works, public relations, public media, public speech, public discourse, public image, public knowledge, public sentiment, public trust, public good, public memory, public apology, public awareness, public scrutiny, public outrage, public broadcasting system, public address system, public skating rink, public swimming pool, public square, public performance, public trial, public forum, public debate, public lecture, public concern, public sector, public domain, public space, public sphere, public life, … public culture.

The adjective “public” drives the noun to which it is attached: giving distinctive meaning to what otherwise would be less visible, collective, or consequential. When the noun is “culture,” that term’s function becomes adjectival, trying to inflect a term (“public”) that has been used steadily since 1750 (Ngram ratings of 0.0311 in 1775 and 0.0302 in 2008). When “public” is a noun, as in “the reading public” or “the Canadian public,” it becomes at once more substantive and more ethereal; harder to pin down and yet a source of judgment capable of conferring—and withholding—legitimacy. The public spends time within public parks, schools, transportation, and media, except that it doesn’t: the public doesn’t exist in the same way that a park, student, passenger, or newspaper exists. It has no fixed location (where is the Canadian public?), no determinate size (publics are audiences, but audiences are not publics), no mechanism for action (publics are not polities, and opinions are not laws, armies, or money). Although drawing on a Latin etymology, public culture is separated from the state in a way that would have been incomprehensible in Rome. Yet it also is oriented toward an increasingly expansive sense of political participation on behalf of freedom, equality, and justice. Denominating something as public is a distinctively modern and paradoxical form of status conferral, and one that comes with strong though abstract expectations regarding both individual and collective behavior. One might say that the term “public” is a public interest.

“Culture” is a term with its own history (Ngram 0.0032 in 1775 and 0.0134 in 2008). Whatever it means, norms and expectations certainly are a part of the package, while it too is a strange reality: something that exists in a manner that is material and virtual, objective and subjective, directive and malleable. “Culture” has the additional distinction of referring to both a society as a whole and many of its constituent parts. So it is that a national culture can contain high culture, popular culture, regional cultures, ethnic cultures, and a vast array of subcultures. Once again, the adjective matters as much as the noun, and in each case they denominate a way of being in the world that is relatively distinctive while drawing on social repertoires that are shared more widely. “Public culture” is a relatively recent term—its incidence rising visibly from the 1980s—and the conjunction of substantive adjective and adjectival noun captures a fair amount of what is shared, dispositive, and perplexing in the media, discourses, images, institutions, and behavioral repertoires that confer or constitute the quality of being public.

“Public culture” is largely an academic term: it is a concept that is provided to better understand a range of phenomena that generally are seen as characteristically modern, inherently mediated, and at some point politically consequential. The meaning of the concept depends in part on the disciplinary context, as is evident from discussion of the term in anthropology, American studies, communication studies, history, arts management, and elsewhere (see “Historiography”). Whatever the context, the caveat from the inaugural issue of Public Culture remains apt: “Our grasp of this emergent domain is tentative, our understanding of its unity is hypothetical, and our spirit in interpreting it as a coherent cultural domain is exploratory” (Appadurai & Breckenridge, 1988, p. 5). The use of “a little-used label” for “a poorly charted contemporary cultural domain” might not seem promising, but the term has prompted vigorous programs of research and remains an important marker for those trying to identify a distinctively modern way of communicating and cooperating with others.

Conceptual Variation

Both “public” and “culture” are capacious terms. Meanings vary and often are determined by the synonyms and antonyms that are implicit in a specific context. “Public” can mean open or civic, or elite or popular, or national or cosmopolitan, or governmental or non-governmental—and various combinations of these terms. “Culture” is a contested term in scholarly settings ranging from anthropology to zoology and in political settings that include controversies over indigenous peoples, anti-discrimination policies, or art exhibitions. Each term can function as a floating signifier: a sign that can be loaded with multiple and contradictory semantic and affective investments in order to secure collective identification (Laclau, 2005, pp. 129–156). That function is one among many, however, and the academic use of “public culture” is determined by specific discriminations (e.g., from popular culture or ideology critique) and tasks (e.g., challenging prevailing conceptions of culture or of political agency). Across the board, however, it seems clear that “public culture” is used to identify a distinctively modern form of collective identity and to do so with methods that emphasize how it is necessarily mixed, mediated, and dynamic.

As an academic term, “public culture” can be parsed according to its alignments and oppositions: for example, it has been aligned variously with national character, civil society, and citizenship and with corresponding oppositions to transnational institutions and economic forces, bureaucratic states and technocratic practices, and cultures of entertainment and commercial consumption. There are many such variations, including orientations for and against popular movements, national elites, fine arts, vernacular arts, and so forth. Specific senses of the term can be identified by tracing such discursive relationships in specific scholarly texts and scholarly communities, but all draw on a sense that, because it is a culture, public culture both enforces and negotiates these categorical distinctions. A similar orientation applies in respect to method: work on public culture can have obvious grounding in intellectual history, media studies, political theory, and so forth; in each case, however, the term is taken up to get some distance from conventional protocols in order to develop a better understanding of mediation and influence.

The term “culture” also is taken up to get beyond what are perceived to be analytical stalemates. Thus, “public culture” can provide a redescription of prior concepts such as national character or the public sphere in respect to a wider range of phenomena such as street art and entertainment media. To take one example, some of the scholars in communication studies who worked with a literature defined as “the history of public address” turned to “public culture” to shift attention from texts to a wider range of media, from Anglo-American history to working in a global context, and from exegetical analysis to also include ethnography and other methods attuned to reception. The more extensive example is provided by the Public Culture project, which adopted the term in order to recast the concept of culture itself. “Why use the adjective public for cultural forms that appear to be well described by so many other, more familiar ones like popular, mass, folk, consumer, national, or middle class?” The answer is that cultures in this phase of modern development now are hybrid forms, typically involving local variation on a cosmopolitan template; therefore, public culture represents “a revisionist approach to traditional anthropological concepts of culture, which were designed for small-scale, well-bounded and stable societies” (Appadurai & Breckenridge, 1988, pp. 6, 7). That world is “vanishing,” and the “interpretive challenges” posed by the emergent forms of cultural production and consumption require new concepts. Indeed, it is precisely because “public culture” is somewhat of an oxymoron—something both transnational and local, abstract and inflected, open and illegible—that it is suited to identifying distinctively modern forms of affiliation.

Perhaps the most important feature of public culture is that its internal oppositions are dynamic relationships rather than categorical divisions. Unlike the opposition, say, of folk and elite cultures or of critical reason and propaganda, the oppositions (and alignments) in any articulation of the concept are markers of constitutive interactions in the social field. Thus, if public culture is a redescription of national character, one is to understand that the phenomena in question are not fixed, contain contradictory elements, are subject to contestation, and are likely to work one way or another as they become intertwined with other, often seemingly incongruous practices. If nationalist rebels now sport the latest international clothing brands, it is not that either local or global mentalities have been misused, or that both politics and commerce have been corrupted—instead, some third thing is emerging that requires reconfigured theories of identity formation and communicative action.

Such reconfigurations have been crucial to the modern conception of the public. As Michael Warner (2002) has summarized, both “public” and “private” were reinvented within the liberal tradition and the corresponding realignments of civil society and the state in Anglo-American modernity. Classical and medieval conceptions of public powers or privileges no longer applied directly, in part because they relied on categorical social divisions that were dissolving. “Private persons, no longer defined by privation or powerlessness, had become the proper site of humanity. They possessed publicly relevant rights by virtue of being private persons … The public, no longer understood as the audience or subjects of the ruler, became a community with independent existence, even sovereign claims and the ability to resist or change rulers. Both public and private were redefined, and both gained enormously in significance” (Warner, 2002, p. 39). Precisely because public and private were now intertwined, any opposition became consequential and even symptomatic of deep problems in the society. There was no public without autonomous individuals whose private lives needed protection from the state, yet that private realm could shield from public view terrible abuses of individual rights. Because a public of many private individuals also was no longer synonymous with the political realm, it could represent emancipatory potential and yet be compromised by actual social organization—indeed it could be incapable of recognizing some forms of power shaping modern societies. Many of these anomalies in the emancipatory project would become evident via attention to matters of embodiment as they involved social exclusions. Not surprisingly, much of the debate about the public sphere has focused on exclusions according to gender, race, and other social ascriptions, as well on the role of marginalized voices and counterpublic formations that confronted the liberal model on its own terms while also extending or moving beyond liberal doctrine.

The concept of public culture may be a strong next step in this history. By denominating culture, many of the constitutive tensions are recast as communicative practices that can be analyzed in terms of embodied performances, discursive negotiations, and patterns of appropriation. The public–private intertwinement is particularly suited to cultural analysis, as all cultures are simultaneously collective and personal. The tension between ideal and actuality is likewise a staple of cultural analysis and marks how cultural practices can shift back and forth between relatively empowering and repressive structures. Likewise, the concept of public culture can foreground actual processes of inclusion and exclusion while also attending to a wider range of media and other social practices that together constitute any society as a virtual environment. An account of social totality may be too much to ask, but public culture will allow emphasis on how constitutive parts of the public realm interact with respect to various contingencies. By defining public practices as cultural phenomena, the variation in use of the concept can be a resource for articulating both the strengths and the weaknesses of distinctively public events and mentalities.

Ideal Types

It is easy to conclude that “public culture” often is used as a general rubric rather than an analytical tool; that is often the case with large concepts and particularly the concept of culture. That said, several basic ideas of what a public culture is can be identified. These often are aligned with specific research programs but are set out here as ideal types. Specific emphases and general coherence might vary in use, and generally any account of public culture is likely to draw on more than one model as it attends to various concerns or attempts to be comprehensive.

The Heritage Model

This approach is grounded in the idea that a culture is a set of shared values and beliefs. Affirmations of cultural heritage or consensus are of a piece with lamentations of cultural fragmentation and decline: the political community is defined not only by its institutional procedures and factional interests but also by the customs and tacit assumptions that direct action one way or the other. Explicit practices (e.g., public debates) and appeals (e.g., images of “smoke-filled rooms”) are obvious markers of a collectivity’s political organization, history, and mythology. The focus typically is on explicitly symbolic features of community life: fairs, parades, and other ritual events that involve public spectacles and official or vernacular iconography. The interest in cultural analysis begins there but also looks below the prominent ideas and images. “Culture” is not only those things with the broadest recognition and appeal but also the deep weave of assumptions that sustain and inflect more explicit practices. Official rules depend on tacit understandings and affiliations for application, and these less salient factors can account for considerable variation between otherwise similar polities. Campaigning for office will depend on determinations of what constitutes acceptable though rough competition and what goes over that line to involve deeper violations of collective integrity. Administering the laws will depend on inclinations to be attentive or inattentive, professional or political, honest or corruptible. Popular reactions to governance will vary from quiescence to periodic engagement to resistance, and these responses can be more or less widely and finely distributed. Both continuity and change in matters of policy will depend on how any or all of these matters operate conventionally or become flashpoints for public discussion.

These influences on political action (and inaction) may be denominated “public” for several reasons: they extend beyond any one private or factional interest; they operate through public media and become part of the symbolic landscape; they may have been expressed prominently in earlier periods of the community’s history; they are appealed to directly or implicitly in public debate; they are targeted by those advocating more than incremental change. Generally, the public culture of shared values and beliefs is a resource for communicative action, but one having specific affordances and limitations. The cultural legacy encompassing a specific issue may appeal to a broad audience but be difficult to mobilize for change, and it can become more explicit but less relevant as a society becomes increasingly pluralistic, multicultural, and cosmopolitan.

As the factors that had shaped a cultural inheritance become less consequential—for example, as geographic conditions shaping national development are mitigated by technological progress and global flows of information and peoples—the legacy may become simply one cultural resource among others. This awareness reflects how the heritage model often is a restatement of previous work on national character, but with a difference. Shared material conditions were organized by structures of domination that created very different experiences and relationships with national mythologies and other symbols. Instead of positing a uniform basis for response to dominant discourses or a shared reservoir for resolving political conflicts, the heritage model can accommodate more fine-grained analyses of how those resources are always in contestation, and how appropriations of shared fictions can involve quite varied usage and perhaps for that reason be more useful for public opinion formation. These modifications of or deviations from a presumed consensus can still work within the heritage template, which retains intuitive relevance in respect to many governmental, educational, and civic practices, official and vernacular commemorations, sports or other popular pastimes, responses to disasters or other collective traumas, and other events that feature collective appeals and spectatorship.

The Synergy Model

The second model of culture defines it as the outcome of a set of social interactions that come to define a shared space. The paradigmatic space is the city, which is defined by the concentration of social energies, the mixing and mutually beneficial interaction of different peoples, classes, and enterprises, and the necessity of creating common spaces inhabited by strangers. The concept of public culture then is defined particularly by its emergence as the characteristic cultural formation of modern urban life. This emergence may be a wholly unintended consequence of the pursuit of private interests, which provides a particularly strong affinity with liberal political theory. It also has a democratic resonance, however, as the cities historically have been centers for progressive activism, unions and other solidarity movements, bottom-up political machines, and the production and consumption of the news and other popular media.

Key factors in the articulation of this sense of public culture come from sociological and historical scholarship. These studies of urban civil society have emphasized the dynamics of social interaction between groups continually being mixed together, along with the construction and contestation of social barriers to mutually define urban space and access to resources. The emphasis on interaction focuses on the resulting hybridity of many specific customs and other features defining city life, as well as the more abstract mentality that is required to define civil interaction with strangers. A public culture is both the dynamic mixture of its different social groups and an impersonal identity that cannot be ascribed to any one group. It can be captured or controlled by one or more groups, however, and so the analysis always returns to questions of who has obtained relative advantages within the dynamic churning evident on the surface.

The 20th century was marked by a massive demographic shift from rural to urban environments, which is expected to accelerate in the 21st century. As the world has become dotted with many enormous cities, most of them in the developing world, the significance of urban synergy increases while the terms for understanding city life can change dramatically. Cites have become gleaming citadels for global capitalism that also can include enormous slums housing millions of dispossessed peoples. These changes create a need for highly adaptable conceptions of civil society, public identity, and political engagement. A great deal of scholarship focused on the public cultures emerging in the developing world addresses precisely these issues, typically with particular attention to how constitutive tensions in these dynamic settings are negotiated through media use.

The major emphasis in the American context has been primarily historical and focuses on how the city can foster productive mass–elite relationships. This outcome is not guaranteed, but it is an important affordance of urban life that in turn can improve the city. In this account, the environment pushes elites to work more on behalf of the public good than they might otherwise, while various power-sharing arrangements provide many public amenities, albeit while perpetuating elite holdings. One of the additional benefits is the emergence of a creative class and the development of arts institutions.

The Institutions Model

This area of scholarship, professional discussion, and public commentary focuses on museums, galleries, and other arts institutions, especially as they draw on public support or cultivate public audiences. These institutions have common features as well as special initiatives such as exhibitions that are supposed to make the arts publicly available and enhance the quality of public life and perhaps of public opinion. This approach has a relatively self-contained sense of public culture, which generally refers to the shared awareness and personal and social benefits that accrue from public exposure to the arts. Discussion is limited for the most part to arts and philanthropy forums and to issues that are pertinent in those settings—for example, having to define the mission of a public institution in a manner consistent with donor interests. Consistent with the synergy model’s attention to civic elites, the institutional model provides a good view of how those elites have been cultivated (in several senses) on behalf of a public interest and how public amenities are defined by negotiations with private investors.

The institutions model defines culture in terms of fine arts experiences, works at maintaining or increasing public access to the fine arts, includes attention to using the arts on behalf of assimilation (on all sides) into a multicultural, pluralist civil society, and depends on successful coordination of technocratic management and elite patronage on behalf of these goals. This model might seem outdated when compared to the much wider range of media arts and social actors that now are featured in most work on public culture. The model remains relevant, however, for several reasons. One is that public attendance at cultural institutions has been growing. Another is that public funding is being reduced due to conservative legislative opposition to the liberal character of contemporary public institutions, and institutional buying power is being reduced by a global art market that has drastically inflated prices and led to hoarding by private corporations and billionaires. There is a need, perhaps, to appreciate how public arts institutions were a rare accomplishment that remains precarious. Equally important, the institutional approach could be expanded to include a wider range of organizations and creative practices as well as more focused consideration of how public cultures depend on distinctively public arts and institutions. Such attention is already part of the internal discussions defining cultural organizations, but more could be done—given the right scholarship and adequate support—to fulfill their important mission in a democratic society.

The Circulation Model

The most complex and prolific conception of public culture includes a series of developments that could be called public sphere theory 2.0. Although perhaps misleading, as this model like all the others involves intertwined practices of social interaction and media use, the term “circulation” puts media forms and content at the center of the analysis. The emphasis also pushes production and reception analytics apart to make more room for studying how cultural materials become distinctively public as they move outside of and across specific locales. Equally important, rather than feature specific subcultures of production or reception, the analysis is geared more toward seeing how media articulate a “stranger relationality” that relies on both abstract forms and embodied uptake (Warner, 2002, pp. 74–76). Dissatisfied with concepts of both mass culture and folk cultures, the theoretical interest is in identifying how collectives—which can be nations, regions, cities, diasporic communities, social movements, or other networks of association and identification—rely on both mechanisms of broad dissemination and creative practices of bricolage to create the virtual reality of a public sphere.

This model extends and significantly alters Jürgen Habermas’s (1974, 1989) theory of public opinion formation. In that theory, “the public” emerged out of a specific conjuncture of social, economic, and technological developments in modern European history. As the bourgeoisie acquired increased economic power along with the benefits of widespread literacy and the news and literature produced by print media, there emerged within those circuits of exchange an ongoing forum for rational-critical discussion of governance, market conditions, and anything else that might be of interest to private individuals sharing that common horizon. Because they were self-interested actors and often strangers to one another in civic (not wholly private) settings such as coffee shops, speech came be defined less by previous protocols for loyalty or deference and more by free and open discussion. These social circumstances, along with the structuration that came from the print media that prompted their discussions, inclined everyone toward a public use of reason, which then recirculated through the same media to marshal the appearance of assessment and consensus across lines of private affiliation. One result was a change in the conditions of political representation: now the presentation of the sovereign could be balanced or more by the considered opinion of the public audience. That audience never existed in one place, but it was thought to represent the combined interests of the civil society that was displacing the premodern social orders. Although lacking direct political agency, the public emerged as the source of legitimacy for the modern state. Public opinion was to be neither bureaucratic expertise nor mass emotionalism, but a mode of deliberation that winnowed individual perspectives to produce rational agreement. “The public sphere” was Habermas’s term of art to refer to the norms that defined the new culture of print media and civic speech: the public use of reason, in principle inclusiveness, status equality, and topical openness became the markers of good communication and good governance.

Habermas also argued that this emergent social order subsequently suffered comprehensive decline. The democratic state had coopted and bureaucratized many public functions, while capitalism had replaced the public use of reason with mass enthrallment through popular entertainment and consumer consumption. This scissoring left only fragmented interests using systematically distorted means of communication that were unable to check the continued expansion of both state power and market forces. More telling to many scholars, however, were the systematic exclusions that went unacknowledged in both Habermas’s theory and its historical exemplars. Identifying biases of gender, race, class, and other factors led to more than corrective adjustments: on the one hand, some rejected the theory entirely, and, on the other hand, some provided a series of revisions that substantially altered the original model.

These contestations also were an important part of the formation of the cultural studies research program in communication studies: a program that initially broke with the concept of the public but subsequently provided vital resources for its development. The turn from conventional modes of public discourse led to an enormously successful refocusing of attention on the political structuration of entertainment and other popular media, on media subcultures and modes of resistance to hegemony, on the role of these practices in the formation of individual identity, and on hybridity, affective engagement, and other features of cultural experience not recognized by norms of rational deliberation. Over time, however, the early differences between the study of public opinion and popular entertainment gave way to a convergence of interests, theories, and methods. Out of these latter efforts came a broader and more vital conception of public culture.

Public culture on these terms involves substantial reconsiderations of key features of the public sphere. Instead of being invested in print media, now all media are seen as potential and often primary constituents of public communication. Instead of using a normative-analytic model, later work became more phenomenological: for example, emphasizing multiple influences on individual subjectivity and considering how mass media can serve diverse and often contradictory functions in different settings. Instead of relying on strong binary oppositions between reason and emotion (and similar alignments), attention to multiple media and audience subjectivity features more complex interactions of various modes of communication and response. Instead of focusing on the systematic exposition of the rational structure of communicative action, now public media and mentalities are explicated through the wide array of interpretive methods authorized by post-structuralism. Instead of pessimism about the prospects for the bourgeois public sphere, the analysis of public culture is open to finding many variants in other settings and to considering how media and other social practices that exceed or fall short of the original model might be better suited to achieving its purpose in the contemporary world. Most important, perhaps, instead of being fixed on a European model and narrative of decline, it has followed globalization to focus on how any society or community now is defined by how it becomes situated within continuous flows of information, capital, and peoples.

This approach is not limited to empirical studies of circulation, although they certainly contribute and increasingly can be augmented by big data network analysis. Instead of tracking audiences and other factors in media institutions research, the circulation model has focused instead on how a culture emerges through media use to influence civil association and government policies. Drawing on the work of Benedict Anderson and Charles Taylor, public culture is the “social imaginary” that arises from the continuous widespread information exchange characteristic of modern societies (Anderson, 1991; Taylor, 2004). The culture is public because of how it depends on media that are addressed to an audience of strangers rather than associates, friends, or family, and because those media create a “metatopical,” apolitical, and secular space in which information and ideas can be exchanged freely (Taylor, 2004). Any such definition immediately becomes subject to critique and revision—e.g., public cultures can be said to be inevitably political or legitimately non-secular—but the central idea remains intact: the modern media generate a distinctive envelope of meaning that becomes a means for organizing and negotiating collective association. This envelope consists in part of ideas about circulation and thus is resonant with transportation, commerce, and other structures of exchange that define civil society. Because it is a circulatory system, it becomes defined by other relationships as well, including global legibility and local knowledge, abstract reasoning and embodied experience, and impersonal roles and personal relationships. To negotiate these tensions, popular figures such as celebrities can loom large, while very different media can become accidentally coordinated to produce specific concentrations of attention and other resources for public discussion. For these reasons, analysis of publics and publicity along these lines often is multimodal, for example, including both news and entertainment media, examining both verbal and visual materials, and using both exegetical and ethnographic methods.


Work on public culture has emerged within and crossed many scholarly communities in several disciplines. A retrospective view can expand the bibliography further by considering research that did not feature the term “culture” but prompted, converged on, or supported more explicitly cultural analysis. Against this large backdrop of scholarly interest in civil society, cultural modernization, democratic communication, mass media and society, and related topics, several initiatives can be featured as examples of innovative scholarship that continues to guide current research.

The most pervasive influence has been the Habermasian theory of the public sphere—as modified by its critics. One measure of that theory’s analytical power was that it could generate, withstand, and be productively adapted through a range of criticisms. Collections such as Habermas and the Public Sphere, The Phantom Public Sphere, and The Black Public Sphere were as important as Habermas’s own text in advancing his theory. That theory had emphasized the importance of social factors in the development of the discourse of critical reason and included a complex conception of political agency for the mass media audience; by focusing precisely on questions of inclusion and agency, the critics were able to both develop the theory while significantly modifying the terms of that development. Feminist critiques probably were the most important in this regard, not least because key figures such as Seyla Benhabib and Nancy Fraser remained supportive of the theory. Also important were critiques that drew on other Frankfurt School theorists to emphasize the importance of visual media and cultural articulation as they operated within social structures. This genealogy included Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge’s volume on Public Sphere and Experience, particularly as framed by Miriam Hansen’s foreword to the English translation. As these amendments became crossed with queer theory, the concept of counterpublics acquired considerable traction as it could both extend public sphere theory while accounting for the failure of its universalist claims. Counterpublics are “defined by their tension with a larger public,” with their participants “marked off from persons or citizens in general,” and with “different assumptions about what can be said or what goes without saying” (Warner, 2002, p. 56). Subsequent development was influenced powerfully by Lauren Berlant’s critical studies of discourses of citizenship and sentimentality in the United States (1997, 2008). Berlant’s work also signaled a major shift from the bracketing assumptions of critical reason to explore how public cultures are defined by economies of affect.

Another widespread influence also was an offshoot of public sphere theory, albeit through a disciplinary appropriation that would not have been likely within the scholarly and political context defining Habermas’s work. The formation of the Public Culture collective and the successful run of the journal Public Culture recast the public sphere within an anthropological context: the public sphere now became cultural, culturally variable, more vernacular, defined by more media, pitched more toward circulation and reception, a present possibility rather than a past reality, and global. This shift was accompanied by a methodological expansion that blended ethnographic practices with media analytic perspectives. The proliferation of work in anthropology, area studies, communication studies, and other disciplines now is producing a steady stream of case studies on specific locales and nations and of specific arrays of media and other practices in those settings. “Public culture” has been articulated in China, India, Israel, Turkey, and elsewhere, each extending the Public Culture problematic of discerning how any culture involves blending global and local materials.

One discipline where the Habermasian strain was not taken up widely was history, but work there produced another tributary to the concept of public culture. Again, largely due to the impact of feminist scholars, cultural history received significant restatement and extension, most notably through work by Lynn Hunt and Joan Landis. The feminist perspective proved especially effective at uncovering important dynamics and problems in democratization, mass media use, and other avenues of modernization. A corresponding methodological shift may have been equally important, as it brought to the fore a wide range of official and vernacular media and elite and popular entertainments to uncover the materials that are needed to identify both a cultural inheritance and cultural change. This work also is notable for its skill at linking verbal and visual media and in exploring the development and positive consequences of public spectatorship in the formation of modern society and politics. A boom in “memory studies,” including public commemorative practices, popular festivals, and vernacular rituals, added momentum along the same lines. Historical study of public cultures now is expanding in several directions, including more attention to pre-modern periods.

As cultural history intersects with art history, it also connects with work on arts institutions. As noted above, the institutional model of public culture has been relatively self-contained, albeit while drawing on work in various disciplines (and usually not history). It does feature public culture explicitly, however, and has been developed further to include public media institutions. By looking across cultural history, art history, and professional discussion of arts institutions, the study of public culture is acquiring a sense of sedimentation, while the contemporary infrastructure can be set in historical context.

The work referenced above on urbanization also comes out of the discipline of history—typically, American history—and is having direct impact there. (It also fits within the civil society perspective noted below, although relying on historical studies.) Thomas Bender has been the major proponent, and his work has prompted both substantive and methodological debates. This was not by accident, as Bender linked the concept with a call for a more synthetic historiography. One might note that the public sphere program began with a grand theory, only to become highly productive as it was criticized and redefined in terms of a more fragmented, site-specific approach. Bender was responding to a sense of fragmentation, and “culture” is a synthetic concept that could extend his intention, but the trajectory is likely to go in the other direction, and perhaps it should if the urbanization model is to be developed comprehensively.

The social and political dimensions of public culture have been the foci for other scholarly communities. As part of his larger reconstitution of social research around a science of “things,” Bruno Latour produced an exhibition and book that provide a remarkable though highly fragmentary exploration of how different “atmospheres of democracy” might coalesce around specific material artifacts and practices. Although somewhat of a one-off, it remains an example to be followed.

More systematic work on the concept of civil society developed at the same time that “public culture” was emerging, and generally the research programs converge. The most notable statement is Jeffrey Alexander’s The Civil Sphere (2006). Readers coming from a public sphere context will see many common interests, including an explicit departure from orthodox Marxist social theory to explore modernity’s distinctiveness, the political significance of modern social practices and the constitutive problem posed by social exclusions, the role of communicative media and civic association in countering the state, the importance of a distinctively civil or public identity for the democratic project, and the dire prospects for sustaining that accomplishment. Although the affordances of the concept of “culture” are not readily available within this project, it offers a social theory that has many functional affinities with other work on the concept of the public. What is equally important is that the civil society program draws on (and draws together) a wide array of sociological research that may be overlooked in the public sphere and Public Culture communities.

The political dimension of public culture is most explicit in the work on public communication that has developed in political theory and communication studies. Research on rhetoric and political theory, public deliberation/deliberative democracy, ordinary democracy, and the like has addressed key questions about public opinion formation, political agency, rationality norms, spectatorship, and other constitutive features of the public sphere. These discussions also push inquiry in those disciplines downward and outward: closer to vernacular practices and local forums as they involve intersections of a potentially wide array of media and symbolic materials. Here also is where key theorists and prior periods have received important reconsideration: revivals of Hannah Arendt’s and, to a much lesser extent, John Dewey’s work (and the Dewey–Lippmann debate of the 1920s) are cases in point, while attention to civic republicanism is a narrower example. One distinction between the work done in political theory and in communication studies may be that while both look at how a modern polity’s dependence on public communication creates and requires distinctive discursive habits, the former focus more on how these are or are not incorporated into political institutions, while the latter focus more on news media, popular entertainment, and small-scale civic forums. Perhaps the most widespread recent interest regarding scholarship on public communication has been in the study of visual media: particularly the role of photography and photojournalism, but also covering illustrations, murals, graffiti, and many other modes of image production, circulation, and spectatorship.

Two other research programs help to fill out the research agenda. Studies of nationalism and its aftermath, including problems of democratization, multiculturalism, and trust formation, have featured or drawn on the concept of public culture, as in work by David Miller (1995) and Patti Tamara Lenard (2012). Such studies often rely on a heritage model, although circulation also can be a factor. Another program emphasizes the role of capitalism in contemporary public cultures. The work of Donald Horne (1994) is representative of one approach, which examines transnational practices such as tourism on behalf of ideology critique. Other work in the media and cultural studies context also focuses on the commercialization of public culture, for example, as spectatorship is organized by marketing practices around rituals such as the Super Bowl, although less as modes of enthrallment and more as encompassing practices that can be reworked to recover or inflect political agency.

The Unfinished Project

The concept of public culture has consolidated, advanced, and generated strong programs of research regarding civil society, journalism and other media practices, politics and social movements, and major processes of change redefining collective association in the 21st century. It has given new life to long-standing interests in democratic speech and public opinion formation while focusing attention on how modernization and globalization redefine political relationships in all societies, although not in a uniform manner or having a universal result. The concept provides a flexible rubric for identifying those emergent properties that define modern civil society, explicating the influence and alteration of common media forms as they are adapted in specific settings, and identifying normative questions and conflicts regarding the general welfare. Much remains to be done, however.

One basis for continued development is to look backward, reading theorists and studying periods that included earlier formulations of or precursors to public culture. Many theoretical gestures and some extended engagements have been made—most notably, with the work of Hannah Arendt, John Dewey, and the Frankfurt School—but more work is needed. Through direct incorporation in the public culture problem space, such work could break the theorists out of prior casements of interpretation to develop new readings that might contribute directly to developing specific dimensions of public culture—e.g., in terms of Arendt’s emphases on alienation and appearance, Dewey’s emphasis on the aesthetic elements of democratic communication, and just about anything suggested by Benjamin. Similar work is needed—and is underway—in respect to specific political cultures that featured some form of public communication. These include most notably 18th- and 19th-century Europe, Renaissance cities, republican Rome, various Greek periods, and the many examples of democratic practices and cosmopolitanism outside the West. All of these would be undertaken to identify not a universal template but rather family resemblances, constitutive problems, specific genealogies, roads not taken, and other variations on the theme of understanding a phenomenon that rises above the waves only so often, sometimes to disappear again.

The most central and least developed task is to continue to search for what is distinctively public about any public phenomenon. This project can be characterized by Michael Warner’s (2002) sly observation that “publics are queer creatures”—which he means in every sense of the term. In place of the standard characterization of the public sphere being founded on social ascriptions of white, male, straight, middle-class identity, Warner suggests that something else was happening anyway. Consistent with Habermas, he posits that the standard social categories can’t account for the emergent properties, but he goes much further than notions of impersonal reason and social bracketing: first, to focus on the public as a key category for a phenomenology of modern sociality and then to explicate it via logics of social strangeness, internalized alienation, and modes of performance from passing to drag. Warner holds out for the “creative and transformative” capacity that counterpublics bring to public life, yet he also recognizes the constraints and compromises that lead to “damaged forms of publicness” coordinate with “damaged forms of privacy” (2002, pp. 62–63, 124). His example shows that the choice need not be between optimism and pessimism. What is important is to consider how modern scholars have only begun to understand one of modernity’s most salient cultural characteristics: how it creates a public world.


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