The Public & Social Inquiry

Renowned thinkers such as Jurgen Habermas, John Dewey, Wright Mills, and Talcott Parsons, share several commonalities in their work. Once familiar with them, we discover how these men had similar strains of thought as they were all interested the subject of the public, as well as the concept of social inquiry. It seems that they all agree that by first defining or demarcating what the public is, we can be in a better position to inquire and manage social issues. By having ???the public??? and ???social inquiry??? as points of reference, we can compare the central idea from each author, and hopefully build a strong case for the functionality of social science.

Wright Mills opens the doors on the significance of the public by sharing the following scenario: ???When wars happen, an insurance sales man becomes a rocket launcher; a store clerk, a radar man; a wife lives alone; a child grows up without a father. Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both??? (Mills, 1959, p. 3). From his book entitled ???The Sociological Imagination??? (1959), we understand that he was stating how individuals perceive their own biographies as private and fail to see their lives as being interwoven with the bigger public or even as part of social history.

On social inquiry, Mills goes on to explain that individuals need not feel suppressed by the everyday realities of life. The central idea of Mill???s ???Sociological Imagination??? is that if one can consider both the ???personal troubles of milieu??? and the ???public issues of social structure??? as a whole, one can better orientate oneself to what is happening and possibly invoke change to improve the situation. After all, Mills believes that the promise of sociology is to ???indicate some tasks at hand and the means available for doing the work that must now be done??? (1959, p. 20). To do so, Mills sets up a framework in which the sociological imagination can be enacted. This framework for social inquiry consists of three sorts of questions about society (1959, p. 6-7).

Like Mills, Talcott Parsons runs in the same systematic vein with his book called ???Essays in Sociological Theory, Pure and Applied??? (1951). Heavily influenced by Durkheim, Parsons is a functionalist, thus tries to view social science as an analytical process. He saw social systems as open systems, engaged in complex exchanges with its environment. His framework has major conceptual components in four categories, namely the structure of the situation, the cultural tradition, the institutional structure and the motivational forces and mechanisms.

An alternative spatial take on what constitutes the public can be seen in Habermas??? seminal work, entitled ???Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere??? (1962). Similar to Mills, Habermas??? book focused on the historical concept of the organic relationship between the public and private. However, unlike Mills, Habermas refers to the public and private as two related but clearly distinct spaces. Back during ancient Greece and through the Middle Ages, the public and the private were considered as one instead of two separate entities. In such a time there was representative publicity, whereby only the King or the Nobles would be considered public while everyone else would be the spectator. However, with the introduction of the modern economy, the two eventually recognized their current form. The public would refer to the government, while the private would refer to property owners and the family. This demarcation of the public and private realms allowed space for the public sphere to develop out of private institutions where the public use of reason could emerge in the form of rational-critical debate.

In clarifying the concept of the public sphere, Habermas stated that “The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor. The medium of this political confrontation was peculiar and without historical precedent: people’s public use of their reason.” (1991, p. 27). Essentially, this refers to private people who come together to enter the public realm in order to debate rationally and engage with public authority. Habermas??? idea of social inquiry comes in this form of literary debate, which checks the governance of the state and prevents any illegitimate use of power.

Dewey???s book, ???The Public and its Problems??? (1927), came in response to Habermas??? ideas and delved deeper into the empirical aspect of social inquiry. Dewey believed in the experimental social method in order to generate better results from which we can make good decisions. He argued that ???political facts [were] not outside human desire and judgement??? (1927, p. 6), and since social policies were bound to be in flux, some form of testing was required as he further argues that ???the choice is between blind, unreasoned attack and defense on one hand, and discriminating criticism employing intelligent method and a conscious criterion on the other??? (1927, p. 7). Even though the choice of methodology would reflect the biased interests of the researcher, he believed we could still be measurably precise if we tried. He stated that ???the more sincerely we appeal to the facts, the greater the importance of the distinction between facts which condition human activity and the facts which are conditioned by human activity??? (1927, p. 7).

Both Habermas and Dewey saw the modern day mass media as a problem since these media entities would be wholly owned by corporate conglomerates who???s interest would lie more on profits than in being value-free information sources. They both see the hidden vested interest in cheap mass media as having a major effect on the public???s ability to make wise decisions. For Habermas, ???public opinion??? was powerful and manipulative. It eroded the bourgeois public sphere, blurring the lines between public and private, thus leading to the refeudalization of society where modern states return with elements of representative publicity. For example, presidential campaigns can be seen as being fought more with money than with truth since whoever had more money would get more television airtime. Habermas??? solution to this is in the form of a strong public sphere which he believes will keep the powers in check. Dewey believes that so long as the public has access to unbiased non-corporate sources (e.g. blogs), they would be able to make wise decisions on their own. Thinking about this, we can begin to see that Habermas views the public sphere as having a legitimizing function for social policy, while Dewey see the public sphere as a means to facilitate inquiry. Habermas??? legitimizing function of the public in this case seems more important, as it calls the public to action when a social issue requires due attention.

Dewey, J. (1927). Search for the public. The public and its problems (pp. 3-36). New York, Henry Holt.

Parsons, T. (1951). The social system. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press. Selections.

Mills, C.W. (1959). The sociological imagination. New York: Oxford University Press. Selection.

Habermas, J. (1991). Social structures of the public sphere. The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society (pp. 27-56). Cambridge: MIT Press.

One thought on “The Public & Social Inquiry

  1. Overall

    Generally, this is an excellent responsive overview of the readings, and you do an admirable job of playing the theorists off one another. You drop us off a little abruptly at the end, but generally, this is a first-rate overview. We may want draw out and problematize the relationship of Habermas to the mass media, but we can do this in our face-to-face discussion tonight. Good work here.


    > …for the functionality of social science.

    maybe: …for the utility of social science.
    or “benefit”?

    > Wright Mills opens the doors…

    Mills opens the doors…

    > …came in response to Habermas??? ideas and delved deeper into the empirical aspect of social inquiry

    This suggests that Dewey is somehow “answering” Habermas, which is temporally difficult :).

    perhaps: “can be seen in contrast to Habermas’s ideas, as he…”

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