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public and private spheres

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1. In modern sociology, respectively, the realm of politics, public institutions, and paid employment and the domestic world of the home and family relations. Public life is governed by shared norms and values while private life is the realm of the intimate, of personal identity, and free will (compare primary and secondary groups). Historians often trace the separation to modernity, industrialization, urbanization, and the gendered division of labour, though in classical Greece there was also a division between the public world of politics and the private world of family and economic relations. Insofar as they can even be separated, in the discourse of postmodernism the public and private spheres are not fixed but fluid (see also back stage). Meyrowitz argues that ‘electronic media have tended to… blur the dividing line between private and public behaviours’.

2. An ideological dichotomy between domains gendered respectively as male and female, as in ‘a woman's place is in the home’. The public sphere is that of adult males; the private sphere is that of women and children. Consequently men tend to be defined by what they do whereas women are associated with nurturing relationships. Feminists argue that this split is a myth masking women's subordination and perpetuating gender inequality since both domains are both personal and political. Further connotations are associated with the public/private split (e.g. culture/nature, production/reproduction, work/consumption, reason/emotion, and instrumentality/expressivity). While in many contexts the public sphere has traditionally been privileged, romanticism (and especially Rousseau) associated the public sphere with conformity and falsity and the private sphere with authenticity and intimacy. See also persona.

3. An arena for the open discussion of common concerns and collective social interests (see also public opinion). For Habermas, the public sphere derives from the bourgeois salons and pamphleteering of the 18th century. It is ‘a network for communicating information and points of view’, and in the modern world the mass media can be seen as constituting this arena (raising the question of inequalities of access and representation). Modern anxieties over the alleged decline of the public sphere and the deterioration of rational discourse about public affairs invariably implicate the mass media (see also fiction values; mediatization; story model; tabloidization), market forces being seen as a major threat to public interest broadcasting. Giddens argues that the mass media have in fact expanded the public sphere; others that they have transformed the nature of publicness though sociologists have long argued that ‘the public’ does not exist as a singular entity: see publics.

Subjects: Media studies

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