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Audiences and Publics: When Cultural Engagement Matters for the Public Sphere Changing Media

Audiences and Publics: When Cultural Engagement Matters for the Public Sphere Changing Media

by Sonia Livingstone (Editor)

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In today’s thoroughly mass-mediated world, audiences and publics are, of course, composed of the same people. Yet social science traditionally treats them quite differently. Indeed, it is commonplace to define audiences in opposition to the public: in both popular and elite discourses, audiences are denigrated as trivial, passive, individualised, while


In today’s thoroughly mass-mediated world, audiences and publics are, of course, composed of the same people. Yet social science traditionally treats them quite differently. Indeed, it is commonplace to define audiences in opposition to the public: in both popular and elite discourses, audiences are denigrated as trivial, passive, individualised, while publics are valued as active, critically engaged and politically significant.

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Intellect, Limited
Publication date:
Changing Media--Changing Europe Series , #2
Edition description:
New Edition
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6.75(w) x 9.50(h) x 0.60(d)

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Audiences and Publics

When Cultural Engagement Matters for the Public Sphere Changing Media, Changing Europe Volume 2

By Sonia Livingstone

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2005 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-129-1


Sonia Livingstone

On the relation between audiences and publics

Why audience and public?

In approaching the changing relations between audiences and publics, one may draw on the long and distinguished intellectual history of the study of publics within political science, philosophy and cultural thought. Alternatively, or additionally, one may draw on the study of audiences within media, communications and cultural studies which, although more recent, has nonetheless proved creative, even provocative, in its analysis of processes of mediation, participation and influence. In setting the scene for the chapters to follow, this chapter will outline the widely held view of public and audience as mutually opposed, one in which audiences are seen to undermine the effectiveness of publics. It will then argue that the changing media and communications environment - characterised by both the mediation of publics and the participation of audiences - problematises such an opposition; the emergence of intriguingly ambiguous objects situated between public and audience is used to illustrate the argument.

The relation between audiences and publics is contested less because 'public' refers to a shared understanding or inclusion in a common forum (for 'audiences' may be similarly described) than because 'public' implies an orientation to collective and consensual action, perhaps even requires that action to be effective for a public to be valued. Although some have suggested that it may be easier to collapse the concept of public into that of audience, or vice versa, this chapter proposes that a more satisfactory account maintains their analytic separation. The strategy explored here interposes a mediating domain - 'civic culture', or 'civil society' perhaps positioned between 'the public' and 'the audience' or, more accurately, between the sphere of experience and identity and the sphere of collective, politically efficacious action. This, it is suggested, reframes in a more complex but more incisive manner many of the questions being asked, both within and beyond the academy, about the relation between audiences and publics.

Audience versus public

The analysis of 'audience' and 'public' draws on distinctive bodies of theory, prioritising different issues. But they do not refer to wholly separate realities. In a thoroughly mediated world, audiences and publics, along with communities, nations, markets and crowds, are composed of the same people. This apparently banal observation is significant when we observe that it is commonplace to define audiences in opposition to the public. In both popular and elite discourses, audiences are denigrated as trivial, passive, individualised, while publics are valued as active, critically engaged and politically significant. Bearing in mind that the audience is generally ascribed to the private domain, consider these common associations of public versus private, each of which valorises public over private: rational versus emotional, disinterested versus biased, participatory versus withdrawn, shared versus individualised, visible versus hidden.

Adherents of this oppositional view, often from a political science or political communication approach, tend to ascribe a clear meaning to the public in terms of political citizenship and then ask how the media support or - more commonly - undermine public understanding and public participation. If objective information, informed consent, independent investigation are all prerequisites for a flourishing democracy, the questions for research are clear. And the answers, all too often, tend to suggest that the effect of media on their audience is seen to reposition what was or might be or should be, a public (knowing, thinking, influential) as a mere crowd (watching, sharing and emoting) or mass of consumers (driven by tastes, preferences and motivations) (Gandy, 2002).

This suspicion of the media has a long history that is strongly if implicitly encoded in our present-day tendency not only to oppose mediated communication with face-to-face communication, judging the former as inferior by comparison, but also in the ways that we map onto this opposition our cultural norms of reliability, authenticity, equality, trust, accountability - all of which are associated with face-to-face communication and all of which are routinely questioned in relation to the media. Hence, popular and academic discourses worry - undoubtedly often with good reason - about the extent to which 'media culture generally, with its emphasis on consumption and entertainment, has undercut the kind of public culture needed for a healthy democracy' (Dahlgren, 2003, p.151). Or, to put these worries into the much-used language of moral panics, many are concerned about 'citizens attenuated into measurable audiences and consumers; politics commodified into beauty pageant cum talent show; journalists transmogrified into masters of ceremony, celebrity judges and measurers of the public will' (Barnhurst, 1998, p. 203). The outcome, so the argument goes, is that the media undermine the public sphere (Habermas, 1969/89), transform politics into political marketing (Scammell, 2001), bias the news agenda according to commercial imperatives (McChesney, 2000) and distract citizens from civic engagement (Putnam, 2000). On this view, then, the last thing research should be doing is rethinking those processes of attenuation in potentially more positive terms through studying such denigrated formats as daytime talk shows or reality television, particularly when there remains so much to do to improve the reception of prime-time news or to defend resources for the documentary.

While recognising the force of these and related concerns, it remains problematic that they rely on a traditional and, arguably, limited conception of politics, one that opposes mass and elite culture (or public ideals and audience tastes), asserting a polarised theory of power in which 'hegemony theory has been used to analyse the struggle over dominance and consent waged through mass culture' (Ouellette, 1999, p.65). In relation to Habermas' theory of the public sphere, we have become familiar with the cry of elitism for the theory's idealisation of a public sphere that has, too often, turned out to devalue or to exclude some people (or discourses or topics) while privileging others (Calhoun, 1992; Eley, 1992; Fraser, 1990). However, alternative formulations, positing non-idealised yet egalitarian and inclusive accounts of the public sphere, remain hotly contested. For the moment, therefore, the role of the media in relation to the public, potential and actual, must surely remain an open question.

In the spirit of openness, rather than from any desire to celebrate the popular tastes of audiences for their own sake, I argue against any reductive polarisation of public and audience (or public sphere and media), agreeing with Dahlgren (2003, p.164) that it is imperative to 'see beyond the formal political system'. In this volume, we inquire into many phenomena that, at first glance, are of only ambiguous or borderline relevance to politics and the public sphere, asking whether the increasing mediation of people's engagement with their society transforms our once-contained conception of the audience into something more complex. As the apparent apathy and ignorance of publics, traditionally conceived, forces a broader conception of citizenship, and as it is recognised that participation is increasingly a matter of identity, of belonging, and of lifestyle, research must surely be asking when these spill over into matters of identity politics, social inclusion and exclusion, and new social movements? And here media researchers may be expected to have much to contribute, for if even if the media have proved only partially effective in informing citizens about political issues, they have proved far more effective in shaping identities and lifestyles.

Audience or public

The temptation to oppose publics and audiences is encouraged by the many ways - economic, geographic, political - in which the media appear to be simultaneously expanding the scope of the audience and diminishing the realm of the public, leaving few if any aspects of social or personal life unaccompanied by, or independent of, the media. Yet paradoxically, this very expansion appears to be generating some ambiguous objects in today's 'mediascape' (Appadurai, 1996), which resist traditional or commonsense categorisations as matters of either audience or public. Not only are relations between audiences and publics becoming tangled conceptually, but empirical investigations of the everyday activities of audiences and publics are also revealing puzzling intersections.

As Barnhurst (1998, p.205) notes of his interviews with young people, 'these texts can be read as personal identification but also as moments within a political system'. The talk show, to take another example, portrays ordinary people discussing topical issues in public with experts - yet it refers to its audience rather than to the public; indeed it is often taken as representing the antithesis of rational public debate. The Internet chat room is a similarly ambiguous object, inviting private, individual, anonymous contributions to an - at times personal, at times political - public discussion. Again this may seem a phenomenon of the audience not the public, but witness the attempts by governments to harness such media both talk shows and online chat - in the interests of governance, whether to bolster representative democracy or to encourage the shift to a participatory democracy. Consider, as a further case, a family discussion after watching the television news - is this an instance of public debate or (merely) a matter of audience reception, and does it make a difference if it occurs in the privacy of the living room or outside the home?

The common use of spatial metaphors to distinguish public and private only serves to exacerbate confusion. Space turns out to be ambiguous or shifting depending on its use (the living room, the chat-room, the television studio, the music festival, the theatre). Even when certain spaces are conventionally associated with publicness or with privacy, people's uses of media in these spaces may contravene these conventions - for example, teenagers communicate privately in space that is conventionally public (using text-messaging in the cinema, for example) and they communicate publicly in space which is conventionally private (entering chat rooms, for example, from their bedroom). On the other hand, space is a resource frequently managed by others - hierarchically and normatively structured, rule-bound and unequally accessible - and hence it operates also as a constraint, 'preferring' some actors or some activities over others. For example, one may argue that it was the considerable constraints exerted on their behaviour in public places which led teens to seize on the mobile phone to subvert, in modest degree, the constraints upon them.

In seeking to understand these ambiguous communicative situations, many of which bridge mediated and face-to-face communication, we might usefully focus on the conditions of their existence. What are their modes of address, communicative conventions, priorities and exclusions, or hierarchies of expertise? How are these variously performed, negotiated, regulated, and transgressed? Intriguingly, where once these borderline phenomena stayed in the margins of academic and popular debate, today they take centre stage: from academic journals through parliamentary debate to the tabloid press, it seems that society is pondering the significance of talk shows or reality television, the transformative impact of mobile phones on social relations, the role of minority media in dividing a heterogeneous public into multiple public spheres, the legitimacy of public funding for elite culture or the meaning of online discussion.

Audience as public

If one widely held view seeks to distinguish, even oppose, audiences and publics, an alternative view sees the changing media environment as signalling the actual or imminent collapse of such a distinction. Characteristic of media and cultural studies approaches, this prioritises the contextualisation of people's engagement with media within everyday life, arguing that the media do not provide a (biased) window on the world so much as a set of resources through which everyday meanings and practices are constituted; these in turn shape identity and difference, participation and culture. The activities of audiences, it is asserted, cannot usefully be separated from the activities of publics; the citizen-viewer (Corner, 1991) supplants the opposition of citizen and consumer. As Silverstone (1990, p.173) declares, the audience is:

a potentially crucial pivot for the understanding of a whole range of social and cultural processes that bear on the central questions of public communication ... [which are] essentially questions of culture.

This approach argues further that, since the realm of the unmediated public is shrinking, if it still exists, any response to the so-called crisis of public communication (Blumler and Gurevitch, 1995) or any defence of the public sphere must surely include a role for the very media often taken to undermine that public. Instead of bemoaning the impact of media on publics, let us ask how media (and media audiences) can and do sustain publics.

Elaborating what Fiske termed the double movement of mediation (1987), Corner (1995, p.5) characterises the effect of the media in late modern societies in terms of contrasting forces. Through centrifugal forces, television seems 'to project its images, character types, catch-phrases and latest creations to the widest edges of the culture, permeating if not dominating the conduct of other cultural affairs'. This, I suggest, poses a particular challenge for audience research as, insofar as we are all always part of audiences now, the necessity for any particular theory of audiences (rather than of publics, or cultures, or consumers, etc.) seems to be increasingly questioned. Simultaneously, through a contrary centripetal force, Corner notes 'the powerful capacity of television to draw towards itself and incorporate (in the process, transforming) broader aspects of the culture'. This poses a challenge to political communications research as publics are drawn onto the media stage on which public and private life is displayed, while anything not on the media stage is marginalised, rendered invisible. In response, the analytic criteria for evaluating deliberation, participation or inclusiveness in terms of a valorisation of face-to-face communication must now surely be rethought.

Yet, simply eliding our key terms by redefining audiences as publics does not resolve problems other than those of semantics. And, insofar as this perspective has sometimes overreached itself, overstating or celebrating the perhaps tangential political importance of everyday activities, one could even argue that the problems have become obscured. Starting with questions of audience, it seems, tends to lead one to see all aspects of audience as a matter of public or citizenship significance, leaving unresolved the bounding or contextualising of such claims (Livingstone, 1998). The relationship of audiences to media contents is always mediated by culture or cultural identity, but does that make all audience activity a matter of identity politics?

An exercise in keywords

Since both 'audience' and 'public' are terms central to conceptual debates as well as being in common and variable usage in everyday discourse, some attention to definitions may prove helpful in working out a relationship between them that neither opposes nor elides them. Not forgetting the claim by Williams (1961, p. 289) that there are no masses, 'only ways of seeing people as masses', a claim one might repeat also for audiences, markets and even publics, let us consider how our key terms are anchored through their relations with other terms (see Appendix, where we consider further how these are linguistically and culturally specific). And let us not be put off by a notable absence: the standard reference work, Raymond Williams' Keywords, lists neither public nor audience, but he does discuss 'public' in relation to 'private', and 'audience' in relation to 'masses'.


Excerpted from Audiences and Publics by Sonia Livingstone. Copyright © 2005 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Sonia Livingstone is professor of social psychology in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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