I’m working on understanding J¸rgen Habermas’ theory of the public sphere as well as the responses of others to that theory. From the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism:
Habermas’s interdisciplinary research has touched on matters important to students of literature at several points. Perhaps his most influential work for literary studies in Germany was the book Strukturwandel der ÷ffentlichkeit (1962, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere). The “public sphere” is a realm in which opinions are exchanged between private persons unconstrained (ideally) by external pressures. Theoretically open to all citizens and founded in the family, it is the place where something approaching public opinion is formed. It should be distinguished both from the state, which represents official power, and from the economic structures of civil society as a whole. Its function is actually to mediate between society and state; it is the arena in which the public organizes itself, formulates public opinion, and expresses its desires vis-ý-vis the government.
Habermas’s discussion makes clear that the public sphere is not a given for every type of society; nor does it possess a fixed status. The Middle Ages had no public sphere in the sense in which Habermas defines it, but rather a sphere of representation of feudal authority. Only in the eighteenth century, with the breakdown of religious hegemony and the rise of the middle class, does a public sphere emerge. The liberal model of the public sphere, in which private individuals and interests regulate public authority and in which property owners speak for humanity, is eventually transformed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries into a realm in which the activities of reasoning and the formulation of public opinion are superseded by mass consumption and publicity.
In my research, a key question is this: How was the development of a public sphere in eighteenth-century Britain affected by the participation of religious movements such as Methodism?