Paul Starr (Princeton University): "Three Ways of Thinking About the Public"

Thu, Feb 13, 2020, 4:30 pm to 6:00 pm
Open to Princeton University ID Holders

Abstract:  To the pollster, the public is merely an aggregate of individuals, grouped by social categories. To a political leader or judge issuing a decision in its name, the public is the entirety of the political community. Each of these two conceptions, the individualized and the organic, has its place in the political imagination. But both are missing the intervening social processes that make publics what they are. A public does not simply exist as an inevitable feature of human society; institutions and technologies give it a particular form. This is the basis for a third, more relational conception of the public as a social network with distinctive communicative ties and forms of mutual awareness.  

The public, however, has not just been a descriptive or analytical concept; it has also been a critical and aspirational one.Unlike other terms that describe a collection of people—a “population,” for example—“public” implies normative expectations. To speak of a public is plainly to dignify the people so grouped together and to envision them sitting in judgment. Imagined to be rational, engaged, and capable of rising above self-interest, the public has historically been held up as an ideal in contrast to the “mob,” the “crowd,” and the “mass,” as well as the domestic sphere of women. Rather than being all-inclusive, the public has typically reflected social distinctions. The history of the public is partly a history of these changing social boundaries and hierarchies. 

This chapter is the first in a book about the changing structure of the public and beliefs about it. The chapter deals in succession with the history of the organic conception of the public (the public as the body politic); the individualized conception, particularly the changing conception of public opinion from the eighteenth to the twentieth century; and the relational conception, as it first emerged in the work of Gabriel Tarde at the time of Dreyfus affair, through twentieth-century sociology, the theory of mass society, and the emergence in recent decades of what is sometimes referred to as the “networked public,” though publics have always been networked, just in different ways. 

Paul Starr is professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University and Stuart Professor of communications and public affairs at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He also serves as co-editor of The American Prospect, a liberal magazine that he co-founded in 1990 with Robert Kuttner and Robert Reich.

Professor Starr's work addresses a wide range of questions in politics, public policy, and social theory. Within sociology, his current interests include institutional analysis, political sociology, and the sociology of knowledge, technology, and information, especially as they bear on democracy, equality, and freedom. During 1993 he served as a senior health policy advisor at the White House.

Professor Starr has written three books about health care institutions and policies. The Social Transformation of American Medicine (1983) won the Bancroft Prize (American History), C. Wright Mills Award (Sociology), and Pulitzer Prize (General Nonfiction). The Logic of Health Care Reform (1992) laid out the case for a system of universal health insurance provided through a choice of private plans in what are now called insurance exchanges. His most recent book on health-care history and politics is Remedy and Reaction: The Peculiar American Struggle over Health-Care Reform (2011, revised ed. 2013).

Professor Starr has also written extensively on media, the public, and liberalism. His 2004 book The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications received the Goldsmith Book Prize. Freedom's Power (2007) is an account of both the philosophical and institutional development of liberalism from its classical to modern phases. He is currently working on a project on the entrenchment of power, law, and social structure, as well as a book about unanticipated changes in the development of post-industrial societies.