The Urban Public in Sociological Perspective

Seminar Paper, 2001

12 Pages, Grade: 8,5 von 11




The term “public”

Urban life



I wrote this paper in 1,5 line spacing, because I find this more comfortable to read. On the right side of the page a space is left for your remarks. I enlarged the paper to eleven pages to compensate for the spacing. Printed out in regular options, it would be exactly seven pages long.


This is a literature based work. By writing this paper I wanted to get a basic impression of the theories about “The Public” as developed in urban sociology. I used Lyn Lofland´s book “The Public Realm” and Louis Wirth´s article “Urbanism as a way of life” as my main references. To give some deeper impact on classical social theories, I added the basic items from Habermas “Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit” (The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere) and some basic ideas of Simmel's Sociology[1]. To get more information about the development of “the public” in sciences, I used a book called “Öffentlichkeit. Geschichte eines kritischen Begriffs” (The Public. About the History of a critical term).

I was impressed by the pragmatic and frequent examples that Lofland uses to explain her theories. At my home university, the Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg, it is unusual to give an example for every written item. It is more often the case, like at the end of a “Hauptseminararbeit”[2], that one basic example is given for an actual topic (European Union, etc). The aim of examples given in students’ homework is to show, that the often complex social theories have been profoundly understood by the student. Though I found Lofland's style of giving many examples to her readers very positive, I will go on writing my paper in the way I have learned: without many examples and based on theoretical perspective of social structures. Due to this decision, my work may differ from the exams handed in by American students.

The term “public sphere”

The idea of the “public sphere” is one of the main concepts in urban sociology. It describes places that are not owned by private persons or communities. There is a dichotomy, for example “public” is the opposite of “private”, where human relationships are developed. Lyn Lofland defines “public spaces” as locales that are more accessible than private places. Public spaces are visible and usable for all members of the community[3].

The term “public sphere” is an artificial word. In the English-speaking countries of the 18th and 19th century this term was not common[4]. But with the translation of Habermas theory “Der Strukturwandel der Oeffentlichkeit[5] ” from German into English “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere” this expression became usual in sciences and published readings. Today the term “public sphere” is used for descriptive or normative facts. Using the word “public” can describe an empirical perceptible state of a place or a situation. A public space is generally usable by everybody. Also, the idea of peoples communicative and interactive behaviour may be judged to be an attitude that is guided by manners of public behaviour. For instance, to behave well in a western civilized public, one should not pick his nose or run through the streets naked.

In the Western European countries of the 18th century a place or sphere was also called “public” if it was not controlled by the government. In the historical tradition of the “Aufklärung” (the Enlightenment) in Germany and the French Revolution the public was initially defined as a spot of common interest, that provided the common good and was not regulated by the state. In Paris, the French urban public built themselves as a contrast to the royal court. In Great Britain, the public was developed in London cafes, where literal and moral discourses about the published topics of gazettes[6] were held. The cafes were named “The World”. They built a social opposite to the private apartments where London’s gentlemen resided in British privacy. In Germany, the public salons had a comparative role, as in England. In public clubs and catering trades, the topics of modern newspapers[7] and magazines were discussed. In the “literarische Öffentlichkeit” (literal public) the published news was disputed. These public meetings were a new arrangement. Before, public meetings were only known for political reasons. Now, the public has become accessible without government involvement.

The public audience is an aggregation of private folks. It is supposed to have a collective opinion. The public is more than an assembly of individuals; it is a common subject that is able to judge and evaluate its topics. Disputes and debates are held in critical and rational discourses. This observation fits to Habermas’ definition of the democratic public. The “demokratische Öffentlichkeit”, the democratic public, has to be constituted by common accessibility and rational discussion[8].

Urban life

As mentioned above, the roots of public meetings and discourses grew in Western European cities. With the beginning industrialization of the late 19th century, this effectively improved. All over Western Europe people moved from their villages to cities to find factory jobs and raise the welfare of their individual lives. The cities flourished as centres of economic, political and cultural life. Louis Wirth describes cities as power cores that draw “the most remote parts of the world into [their] orbit and [weave] diverse areas, peoples, and activities into a cosmos” (Wirth in: American Journal of Sociology 1938: 2). Wirth describes the city as the characteristic locus of urbanism. Though, in his opinion, the urban mode of life is not confined to cities. He defines cities as relatively large, dense, and permanent settlements of socially heterogeneous individuals[9]. These individuals are not connected by sentimental or emotional ties, as traditional village dwellers would be. Even Lyn Lofland agrees to this definition and adds the characterization that geographically bounded cities are easily distinguishable from lightly populated villages. She overtakes Wirth’s old definition of cities and concludes with the brief sentence: “A city is a permanently populous place or settlement” (Lofland 1998: 5-7).


[1] Simmel, Georg. Soziologie. Untersuchungen über die Formen der Vergesellschaftung. Fünfte Auflage. (1908) 1968. Drucker & Humblot. Berlin. And: “Simmel on the city” in: Gottdiener, Mark. Hutchinson, Ray. The New –Urban- Sociology. Second Edition. (1994) 2000. Mc Graw-Hill Higher Education. Boston. Chapter 6: The Rise of Urban Sociology

[2] Take home exam of Graduate Students with 20 to 30 pages

[3] Lofland 1998: 8ff

[4] Hohendahl 2000: 2ff

[5] first published in 1962

[6] for example The Tatler or The Spectator

[7] here: “Der Patriot”, The Patriot

[8] Habermas 1962

[9] Wirth in: American Journal of Sociology 1938: 3ff

Excerpt out of 12 pages


The Urban Public in Sociological Perspective
University of Amsterdam  (International School for Humanities and Social Sciences)
Social Climate in Cities
8,5 von 11
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
375 KB
Strukturwandel, Lofland, Habermas, Oeffentlichkeit
Quote paper
Sarah Pust (Author), 2001, The Urban Public in Sociological Perspective, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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