Three Theories of Publics
A look back at what brought us here and what theorists may think of possible solutions to the problems plaguing this era.
Three Theories of Publics
What society considers public is a delicate and evolving set of social conventions that people seek to profit from and redefine (Dash, 2014). To best understand the workings of this complex balance, it is important to consider the theories that have defined and challenged the understanding of what constitutes the public. Edward Bernays is considered the first to develop the idea of professional public relations council, drawing data from social scientists to respond to and shape public perceptions in his monograph Propaganda, which was published in 1928. To frame Bernays’ theories in a broader context, it is important to compare them to those of French criminologist/sociologist Gabriel Tarde, and feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser.
Bernays’ Theory of Public Life
In Propaganda, Bernays (1928) asserts, “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country” (p. 37). Leaders harness old social forces in new ways and are necessary for the operation of an organized society and the formation of social codes. In his view, this process of regulating social opinion streamlines society in the same way the free market economy does: “everybody buys the best and cheapest commodities offered to him on the market. In practice, if everyone went around pricing, and chemically testing before purchasing… economic life would become hopelessly jammed” (p. 39). The masses’ participation constitutes consent to these invisible handlers narrowing the scope of choices and ideas (pp. 9-18). While some may see these measures as dictatorial when acted out by members of government, they consent willingly to the same leadership by allowing others to design houses, clothing, and entertainment (Bernays, 1928, pp. 32-46). Mass communication accelerates and amplifies this process. This is why public relations councils became such an important concept. Although he referred to strings and puppeteers, Bernays (1928) made his opinion clear: instead of constant consensus and pleading, it was better to manufacture consent and have wise rulers dictate the many aspects of personal and public life (pp. 32-46). To many, this may seem like pure propaganda; however, Bernays (1928) argues “the council on public relations must maintain constant vigilance, because inadequate information, or false information from unknown sources, may have results of enormous impact” (pg. 43). By scouring the information provided by clients and constantly analyzing public opinion, the public relations council maintains a delicate balance based on ideas and responses. In Bernays (1928) opinion, ‘public’ is a multi-tiered system with the largest group being ‘the masses,’ which are comprised of indecisive individuals. Their lives improve through the guidance leaders, who in his words “are themselves led by persons, whose names are known only by few” (p. 33). Public relations councils function as a ‘middleman,’ politicians set the agendas, and the media ties the entire network together (pp. 32-46).
Gabriel Tarde: Society and Publics
Tarde’s view of the public is based on the tensions between the individual and society. Ever growing networks allow for innovation from creative individuals, assessment, and imitation from the masses. Ronald Niezen (2014) summarizes this concept as follows: “processes of innovation and imitation among creatively active and receptive individuals communicating through historically ever-widening networks of communication rather than acting independently” (para. p. 50). This idea simplifies our understanding of how the public functions. He adds, what we see as social interactions are “therefore nothing more than the cumulative interactions of individual beings pursuing their life-trajectories driven by beliefs and desires communicated by other individuals, mind to mind” (Niezen, 2014, p. 51). In this sense, there is a “trickle down” culture defined by a minority group (in this case creative people), that is similar to the hierarchy described by Bernays. However, Bernays did not hold creative or innovative individuals as leaders of the masses. One could argue that the main difference from Bernays’ view is that creative people (public relations council) enabled hegemonic dominance by elites by using their abilities to influence the public on behalf of the “invisible government.” Tarde views the majority of the public in a way that echoed Bernays’ paternalistic views. He asks why, “does it seem to occur with such frequency that public opinion will orient itself favorably toward self-evident falsehoods in preference to empirically valid knowledge?” (as cited in Niezen, 2014, p. 52). He believed that news outlets were charged with the task of regulating an irresponsible and ignorant public: the work of journalism… “has been to nationalize more and more, and even to internationalize, the public mind” (as cited in Niezen, 2014, p. 53). Tarde’s public was like Bernays’, led by intellectual elites, who simply knew better than the masses. However, journalism, not public relations councils, regulate the balance in his synopsis of society.
Nancy Fraser: Public, Gender, and Inequality
Fraser’s views of public life, politics, and the media in late stage capitalism are in line with the opinions of the first two theorists. However, her framing presents a significant departure from the tone of Bernays and Tarde. Fraser (1990) finds the system to be inherently repressive. She states, “this new mode of political domination, like the older one, secures the ability of one stratum of society to rule the rest” (Fraser, 1990, p. 62). Fraser (1990) goes on to reveal that the deliberation and divisions (bracketing) within society help reinforce inequalities: "such bracketing usually works to the advantage of dominant groups in society and to the disadvantage of subordinates" (p. 64). These statements criticize the hierarchy described by both Tarde and Bernays. In her article, what is considered ‘public’ does not truly represent the public, but the illusion that it does is the linchpin holding the layers of deception together. She goes on to state that separating public and private problems limits the identification of certain problems, thereby limiting the possibility of developing solutions. This is especially true in terms of gender related issues: “even after women and workers have been formally licensed to participate, their participation may be hedged by conceptions of economic privacy and domestic privacy that delimit the scope of debate” (Fraser, 1990, p. 76). Fraser (1990) shines a harsh spotlight on preexisting concepts; her public is stratified, full of inequalities, with diverse groups deserving of inclusion in expression and decision-making.
The assumptions made by Bernays have led to numerous social consequences. The media is used as a tool to rule the masses; however, the methods are growing more hostile and divisive than he originally envisioned. This is creating an anxious public at the mercy of an unstable global economy. This upends his theory that the masses are better off at the hands of an ‘invisible government’. It is impossible to know the true toll as individuals have the option of either subscribing and being connected/interconnected or off the grid and excluded—the latter is an option most members of the public are not self-sufficient enough to choose. One possible remedy is rekindling timeless family/religious values that put people ahead of hedonistic pursuits, while instilling a strong sense of skepticism in the next generation growing up in this media saturated environment. However, Bernays, Tarde, and Fraser would likely disagree with such a solution. Bernays and Tarde believed imitation and an attraction to convenience create public life as we know it (prescribed by elites). Additionally, Fraser would likely find a nuclear family and traditional religious traditions distasteful, oppressive, and discriminatory against woman and minorities. As a result, thriving in public life may be a task only innovative and creative individuals can complete with relative success, if it is at all possible.
Bernays, E. (1928). Propaganda. Public Library of India. Retrieved from
Dash, A. (2014, July 24). What is public? The Message. Retrieved from
Fraser, N. (1990). Rethinking the public sphere: A contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy. Social Text, 25/26, 56-80. doi:10.2307/466240
Niezen, R. (2014). Gabriel Tarde’s publics. History of the Human Sciences, 27(2), 41–59. https://doi.org/10.1177/0952695114525430