Making a fragile public: A talk-centered study of citizenship and power

Sociological Theory 14 (3):262-289 (1996)
Abstract
Understanding how citizens create contexts for open-ended political conversation in everyday life is an important task for social research. The lack of theoretical attention to political conversation in the current renaissance of studies of "civil society" and "the public sphere "precludes a thoroughly social understanding of civic life. Participant-observation in U. S. recreational, volunteer, and activist groups shows how the very act of speaking itself comes to mean different things in different civic contexts. It shows dramatic contextual shifts-the more public the context, the less public-spirited the discourse. Institutions encouraged groups to avoid public, political conversation. One group challenged the dominant etiquette for citizenship; the others considered talking politics "out of place " almost everywhere. The ways groups relate to public speech itself are themselves meaningful; the concept of "civic practices" highlights how groups develop not just the power to make a particular political program public, but the power to make the public itself
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