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A Review of Institutional Change in the Public Sphere: Views on the Nordic Model Edited by Fredrik Engelstad et al.

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International Women's Day 2017 - Thailand, March 8, 2017 | © Courtesy of UN Women.

This timely volume provides a Nordic and theoretically informed perspective on the transformations that the public sphere has been undergoing in recent decades.

A Book Review by Pablo Markin.


Published in April 2017 by De Gruyter Open, Institutional Change in the Public Sphere: Views on the Nordic Model, a collection of contributions from North European and international scholars edited by Fredrik Engelstad, Håkon Larsen, Jon Rogstad, and Kari Steen-Johnsen, casts a retrospective glance at the effect that information technology, social changes and institutional transformation had on the public sphere in developed countries more generally and in Northern Europe in particular.

In their introductory chapter on the changes in the public sphere, relevant institutional perspectives and neo-corporatist social transformations, Fredrik Engelstad, Håkon Larsen, Jon Rogstad, and Kari Steen-Johnsen take Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit: Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft, a seminal work by Jürgen Habermas orginally published in 1962 and translated into English as The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society by Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence in 1989, as a theoretical background for their discussion of the public sphere where communicative processes of civil society and among individual and collective agents, such as the state, take place. Consequently, changes in the mass and electronic media, communication technologies and related social spheres, such as literature, arts, science and education, can be expected to have a significant effect on social, political and economic processes. The attendant institutional transformations are linked by these authors to the rise of neo-corporatist frameworks, as concerns state-level regulation, the public sphere, media-related, civic and cultural institutions, social differentiation and resultant power struggles.

In this respect, Craig Calhoun has drawn a broad theoretical arc that connects earliest sociological and philosophical conceptualizations of the public sphere, such those of Walter Lippman and John Dewey respectively, from the 1920s in the context of the nascent nexuses between technology and democracy to those of Hannah Arendt and Jürgen Habermas in the 1950s and later decades. Especially Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958) has emphasized the contradictions between different spheres of human activity, such as society and culture, which, it can be argued, have lent the interrelations between modern institutions their historical dynamics, such as in view of their rising complexity. Thus, in their discussion of the Nordic model of the public sphere, Fredrik Engelstad, Håkon Larsen and Jon Rogstad have analyzed its normative preconditions, component institutional structures, such as the liberal welfare state, civil society organizations and mass media, regulatory frameworks and the structure of the public sphere both diachronically and comparatively. Relatedly, Gunnar C. Aakvaag has traced institutional changes in the Norway’s public sphere in terms of both endogenous and exogenous institutional factors, such as collective bargaining, democratic institutions, public deliberation, as concerns both the majority society and its particular groups from a broad historical perspective.

Likewise, in their sociological disquisition on the digital transformations in the public sphere of the Nordic countries, Bernard Enjolras and Kari Steen-Johnsen have explored the interrelations between digitization and institutional change from a political perspective on the media of mass and Internet-based communication, such as news outlets and social media, and their effect on public opinion, political participation and social structures. Similarly, Signe Bock Segaard and Fredrik Engelstad have sought to connect the institutional change that the political and strategic implications of digital media entail to political communication and institutions on both macro and micro levels. In this respect, as Olav Elgvin and Jon Rogstad’s study of and Sissel C. Trygstad’s research on Norway suggest, the changing mass media landscape can also harbor risks related to the freedom of expression, especially as concerns the sensibilities of religious minorities and organizational and individual-level effects of whistleblowing. Since the public sphere acts as mediatized arena for legitimation discourses, as Håkon Larsen’s chapter on cultural organizations in Scandinavia suggests, its transformations in Nordic countries is bound to affect the positioning of religious communities in the public discourse and their interactions with various institutional domains, as contributions by Inger Furseth and Knut Lundby suggest.

Therefore, as Fredrik Engelstad proposes in the afterword to this book, the transformations of the public sphere in Nordic countries can be expected to have both macro-level implications, such as the emergence of the neo-corporatist state, and micro-scale consequences impinging on the freedom of expression, democratic participation, inter-institutional relations and ethical norms.

By Pablo Markin


Featured Image Credits: International Women’s Day 2017 – Thailand, March 8, 2017 | © Courtesy of UN Women.

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