Reading Possibilities of Democratic Participation (Sept 2011)

Reading possibilities of democratic participation in mass media and social movement public spheres

Stories of political controversy, whether they be international protests, national social spending policies or local redevelopment projects, vary vastly depending upon which public sphere one turns to for information. This is particularly evident in the records of social protest found in the public spheres of mass media and social movements. Often it is not just the framing or content of the events that are at odds. It is also the ontological understandings of public participation embedded in the public spheres themselves that differ. Further, and more insidiously, these ontological positions function to legitimate larger practices of democracy. It is this discursive organization and authorization of public engagement emerging in mass media and social movement public spheres and their material effects that I will address in this presentation.


Drawing on an analysis of an anti-gentrification campaign in an inner-city neighbourhood in Vancouver, Canada, I will explore the formation of public spheres in the local mass media and within a social housing advocacy group. By comparing representations of these media and analyzing the logic of political participation upon which they rest, I will highlight the various framings of the redevelopment project as legitimating particular actors, issues, and modes and spaces of engagement (to the exclusion of others), as well as discuss the broader implications for issues of local democracy. I will argue the mass media tended to present the redevelopment as an objective and discrete event, occurring most legitimately within sanctioned civic fora, while the social housing campaign tended to represent the issues subjectively and as part of a continuous struggle for neighbourhood-level autonomy, which was necessarily fought for in multiple public spaces. I will demonstrate that these two views are reflective of competing ontological understandings of political participation that are characteristic of mass media and social movement public spheres more generally. However, because these are unequal public spheres, I will also argue the discursive structuring of representations of social and political engagement in civic forums ultimately, and unevenly, impact broader possibilities of democratic participation.


Presented at the European Sociological Association’s 10th Conference, Geneva (September 2011).


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