Understanding Publics: Theories, Practices, Transformations

by Jacques Walter (Volume editor) Béatrice Fleury (Volume editor)
©2022 Edited Collection 328 Pages
Series: Convergences, Volume 106


In the analysis of communicational practices — whether in the form of
audience, audience, consumers, users, recipients, participants, spectators —
there is an imprecision of terms and occurrences that leaves room for
terminological and theoretical indecision. Hence the desire to clarify the
contours of the notion of public, while relying on empirical material, and to
examine its multiple transformations.
Thanks to a collective interdisciplinary program, researchers in information
and communication sciences and in language sciences from the Center for
Research on Mediations of the University of Lorraine have studied the
conditions of production and diffusion of information and knowledge, the
attitudes and behaviors of the public, the mechanisms of intercomprehension
or of communicational blockages and the weight of technological factors in mediations. These issues are addressed using methods that combine sociological surveys, targeted ethnographic studies,
experiments, and corpus analyses. They are applied to a variety of fi elds,
extending work that has already been done, but also shaking up certain
This book gathers a selection of signifi cant studies around four sections:
the concept of public space; the relationship to the digital; innovations in
the fi eld of health; the relationship to writing in the cultural sector.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of contents
  • Public(s): Apparently self-evident but actually not (Béatrice Fleury and Jacques Walter)
  • The recomposition of publics and the public sphere
  • What is the place of the public in the public sphere? (Loïc Ballarini)
  • How has the study of television audiences in the field of information and communication sciences evolved conceptually? (Celine Ségur)
  • Facebook: An information platform for young people and an audience vector for the media (Arnaud Mercier and Nathalie Pignard-Cheynel)
  • Publics and the digital sphere: Did you say “publics”?
  • Beyond use: The public as a concept to study ICTs (Pierre Morelli)
  • Neither autonomous users, nor public? On the subject of an online socio-technical space (Angeliki Monnier)
  • The matter of public in the serious use of gaming in an educational context (Stéphane Goria)
  • Publics, health and innovation
  • Consideration of the on-line circulation of health information in Africa: The reciprocal contributions made by applying anthropological and communicational approaches (Emmanuelle Simon and Brigitte Simonnot)
  • Communication strategy of websites of African clinics and donor centres: Who are their target publics? (Luc Massou)
  • Digital mediation available to a suffering public (Driss Ablali and Brigitte Wiederspiel)
  • Publics and the written word: Between system (dispositif) and space
  • Cultural mechanisms (dispositifs) and university writing workshop at the Metz Pompidou Centre. Mediation for and by the publics (Carole Bisenius-Penin and Laurent Le Bon)
  • Considering writer’s residencies from the viewpoint of their publics (Adeline Clerc-Florimond)
  • 10 entries to think out the publics
  • The audience (Céline Ségur)
  • Public debate (Arnaud Mercier)
  • Public sphere (Loïc Ballarini)
  • Public spirit (Marieke Stein)
  • Crowd (Béatrice Fleury)
  • Readership (Claude Poissenot)
  • Public opinion (Vincent Carlino and Clément Mabi)
  • Public (lexicon) (Michelle Lecolle)
  • Tarde (Gabriel) (Jean-Marie Privat)
  • Tönnies (Ferdinand) (Jacques Walter)
  • Authors
  • Series Index

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Public(s): Apparently self-evident but actually not

Béatrice Fleury and Jacques Walter

In 2011, as an extension of a program about devices (dispositifs) (Appel, Boulanger, Massou, 2010), the Research Center on Mediations, Communication, language, art, culture1 (Crem) – a multidisciplinary research unit at the University of Lorraine (France) – launched a program entitled “People making” with the organization of a conference with two sections – Looking for Popular Publics. People making; Looking for Popular Publics. Being People (Dakhlia, 2015; Dakhlia, Le Nozach, Ségur, 2016). During these events, it became clear that in the analysis of practices – whether those linked to the public, the audience, consumers, users, recipients, participants or spectators – a certain lack of precision in the choice of terms and occurrences can be noted which leads to terminological and theoretical indecisiveness. From this came the desire to accurately define the outlines of the notion of the public based on empirical material and to examine its multiple transformations.

Thus, from 2011 to 2016, researchers in the information and communication sciences (ICS) and language sciences studied the conditions for the production and dissemination of information and knowledge, the attitudes and behavior of publics, the mechanisms of mutual understanding or communicational blockages and the influence of technological factors in mediations. The subjects were dealt with using methods combining sociological surveys, targeted ethnographic studies, experiments and analyses of corpora. By extending work already done and while shaking up some of their results, these methods were applied to diverse field.. This work is divided into four sections of significant studies – the first is centered on the concept of the public sphere; the second explores relationships with the digital sphere; the third focuses on innovations in the field of health; and the fourth is based on relations with writing in the cultural sector.

The recomposition of publics and the public sphere

In the social sciences in France, particularly in the information and communication sciences (ICS), the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has been a central figure since the end of the 1970s concerning the question of the public. In 1978 a major work by this member of the Frankfurt School who is also Weberian in certain aspects: The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry ←11 | 12→into a Category of Bourgeois Society, was translated into French by Marc B. de Launay. Over the years, the book became the matrix for a sort of scientific doxa. On the one hand Jürgen Habermas considered “the bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves […] The medium of this political confrontation was peculiar and without historical precedent: people’s public use of their reason” (ibid.: 38) and on the other hand (ibid.: 104) he attributes major importance to reason, considering that “the opinion of the public that puts its reason to use was no longer just opinion; it did not arise from mere inclination but from private reflection upon public affairs and from their public discussion”. A kind of self-evident truth derives from this – there can be no public sphere without a public or publics. Nonetheless does the concept’s very strength perhaps obscure the necessary questions that need to be asked about publics which are considered from an eminently normative angle by the German philosopher who, in his Theory of Communicative Action (1981), amplified the movement which was after all already perceptible in the work of Ferdinand Tönnies (Walter, 2016), another German theoretician of public opinion? Loïc Ballarini tackles this problem.

Following a study of the critiques of Habermasian conceptualization which was progressively reified by the author himself (little room for the role of social classes, women, counter-publics, technologies, etc.), Loïc Ballarini formulates four ways of somehow refreshing the heuristic impact of the public sphere through greater consideration being given to publics. Firstly, in the wake of Arlette Farge’s work (1992) or works directed by Patrick Boucheron and Nicolas Offenstadt (2011), he argues in favor of going back into history before the century of the Lumières – reputed to be the golden age of the public sphere and a reference in the French academic imagination –, to highlight other ways of functioning than this one and even of asking whether the notion of Öffenlichkeit still means anything when traces of a dialog appear (Lachaud, 2013). Secondly, the researcher proposes to restore the prestige of the formation of so-called personal opinions. Thirdly, using the opposite to a media-centered approach and preferring to follow Hanna Arendt’s conception of action (Leméteil, 2017), his wish is for the conversational dimension to be taken into account. Fourthly, he calls for a sociologization of the concept which enables socialization processes to be assessed without the public(s) being reduced to collectives whose sole objective is to attain mutual understanding.

In these conditions, it is hardly surprising that in most of the studies of television publics carried out by ICS researchers, the Habermasian model only has limited use (see Bourdon, 2016). The sources of these works’ inspiration lie elsewhere even if there is broad agreement on the relevance of the Frankfurtian approach to television as a cultural industry. The most important French research took off in the 1960s, namely in the same era as Jürgen Habermas’s public sphere except that the supporting scientific tradition was very different. The sociologist Georges Friedmann, who then directed the Centre for the Study of Mass Communications (Cecmas) and was an important figure of the journal Communications in which ←12 | 13→leading articles about television were published, was close to Paul Lazarsfeld and the American empirical sociology of publics (Ségur, 2017). It is in such an environment that the ICS became institutionalized as an academic discipline in France in the 1970s (Boure, 2006, 2007). Researchers in this new discipline thus addressed the study of television publics. Céline Ségur shows how the terms “audience”, “reception”, “influence”, “public”, or even “viewer” are used to qualify research concerning “those who watch television”. It is a question of neighboring approaches which are complementary but differentiated. Progressively, starting from sociology works in English and in French that are close to these, a consensus definition has nevertheless been constituted, around the idea of “participating publics” who show themselves to actually be publics. A series of extremely productive studies have derived from this, both on the modalities of public participation in broadcasts such as the “Téléthon” (Walter, 2005) and on the modalities of appropriation by types of publics, such as those of works referred to as cult shows (for example, certain series). Obviously, these works are often founded on inquiries of sociological inspiration. With regard to investigations examining the public from the angle of cultural practices (Éthis, Malinas, Roth, 2017), these works can be combined with contributions from other research traditions such as anthropology, Cultural Studies or semiology.

Given this, it is not surprising to observe that studies linked to the television are not a favored subject among works on mediatized publics. More attention is given to publics of digital social networks given that the term public is not always selected to designate users of these networks. Moreover, the evolution of socio-technical devices (dispositifs) favors hybridization between the types of formats and the development of real strategies to deal with this question. Change is certainly occurring at a rapid pace which explains why observatories are required to detect and analyze ongoing mutations. This is the function of the Webjournalism Observatory that the Crem set up in 2009. As an extension of this work carried out by this Observatory and the Info-SDN research program (Circulation and sharing of information on digital social networks and transformations of journalism), Arnaud Mercier and Nathalie Pignard-Cheynel (2018) carried out a survey into how young “digital natives” who are extremely connected (18–24 year olds) use Facebook as a platform of information and how in only a few years it has become an audience vector for the media (Ségur, 2016). The authors pay particular attention to informational practices in the register of the analysis of cultural practices evoked above. One of the major results of their inquiry is the confirmation of a blurring of the frontiers between information and entertainment (humor and satirical information, buzz and bizarre stories, celebrity news). This phenomenon has also been observed with television (see “Has the way in which politics is portrayed on television changed?” Questions de communication, 24, 2013, directed by Pierre Leroux and Philippe Riutort). However their study of this public did not find a deterioration of information but instead the emergence of a “sub-population” of those who are informed by Facebook. They belong to an information consumption ecosystem (Marti, 2016) in which “infomediaries” play ←13 | 14→a major role in providing access to current affairs and where part of the public shares the information, which is also a means to express the value we give to it. This serves as a reminder that the public is also that of interpersonal communication (Habermas, 1981). All the elements characterizing this public are integrated by the algorithm even if this leads to a reconfiguration of the classical contents of information by media seeking an audience.

Publics and the digital sphere: Did you say “publics”?

Pierre Morelli asks a theoretical question, by examining whether using the notion of the “public” to study the reception of information and communication technologies (ICT) is advisable or not. He takes the evidence that the digital sphere is a common denominator in all fields of social life as a starting point to retrace the high points of scientific research into that sphere which led researchers to cross-examine the reception of information and communication techniques with the notion of the public. Thus, Pierre Morelli explains that research has gradually dispensed with the idea of consumption in favor of that of use to arrive at the categories of the public(s) and/or communities (Millerand, 1999; Jouët, 2000; Proulx, 2005, etc.). In doing so, researchers have nonetheless taken the necessary theoretical and methodological precautions related to the specificity of the formats concerned.

To be more precise, for reasons linked to transformations of the technological environment (multimedia, interactivity, generalization of the internet), at the end of the 1980s and during the 1990s, it became obvious that the relationship between subjects and these tools was not only a function of consumption but also required creative dispositions. This has been demonstrated by numerous empirical studies (Millerand, 1999). By highlighting the role played by subjects’ actions in the reception process (Latour, 1991), these studies confirmed previously established facts (for example, the findings of studies of television) which had previously been the subject of widespread debate and controversy. For all that, how should we understand the idea that users who are increasingly led to individualize their ICT practices, can be studied with regard to the group into which they inserted themselves?

We are now faced with a paradigm change that merits reflection. In all cases, the idea of the public cannot be transposed from one format to another without incorporating adjustments or additions. The notion of the public is already only referred to in the plural especially when it applied to ICTs. Additionally, the vocabulary traditionally used (such as audience or broadcast) when dealing with television publics requires several adjustments because of the heterogeneity of web practices both in terms of content and of temporalities. Finally, relationships between publics and groups are systematically highlighted particularly when social networks are involved and when media and digital technology uses are not envisaged separately from each other. In scientific terms, the consequences of this evolution are that the public and uses are crossed and hybridize ineluctably ←14 | 15→(Patriarche, 2008). Notions of public and user thus become mingled and “comprise henceforth the two sides of a complex reality that, separately, [they would not] be able to grasp any longer”.

A similar form of hybridization is a central concept in Angeliki Monnier’s article about the use of a socio-technical online space – LinkedIn – concerning a group of Greek expatriates. This researcher takes the notion of use as a starting point to discuss the notion of the public which is coherent with Pierre Morelli’s findings. She shows how a collective of individuals is formed which interacts in a system (dispositif) whose function is to put professionals in contact with each other and demonstrates the shift that occurs between the site’s technical aims and the use that the users make of it in the prism of factors that associate inventiveness and anchoring in a collective. Effectively, because of their status as expatriates, these users turn LinkedIn into a space for cultural and identity exchanges rather than professional ones.

In keeping with this theoretical framework, Angeliki Monnier lists important research in this area (both from Europe and North America), (Rogers, 1962; Quéré, 2003; Jauréguiberry, Proulx, 2011; Jouët, 2011; Voirol, 2011; Morelli, 2016; etc.) and presents the results of a field inquiry notably based on the analysis of discursive sequences extracted from the platform. She links these sequences with the identities of those who converse in the LinkedIn group (their practices and profiles) to show the influence of the technical device (dispositif) on the nature of exchanges and the modalities of the participation of the members of the group. In this way, she extends studies carried out previously, several of which had demonstrated the asynchronous character of discussions on forums and the presence of several open threads thanks to archiving exchanged contents for a certain period. However, while a form of user autonomy emerges from her analysis, this is precisely because the platform allows the creation of the collectives which in this way form publics motivated by common preoccupations and interests. This is the case of the Greeks Abroad collective which brings together Greek expatriates whom the researcher explains are for example attached to “speaking of Greece” according to modalities which show interaction phenomena within the group.

Nonetheless technique remains a structuring factor in discussions even if autonomy exists and the members of this public circumvent the platform’s primary use to adjust it to their own needs. This finding was confirmed by the results of a similar study carried out by the same researcher a year later. On this second work, Angeliki Monnier once again showed the influence of technical characteristics upon exchanges using different means. Here, the functionalities of Web 2.0 were found to affect how “internet users [implicate] themselves more and more easily in the rapid and instantaneous expression of their “preferences” or “affinities”, often even without any additional investment in the form of a written comment”. Thus, we may note that use of the platform and even its circumvention by the Greeks Abroad collective do not free this public from influence by the aims and potentialities of the device (dispositif).←15 | 16→

The question of the device (dispositif) is also discussed in Stéphane Goria’s contribution but his point of view differs from the two described just above. Effectively, this researcher focuses on a teaching device thus attributing a specific place to the question of the public. Stéphane Goria’s chosen subject is a group of pedagogical sequences for computing students concerning knowledge of fundamental elements of verbal and nonverbal communication and he deals with the public on two different levels. The public is the recipient of the teaching delivered but its members are also likely to be contacted by the future professionals once they have received their diplomas.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2023 (April)
Bruxelles, Berlin, Bern, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 328 pp., 13 fig. col., 25 fig. b/w, 19 tables.

Biographical notes

Jacques Walter (Volume editor) Béatrice Fleury (Volume editor)

Béatrice Fleury est professeure des universités et membre du Centre de recherche sur les médiations de l’université de Lorraine. Jacques Walter est professeur des universités émérite et membre du Centre de recherche sur les médiations de l’université de Lorraine. Ils codirigent la revue Questions de communication.


Title: Understanding Publics: Theories, Practices, Transformations