Contesting Publics: Feminism, Activism, Ethnography (Anthropology, Culture and Society)

Contesting Publics: Feminism, Activism, Ethnography (Anthropology, Culture and Society)

by Lynne Phillips

ISBN: 9780745332840

Publisher Pluto Press

Published in Calendars/Women's Interest

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Sample Chapter


Towards an Ethnography of Publics

Sally Cole and Lynne Phillips

What is meant by the term 'public'? What are 'publics'? Who do they include (and exclude)? How should we engage them? In this introductory chapter, we explore the meaning of public in light of three conceptual frames: the public as a sphere; the public as a scale; and the public as a cultural space. We then highlight the extent to which the market and the state may reinscribe publics, and we document the various ways in which publics are being created, governed and contested in Latin America and beyond.

We undertake this review to develop theoretical clarity on publics. In a time of constant talk of the impact of privatization on the public good, appropriate public behaviour and assaults on the public domain, the meaning of the public is often ambiguous and confusing. Our approach in Contesting Publics: Feminism, Activism, Ethnography is to engage in what Ratna Kapur (2012) calls 'space-clearing' – analysis that seeks to open up space for new and 'eclectic' political possibilities. In this book, we clear analytical space by examining publics, and what we call 'publics-in-formation', as contests over meaning. Our hope is that this analytical frame may enable – may bring to light – new openings, new meanings, new political possibilities for citizen-scholars, students and activists to reflect on and initiate social change.

In this chapter we make three arguments. First, we propose that the public be recognized as a shifting domain of power that reflects and produces inequalities and that these are inequalities in which social scientists are also embedded. Second, we claim that the public is contingent on the private and that this co-constitutive relationship shifts and is critical to analyse in context. We use the term 'public: private' (Wright 2010) to reflect that contingent relationship. Third, we argue and illustrate in this volume that investigating publics ethnographically – as sites for theorizing action – both brings new, emergent and overlooked publics into view and offers the opportunity to re-examine conventional publics through new lenses. Our purpose here is to explore publics in ways that illustrate their critical importance for equality projects that may contribute to the development of alternative feminist visions for the future.


What is a public and what are its parameters? This may seem like an old question. For example, early feminist debates focused on the public but largely defined it negatively, as a space where politics, economics and men dominate – that Is, as all that is not private, familial or domestic (Fraser 1990). This view, however, does not help us to address the persistent reformulation and the varied ways in which public: private relations are reworked, recruited and deployed over time and space. And this is our concern in Contesting Publics.

The Public Sphere

Critical debates in democratic theory offer a useful starting point to theorize publics. In this literature, the public historically has been seen in its relationship to the nation-state through Jürgen Habermas's concept of the public sphere. The public sphere, as Habermas sees it, is the political space within which citizens of liberal nations deliberate issues of 'common concern' (1989 [1962]: 36). In the eighteenth century, with the shift in authority of the church and the state in Western Europe, the public sphere was viewed as essential for challenging and monitoring the monopoly of these authorities over the interpretation of 'matters of concern'. The idea of the public sphere coincided historically with the emergence of independent spaces of communication, such as newspapers and coffee houses – and a reading public – which Habermas views as essential for informed public debate. For Habermas, the public sphere today has essentially been annihilated, developing instead – with the dramatic expansion of capitalism and corporate media – 'into an arena infiltrated by power' (1992: 437).

Habermas's conception of the public sphere as a unitary forum for reasoned deliberation has fuelled debate within democratic theory. Critics argue that if Habermas's public sphere exists somewhere, it is the product of an elite prerogative to exclude certain populations and points of view (see Benhabib, Eley, Fraser, Ryan and Warner in Calhoun 1992). Informed also by feminist and queer perspectives, critique has generated interest in exploring the existence of not just one public but multiple publics competing for a hearing on uneven ground that is always 'infiltrated by power'.

In order to construct the public sphere as unitary, Habermas 'brackets' inequalities and private matters (Fraser 1990; Warner 2002). This creates exclusions. Those excluded – the politically, economically and sexually disenfranchised – may form their own counterpublics or what John Guidry (2003) calls 'popular publics'. These are alternative publics that work to redraw the boundaries of dominant public spheres, a perspective that highlights the potential dynamic interplay among popular or alternative publics. For example, Nancy Fraser (1990) explains how – through the sustained efforts of feminist movements – issues can move out of what she calls a 'subaltern counterpublic' to become a recognized public matter of concern, as has happened in the case of the issue of violence against women. But, clearly, matters of concern can also travel in the reverse direction, as when we hear public appeals to sanctify the nuclear family – leading Wendy Brown (2009) and others to refer to the 'holy' family.

Thus, we cannot assume in advance that counterpublics denote particular political positions. The extent to which counterpublics are a kind of mirror image of the dominant public sphere or have 'their own dynamics of emergence and peculiar forms of internal life' (Eley 1992: 304) is a matter for ethnographic investigation. Moreover, some spaces blur the boundaries between the two, as is the case for what Susan Dewey (2009) calls the 'parallel public sphere'. Dewey analyses the national advice column in a women's magazine in India. She argues that, when a dominant, masculinist public sphere views conjugal abuse as 'domestic' – as 'private' – and presents no options for women to present grievances, a parallel public sphere – such as the national advice column – assists individual women to navigate the power which shapes their lives (2009: 137). Such a parallel public does not threaten to change the dominant public sphere; indeed, as long as women seek individual solutions to their grievances, in some ways it permits the reproduction and maintenance of the dominant public. Nonetheless, this parallel public should not be overlooked as a critical site for public discussion about female sexuality and violence against women. As Kapur (2012), writing on the Pink Chaddis (panties) campaign in India reminds us, there is always the possibility that alternative publics are in the making (see also Enke 2007).

Thus, to conceive of the public as a uniform, stable, politically consensual 'sphere' is not only theoretically inadequate but also politically misleading. Theorizing the public as a dynamic domain of power requires taking into account the inequalities that underlie any construction of a public consensus or a public good. In Contesting Publics the reader will find this critical position evident in the ways the ethnographic chapters of this volume engage with notions of the public. It is a position that demands reflexivity on the part of researchers about their own location within dynamic and conflicting publics, and how that location complicates a public engagement or sensibility. This critical perspective challenges the idea that the public is somehow 'out there' – a bounded object of study with a discernible point of entry by a neutral observer.

Scales of the Public

The idea of multiple publics, counterpublics, popular publics or parallel publics sets the stage for recognizing scales of publics and for de-linking publics from the nation-state (as Habermas saw it), a nation-state that has in any case been considerably realigned in the current phase of globalization. Transnational processes including social media have made it possible to create new border-crossing publics – such as the alter-globalization movements, the 'Arab Spring' or the 'Occupy' movements – often with dramatic political effects. For many scholars, the new transnational spaces produced through the intensification of international migration and the rapid spread of electronic communication systems, require a reappraisal of the public sphere if it is, as Fraser (2007: 24) puts it, to 'keep faith with its original promise to contribute to struggles for emancipation' (see also Lara 2003; McLaughlin 2004). It has not taken long at all for the concept of 'transnational publics' to be explored for its political potential. The related literature on transnational feminism represents heterogeneous and divergent points of view (see, for example, Dufour et al. 2010; Eschle 2001; Ferree and Tripp 2006; Grewal 2005; Grewal and Kaplan 1994; Hawkesworth 2006; Hertel 2006; Moghadam 2005; Thayer 2010).

It is now well documented that the global changes associated with transnationalism have permitted feminisms to travel – to translate and to be translated – in new ways, horizontally and vertically (Davis 2007; Gal 2003; Phillips and Cole 2009; Walby 2002). This literature clarifies that, while feminism is by no means only a movement from the 'north' (there are indeed many feminisms), transnational feminisms remain fraught with contradictions. Moreover, new transnational public spaces are not celebratory for everyone. Nicole Doerr (2007), in a study of deliberative decision-making in the transnational space of the European Social Forum, cautions that the development of what activist organizers called 'another public sphere' might have negative consequences for some women. For example, immigrant women may lack financial resources or women from Eastern European countries ('peripheral Europe') may encounter border and visa restrictions that prevent their participation (see also Bickham Mendez 2008).

A focus on scale raises questions about the interface of feminisms and a transnational public:private. Has the emergence of transnational spaces created new publics at the expense of privatizing some matters as 'personal' problems? When is it seen by women to be advantageous to 'jump scale' – to move from engagement with their local community to the transnational context (or vice versa) – and when is it not? How does the realignment of Latin America – with its new focus on regional integration and nation-based democratic experiments, on the one hand, and its extraterritorial resonance around the world, on the other – complicate the terrain of a transnational public sphere?

Some scholars have argued that, with the overwhelming fluidity of ideas and practices associated with emergence of the scales of the transnational and the global, the distinction between public and private should 'be dispensed with since nothing much of contemporary social life remains on one side or other of the divide' (Sheller and Urry 2003: 122). Our observation – as the research presented in Contesting Publics documents – is that, despite (or perhaps because of) cultural flows, on the one hand, and the privatization of public space, on the other hand, the idea of the private (and the public) still stands strong in both Latin American and North American imaginaries. Only by ignoring the long-standing feminist literature on the topic can one fail to appreciate that the distinction between the public and private has always been a construction of power. Dismissing this power only reinforces the notion that poverty, race, sexual orientation, reproductive health, care-giving and violence are secondary 'social' issues rather than public sites for political work.

The chapters in Contesting Publics illustrate the significance of scale for understanding how feminisms shape publics and how publics shape feminisms. In chapter 2, the scale of the household offers fresh insights into the changing dynamics of the relations between the state and poor women's activism in Brazil. In chapter 3, we see how a contested transnational–regional public – concerned to take on sex tourism – excludes the points of view of the women (known as garotas de programa) involved. Chapter 4 shows how a constitutional project to build a nation in the current transnational context permits new inclusions of ideas and people but also produces new ways to marginalize. The scale of transnationalism is also central to the analysis of anarchist politics in chapter 5, yet the power that male activists can wield in this context helps to keep the private apolitical. In the testimonies of activists, Mariza, Susana, Luísa and Cecilia, we hear how decisions about the scale of political engagement pose constant, though varied, dilemmas for feminists in Latin America. Precisely how transnationalism may buoy, realign or even challenge women's struggles to create alternative, 'equality-building' (Brown 2006: 88–89) publics is shown to be a significant ethnographic question.

Publics as Cultural Spaces

Publics, then, are political spaces with unwritten rules about who is included and who is not, and why. Being accepted as a member may be viewed as entailing a kind of 'civilizing process' (Elias 1978), where bodily comportment and speech – what Pierre Bourdieu calls habitus – are subject to micro-surveillance practices that determine who is heard and seen in public and who can make decisions on behalf of others. Publics, in this sense, are cultural spaces.

John Guidry, in his analysis of the strategies of activists in 'popular' neighbourhoods in Belém, Brazil, describes how they 'struggle to be seen'. Pressing the government for basic services such as garbage collection, drinking water, electricity and education, activists told Guidry that it is the 'educated' and those who 'know how to speak' (2003: 497) who engage most successfully with the public sphere. Guidry's work is part of a larger literature on groups that dispute the way their concerns are represented in the dominant public sphere (de la Dehesa 2007, 2010; Klein 2002).

Cultural exclusions can occur even in venues such as the World Social Forum (WSF) that are explicitly formed to bring together diverse concerns and voices in an alternative public. Michal Osterweil (2004) reflects on criticisms that the WSF excluded many voices and points of view, despite its rhetoric of creating 'another world'. Osterweil recognizes the difficulty of 'being seen' in this counterpublic but argues that, rather than using such criticisms to dismiss the WSF, they should be understood productively, as part of the struggle to reconstitute the political in everyday life. Her argument is a useful reminder that power is confronted culturally in the 'micro-political and quotidian elements' (2004: 185) of publics – even those constructed as oppositional.

Describing feminism as a 'revolution in habits and culture', Maria Pia Lara (1998) analyses the productive relationship between feminism and the public sphere. She elaborates what she calls emancipatory narratives – 'communicative tools that provide new meanings and contest earlier ones' (1998: 4) – proposing that 'women's success in attaining recognition has been intimately linked with how they have drawn a new meaning of the public' (1998: 7). Lara argues that feminism's emancipatory narratives 'have reordered understandings of what the public sphere is, by casting doubt on previous views of the reasons for cultural, social and political marginalisation' (1998: 3). That is, feminism's success in de-naturalizing women's position has changed the terms of debate in the public sphere. Lara reveals how feminist storytelling in publics is cultural and political and has the power to effect change; Cole employs this approach to analyse the public work of Brazilian women's personal narratives in chapter 2 of this volume.

James Holston (2008), writing on the challenges to 'civility' posed by 'insurgent citizens' in São Paulo's favelas, also analyses the cultural dimensions of publics. He describes how national myths of inclusion in Brazil, such as Carnaval and the Lusotropicalist idea of 'racial democracy', work to maintain entrenched class relations and their accompanying ideas of civility. In the context of such powerful national discourses, to contest publics is often constructed as 'uncivil'. In the new Brazil, for example, the discomfort of having to take the same elevator as your domestic help – in the private space of your own apartment building – is a contradiction in democratizing publics that cannot be ignored (Holston 2008). Such elite discomfort was also expressed in Ecuador when the Constitutional Assembly was restructured to include indigenous, afro-descendant and female voices (see Phillips, chapter 4 this volume); for some, this transformation was a sign of being led by the 'ignorant' or by 'people who don't matter' (gente que no pesa). These examples of how publics are the products of quotidian judgements – often reserved for expression in private – indicate how difficult, and essential, it is to re-work the cultural meanings of publics.

Excerpted from "Contesting Publics: Feminism, Activism, Ethnography (Anthropology, Culture and Society)" by Lynne Phillips. Copyright © 2013 by Lynne Phillips. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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