Locating the public in research and practice

Lynn A. Staeheli & Don Mitchell

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Staeheli, L. A. & Mitchell, D. (1). Locating the public in research and practice. Progress in Human Geography, 31(6), 792–811. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0309132507083509

community , democracy , public , public space , publicity

Discussions of public space and the public have become complicated in recent years. This article seeks to bring some clarity to these discussions by examining where participants in public space debates ‘locate’ the public – those spheres or realms where participants believe a public is constituted and where public interest is found. To identify the ways in which public space is conceptualized and located, we analyze the literature on public space, interviews with scholars actively involved in public space research, and interviews with participants in a series of public space controversies in the USA. We find that differing definitions of ‘the public’ that underlie these conceptualizations are rooted in strongly held political orientations and normative visions of democracy. But we also find that there is considerable overlap in how participants frame their understandings of publicity, and thus there is a basis for more thorough debate and even transformation of policy and practice.

Main finding
The authors found that a consensus on the conceptualization of public was not just impossible, but it wasn’t desirable either. The data showed that notions of the public were located differently in the different discoursed outline by Weintraub - liberal-economistic, republican-virtue, sociability, and Marxist-feminist. Through this they discovered that different types of publics, such as a liberal-economistic types would produce geographically different kinds of space. There was difference found in how geographers wrote and spoke about public space, the latter of which had far less discussion on the physical aspects of and contestation within public space. Defining public space in terms of ownership was the most common conception among all those interviewed. The critical finding here is that other normative framings of public space exist beyond the academy. This matters because it influences how key actors intervene and formulate goals around urban public space which often cause conflict.

Description of method used in the article
Methods included an extensive review of academic literature on the public, publicity, and public space in the domain of anglophone geography between 1945 and 1998 providing 218 articles/book/chapters. These writing were analyzed in terms of how they defined public space, theories, methods and data used, and empirical foci. Twenty-five authors of the literature had PhDs and were in the U.S. during the interview sessions and were interviewed. Additionally, those involved in controversies over public space (eg. activists, government officials, business owners found in newspapers and through snowball strategies)were interviewed from five different cities known for public space contestation. To analyze the responses, from the interviews, and conceptions of public space identified in the literature review, the authors used the taxonomy of Jeffrey Weintraub to evaluate the discourse.

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Organising categories

Other or N/A
Interviews Meta-analysis
Physical types
Geographic locations