Recentering power: conceptualizing counterpublics and defensive publics

Sarah J Jackson, Daniel Kreiss

Communication Theory

(In)Equity, Political Processes

Communication Studies, Political Communication, Theory

(research summary by Katherine Furl)

What do researchers lose by failing to consider power when studying digital networks and right-wing publics? In “Recentering power: conceptualizing counterpublics and defensive publics,” Sarah J. Jackson and Daniel Kreiss argue that without considering the ways many right-wing publics defend longstanding systems of inequality, we fail to understand the impact these right-wing publics have on democracy at large—and we minimize the vital work of counterpublics that truly challenge unequal systems.

Jackson and Kreiss trace how communications scholars use the concept of “counterpublics” to see how its meaning has become muddled over time. In contrast to an imagined singular public sphere with shared ideals, counterpublics emerge to address social, economic, and political inequalities and hold values shaped by these unequal systems of power. Counterpublics vary widely, but whether they tackle systemic racism, sexism, heteronormativity, colonialism and imperialism, or other inequalities, they all serve to challenge dominant values aligned with and upheld by groups in power.

But as studies of digital networks focus on larger datasets and ever-more sophisticated computational methods, Jackson and Kreiss find that many new studies apply the term to any publics seen as “alternative” and deviating from the mainstream, even when they promote values aligned with prevailing systems of power (as is the case for right-wing groups advocating white supremacy through overt racism, for example.)  As they put it: “what some scholars take to be right-wing ‘counterpublics’ are often instead a backlash in the defense of established social, racial, and political orders.”

Failing to recognize important differences between counterpublics that challenge systems of power and right-wing publics that defend those systems because both use “alternative” means runs run the risk of “legitimizing anti-democratic movements at best, or furthering them at worst.”

In response, they recommend three practices that apply to many studies of social movements:

  1. In studying publics, counterpublics, and defensive publics, remember their historical, national, and international contexts; we can’t understand relationships between these groups without also understanding how they emerged.
  2. Consider differences within and between groups and be mindful of who is left out of which conversations and how different groups must strategize to have their voices heard.
  3. Be mindful of how institutions, resources, and unequal access amplify or silence counterpublics challenging dominant systems and the inequalities they uphold.

These analyses keeping power at the center of research and ensures that we better understand the important distinction between counterpublics challenging the status quo, defensive publics upholding longstanding systems of inequality, and the impact of both on democracy as a whole.