Who and What are the Public?

Posted on April 11th, 2019 by Nikki Soo

The Crick Centre recently brought together scholars at the University of Sheffield to think about the idea of the public. In a discussion led by Dr Simon Rushton and Dr Lisa Stampnitzky at a workshop on 13 March 2019, we explored who constituted the public, who was included and excluded in this conception, and how contrasting views of the public are inter-related. Below our speakers have summarised their comments, and we have distilled a number of questions for further discussion and debate.

The idea of the public is both intuitive and yet highly contested. The etymology of the term suggests that ‘public’ describes something ‘open to general observation’, or something ‘concerning the public as a whole’. However, we all understand and study the public in very different ways, from nationally representative surveys, to studies of small, localised groups. Acknowledging these varying perspectives matters because it is common for references to ‘the public’ to be used when demonstrating the legitimacy of conflicting views. Politicians, commentators and activists therefore all evoke this idea, but are we clear about what we mean by the term? And what are the implications if we think about this idea in different ways?

Who and What are the Public? is the first in The Crick Centre’s series of think pieces on studying the public. Simon and Lisa‘s blogs show how different conceptions of the public can be, revealing the necessity for further reflection on the meaning of the term. Their writing highlights what is included or excluded when we talk about, think of, and research the public, demonstrating the value of thinking further about how we deploy this term. To this end, we pose some questions for further debate:

  • How as researchers do we (and should we) engage with the public?
  • How compatible are various forms of knowledge generated from different publics?
  • How do the views and ideas of any given public come to gain legitimacy?
  • Under what conditions can a view held by a minority of people become seen as the public view?
  • How much do non-public views matter in a democracy?

We hope this will inspire and encourage others to share their thoughts on the public, marking the beginning of conversation on this theme.

For any questions please contact Dr Rushton or Dr Stampnitzky.