When you talk about the public sphere in front of intellectuals, Jürgen Habermas's name is bound to come up. Habermas's 1962 study, "The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere," examines the creation, brief flourishing, and demise of a public sphere based in rational-critical debate and discussion. The feasibility of a true public sphere, which is inclusive of anyone who would participate, is for Habermas of utmost importance. Habermas follows a methodology similar to the one Michel Foucault takes in "Discipline and Punish," which analyzes the abolition of public displays of power, and the process by which the structures of power are inculcated in the individual from the 17th through the 20th centuries. Habermas analyzes historical, economic, and political conditions from classical antiquity through his own historical moment, tracing the circumstances in which the public sphere arises, how it functions, and ceases to function over time.
Habermas begins with a delineation of the terms 'public' and 'private,' orienting them philologically from their roots and meanings in classical antiquity. From here, he traces the adoption of the words and their synonyms into the European Middle Ages and the era of feudalism. Habermas says that in this period, the feudal lord and the monarch, for whom 'representative publicness' functioned as a display of power before their subjects, dominated the public. Authority figures embodied virtues and powers in a public fashion. Public representation of political and economic power continued, unabated until the Reformation, at which time, the privatization of religious faith signaled a separation between society and the state. Economically, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the spread of trade necessitated the spread of news from various locales. As news outside of the home became relevant to home economy, the private individual begins to take an interest in public events. Consolidation of 'national' financial administration and state-controlled taxation, along with the rise of print culture, facilitated the dissemination of news, initially in the form of governmental decrees, market conditions, and happenings at court. Through this, the actions of the authorities came under the scrutiny of a reading public.
The 18th century is the key moment for Habermas. In this period, the government, along with private individuals, made use of the press, for the first time, in persuasive appeal to a public made up of private people. The press now presented the public with information, with which they were to use reason and discussion to determine what was in the public's interest. Habermas emphasizes the theoretical parity that this brings about - the rise of the coffee houses and salons, in which merchants met with gentility and engaged in rational-critical debate over issues of public import. Stretching this into the realm of the franchise, Habermas is careful to point out the problematics of a situation in which actual decision-making was restricted to those with money and land, but stresses that the opportunity for anyone to acquire these prerequisites was, again, theoretically, open to all.
For a brief time during the 18th century, Habermas sees the flourishing of a public sphere, born out of a reading public, that began to interact with the processes of public policy, legally, and morally. The purpose of this public sphere, according to Habermas, is to eliminate the domination of authoritative power, and establishing a government that is actually representative of the public will and contingent upon public opinion. Unfortunately, in the 19th century, with the stratification of party politics, the proliferating press encouraged less rational-critical discussion. Increasingly, debate moved into parliamentary circles, and the public was asked only to approve of party measures, not participate in the formation of the rules that governed them. In the 20th century, along with the creation of the welfare-state, consolidation of moneyed interests, and the expansion of universal suffrage (ironically), the public sphere disintegrated even further. New media - radio, television, etc. - turned its addresses to the public into mere advertising. Even the illusion of a private people engaged, as a public, in matters of their own governance, was gone, and the public became vessels for mass media.
To recuperate a true participatory public sphere, Habermas takes a guarded approach. He indicates that some kind of elite could be formed. These private individuals would undertake the responsibility of rational-critical debate, determining the public interest. The general public, then, would give their approval or disapproval to the measures decided on by this elite. This is kind of a bleak outlook, and one I don't much care for myself. Of course, this is a horribly limited review of Habermas's "Structural Transformation". I haven't even noted the break he takes to outline the historical-philosophical evaluation and critique of the public sphere by Kant, Hegel, Marx, Mill, and Tocqueville. Nor did I note the extensive use Habermas makes of political and economic changes in his key nations - England, France, and Germany - and the contributions these make to the disintegration of the public sphere. At any rate, "Structural Transformation" is an exhaustive (and exhausting) study, as relevant now to the study of literature, economics, government, history, etc., especially of the last three centuries, as it ever was. Even though it is a pain to read, you'll be glad you finally read it. Think of it as theoretical medicine - it may not taste good, but in the long run, it's good for you.