Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Forest Management and Advisory Groups in Alberta: An Empirical Critique of an Emergent Public Sphere

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Forest Management and Advisory Groups in Alberta: An Empirical Critique of an Emergent Public Sphere

Article excerpt

Abstract: The normative ideal of a public sphere, as defined by Habermas, is the realm of social life where private people come together as a public to engage in debate over the general rules that govern our lives. This debate is grounded in procedural rationality where bracketing of social difference, inclusiveness, and the force of the better argument provide the basis for mutual understanding and decision making. These ideals are used to determine the extent to which 12 forest resource advisory groups in Alberta achieve the standards of a public sphere. Results from interview and survey research show that, minimally, public advisory groups qualify as a public sphere and are engaged in representative thinking. Control of these groups by forest companies, however, tends to de-politicize the deliberative process through information management and bureaucratic constraints. Some recommendations are made that may serve to re-energize civic debate over the future of our national forests.

Resume: L'ideal normatif d'une sphere publique, tel que defini par Hebermas, est domaine de la vie sociale ou les membres du public se rassemblent pour discuter des regles generales qui gouernent not vies. Ce debat est ancre dans one rationalite procedurale par laquelle la mise entre parenthese des differences sociale, I'inclusion et la force du meilleur argument forment la base d'une comprehension mutuelle Ct des prises de decisions. Ces criteres ideaux sont utilises pour determiner dans quelle mesure les 12 groupes consultatifs sur les ressources forestieres en Alberta verificent les criteres qui caracterisent une sphere publique. Des entrevues et des recherches sur le terrain montrent que les groupes consultatifs repondent a ces criteres et refletent une pensee representative seulement de maniere minimale. Le controle de ces groupes par les compagnies forestieres, capendant, tend a depolitiser le processus de deliberation par la gestion de I'information et les contraintes bureaucratiques. Cet article conti ent des recommandations qui pourront servir a raviver les debats civiques concernant l'avenir de nos forets nationales

Introduction

Under what conditions can private people come together and discuss issues of public concern where rational argument, not social status, form the basis of informed consensus? This is the question Jurgen Habermas addresses in his attempt to develop the historical category of the public sphere (Habermas, 1989). Based originally in 17th and 18th Century Europe, the public sphere was manifested most ideally in the coffee houses of England. In modem society, however, the public sphere is thought of not as a single realm of publicness and openness but more pragmatically as a variety of institutions and formal procedures for precipitating a public sphere. According to theorists such as McCarthy (1992), the boundaries and structures of the places where debates about issues of public concern take place are influenced by history and culture and are therefore fluid. They are negotiated by specific communities according to a set of common needs and values. Some recent articles describing the role of deliberative democracy in managing a range of Canadian-based development projects, while highlighting their successes and failures, suggest a critical role for these public spheres (Richardson et al, 1993; Ali, 1997; Mehta, 1997; McDaniels et al., 1999). Another example of these modern public spheres can be found in the forest resource advisory groups of Alberta. These groups appear to meet some of the basic criteria of a public sphere in that they purport to provide space for a representative sample of citizens to become informed about and debate the veracity of existing forest management practices.

In this paper, I undertake an empirically informed normative critique of these forest resource advisory groups as a public sphere. I begin by describing the category of a public sphere in historical context and then I delineate some of the contemporary revisions to Habermas's ideal that, arguably, renders it more flexible in confronting some of the complexities of modern society. …

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