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Legitimacy, Sovereignty and the Public Sphere

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Examining the concept of legitimacy on issues of public sphere participation and inclusivity

Questions about the character and workings of modern-day democracy abound. EU-funded research responds to the problematic with a new concept of legitimacy.


Has democracy been taken over by corporate interests and party bureaucracies that make decisions behind closed doors, leaving no room for public discussion? Does globalisation and the mix of cultures and religions alienate us?

What happened to the public sphere?

The public sphere is an imaginary space where information, ideas, and arguments about societal problems meet, and free deliberation and exchange of opinions can influence political action. It is an extremely important element of democratic states. Its history, however, is often portrayed as that of decline. “The public sphere has been criticised for being too passive and uncritical to balance the state, or for lacking inclusivity to legitimise the state,” states Andro Kitus, project researcher of the EU-funded Legitimacy project. Recent trends of globalisation and democratic development have accentuated these problems. Kitus adds: “We can currently observe how globalisation brings together different peoples, cultures and religions, highlighting the question of openness to and acceptance of differences. At the same time, we are facing the alienation of large sections of the population from a genuine involvement in democratic politics.”

Uncovering the roots of the decline of the public sphere

Theoretically as well as historically, the concept of the public sphere becomes necessary with the conceptual separation of state and society (or the people) – i.e. when society is not seen any more as the result of the rule of the sovereign power, but is perceived to stand against it as an ‘entity’ in its own right. At that moment, a mediating space of the public sphere becomes necessary. The project Legitimacy examined a possibility that the conceptual separation of society and state is not fully concluded, which must cause a certain structural depreciation of the idea of the public sphere, potentially leading to the problems with participation and inclusivity in it.

On achieving a more inclusive and participatory public sphere

By engaging with philosophers and theorists in post-structuralist schools of thought like Derrida, Laclau, Nancy, and others, the research project aimed at proving two ideas: Firstly, the traditional concept of legitimacy functions as an untheorised conceptual link between state and society that creates a hierarchical relationship between the two by giving priority to the state over society, or the people. Secondly, it is possible to devise a so-called ‘deconstructed concept’ of legitimacy that simultaneously maintains a relation as well as separation between state and society. This new ‘concept’ of legitimacy as ‘resigning’ is proposed to be the very condition of possibility for a more inclusive and participatory public sphere. Kitus continues to detail different aspects of this new ‘concept’ of legitimacy in his forthcoming book for Edinburgh University Press. He hopes that the new concept has the potential to change our ways in the political world and bring about a more inclusive, reflective and participatory public sphere. This research was undertaken with the support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie programme.


Legitimacy, public sphere, society, inclusivity, democracy, politics

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