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Asylum Politics, the Internet and the Public Sphere: UK Refugee Support Groups Online
Unformatted Document Text:  3 not towards success, but towards understanding. Anything less may contaminate the public sphere, and undermine its essential role in democratic politics. The links between the public sphere and models of deliberative democracy are evident. The definition cited by Habermas (1992, 446 and 1996, 305) is by Joshua Cohen (1989) and reads: “The notion of deliberative democracy is rooted in the intuitive ideal of a democratic association in which the justification of the terms and conditions of association proceeds through public argument and reasoning, among equal citizens”. In other words, models of deliberative democracy centre on the public provision of reasons and justifications of actions. For such deliberations to take place and for the outcome to be understanding or agreement, participants should be impartial, and prepared to change their initial positions or orientations 2 . Taking these into account, Habermas revised his definition of the public sphere, which now is taken to refer to “the concept denoting all those conditions of communication under which there can come into being a discursive formation of opinion and will on the part of a public composed of the citizens of a state” (1992, 446). A fourth criterion emerging here is that participants in deliberations should be prepared to change and shift from their original positions; in this respect, beliefs, attitudes, interpretations of interest, or identities, should only serve as initial orientations for deliberations. An assessment of the Internet/politics relationship in the light of the above should then examine the extent to which the Internet has the potential to fulfil the above criteria, that is, critical publicity addressed to a critical public, communicative action type of communications, and the willingness to shift one’s position. This apparently easy task, however, is confounded by at least two issues: first, it attributes a particular character, or perhaps nature or essence to the Internet, thereby both reifying it and essentialising it. A second problem however may emerge here, stemming from the difficulties of pinning down the ‘essence’ of the Internet; this refers to the question of how to deal with all these instances where the criteria are not met. In other words it is plausible that we encounter both instances where the criteria are met and where they are violated. What conclusions could we then reach vis-à-vis the contribution of the Internet to democratic politics? These problems are indeed faced by Gimmler (2001) whose overall positive evaluation of the Internet’s contribution to deliberative democracy appears to overlook its multiple characters and contradictory aspects, and to focus only on those instances where the criteria appear to be more or less met, such as the Minnesota E-Democracy project, and the Association for Progressive Communications, both of which offer several forums for deliberations, whilst overlooking all other types of Internet sites, such as shopping sites, sites existing primarily for advertisement and public relations, not to mention games sites, porn and so on. But such problems should not undermine any effort to gauge the Internet’s participation in democratic politics. The reconciliatory path followed here is one of localisation. This is related to, and indeed draws upon the literature on the ‘domestication’ of the media and the Internet in particular (e.g. van Zoonen 2002). Employing a more ‘traditional’ division concerning the mass media, we could analytically distinguish between ‘production’/use and ‘reception’/use; the current focus is placed on the former, since it logically and temporally precedes and circumscribes the contexts of reception/use. This focus may enable us to move beyond general assessments of the Internet, towards a more concrete and pragmatic understanding of its uses. Thus, by focusing on a particular political debate, that of asylum politics, we can pose questions concerning not ‘the Internet’, but Internet use, and not politics in general, but a concrete politics. By examining the Internet presence of a particular part of civil society, consisting of refugee support groups, it is possible to identify a range of Internet uses, as opposed to any vague notion of the Internet 3 in general. Moreover, by looking at a concrete political debate, and a given part of civil society in their online instantiations it is further possible to critically return to the theoretical accounts enriched by our empirical observations concerning the online conduct of (asylum) politics. This strategy is followed by empirically oriented work, such as O’Donnell (2001) and O’ Baioll

Authors: Siapera, Eugenia.
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not towards success, but towards understanding. Anything less may contaminate the public sphere, and
undermine its essential role in democratic politics.
The links between the public sphere and models of deliberative democracy are evident. The
definition cited by Habermas (1992, 446 and 1996, 305) is by Joshua Cohen (1989) and reads: “The
notion of deliberative democracy is rooted in the intuitive ideal of a democratic association in which the
justification of the terms and conditions of association proceeds through public argument and reasoning,
among equal citizens”. In other words, models of deliberative democracy centre on the public provision
of reasons and justifications of actions. For such deliberations to take place and for the outcome to be
understanding or agreement, participants should be impartial, and prepared to change their initial
positions or orientations
2
. Taking these into account, Habermas revised his definition of the public
sphere, which now is taken to refer to “the concept denoting all those conditions of communication
under which there can come into being a discursive formation of opinion and will on the part of a public
composed of the citizens of a state” (1992, 446). A fourth criterion emerging here is that participants in
deliberations should be prepared to change and shift from their original positions; in this respect, beliefs,
attitudes, interpretations of interest, or identities, should only serve as initial orientations for
deliberations.
An assessment of the Internet/politics relationship in the light of the above should then examine
the extent to which the Internet has the potential to fulfil the above criteria, that is, critical publicity
addressed to a critical public, communicative action type of communications, and the willingness to shift
one’s position. This apparently easy task, however, is confounded by at least two issues: first, it
attributes a particular character, or perhaps nature or essence to the Internet, thereby both reifying it
and essentialising it. A second problem however may emerge here, stemming from the difficulties of
pinning down the ‘essence’ of the Internet; this refers to the question of how to deal with all these
instances where the criteria are not met. In other words it is plausible that we encounter both instances
where the criteria are met and where they are violated. What conclusions could we then reach vis-à-vis
the contribution of the Internet to democratic politics? These problems are indeed faced by Gimmler
(2001) whose overall positive evaluation of the Internet’s contribution to deliberative democracy appears
to overlook its multiple characters and contradictory aspects, and to focus only on those instances
where the criteria appear to be more or less met, such as the Minnesota E-Democracy project, and the
Association for Progressive Communications, both of which offer several forums for deliberations, whilst
overlooking all other types of Internet sites, such as shopping sites, sites existing primarily for
advertisement and public relations, not to mention games sites, porn and so on.

But such problems should not undermine any effort to gauge the Internet’s participation in
democratic politics. The reconciliatory path followed here is one of localisation. This is related to, and
indeed draws upon the literature on the ‘domestication’ of the media and the Internet in particular (e.g.
van Zoonen 2002). Employing a more ‘traditional’ division concerning the mass media, we could
analytically distinguish between ‘production’/use and ‘reception’/use; the current focus is placed on the
former, since it logically and temporally precedes and circumscribes the contexts of reception/use. This
focus may enable us to move beyond general assessments of the Internet, towards a more concrete
and pragmatic understanding of its uses. Thus, by focusing on a particular political debate, that of
asylum politics, we can pose questions concerning not ‘the Internet’, but Internet use, and not politics in
general, but a concrete politics. By examining the Internet presence of a particular part of civil society,
consisting of refugee support groups, it is possible to identify a range of Internet uses, as opposed to
any vague notion of the Internet
3
in general. Moreover, by looking at a concrete political debate, and a
given part of civil society in their online instantiations it is further possible to critically return to the
theoretical accounts enriched by our empirical observations concerning the online conduct of (asylum)
politics. This strategy is followed by empirically oriented work, such as O’Donnell (2001) and O’ Baioll


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