An Introduction to Counterpublics

In our second blog post, we introduce the framework – Fraser’s (1997) subaltern counterpublics – which informs our upcoming ASHE symposium, Enacting Counterpublics in Support of Critical Qualitative Inquiry in Higher Education. We find the framework to be quite helpful in developing a course of action to address our frustrations with the absence of critical qualitative work in higher education journals and scholarly meetings. Attempting to move beyond critique of the post-positivist and constructivist methodological perspectives which dominate higher education scholarship, we turn to Faser’s subaltern counterpublics as a vehicle for organizing collective action.

The term subaltern counterpublic was conceptualized by Nancy Fraser (1997) as “parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs” (p. 81). Emanating from a critique of Jurgen Habermas’ articulation of a common public sphere predicated on consensus and the bracketing of difference (Laubach Wright, 2012), Fraser argued that in the “real world conditions of massive inequality ” (Fraser, 2009, p. 83, italics in original), Habermas’ call for subjugation of difference in service to the mythical common good perpetuates systems of domination and discrimination. The creation of subaltern counterpublics offers subordinated social groups a means of support and collective resistance. Fraser (1997) elaborates,

In stratified societies, subaltern counterpublics have a dual character.  On the one hand, they function as spaces of withdrawal and regroupment; on the other hand, they also function as bases and training grounds for agitational activities directed toward wider publics.  It is precisely in the dialectic between these two functions that their emancipatory potential resides.  (p. 82)

In this statement, Fraser eloquently articulates the dual aims of counterpublics, recognition and redistribution. Not only are subordinated dimensions of one’s personal identity (e.g., race and ethnicity, gender, nationality, ability, sexual orientation, etc.) respected as a main organizing principle (recognition), but counterpublics offer a space from which agitation and resistance against institutional and cultural hegemony is promoted and maintained (redistribution).

There are many recent examples of counterpublics ranging from global movements to local sites of resistance.  Globally, the Arab Spring uprising and the Occupy Movement can be understood as counterpublics.  On a more local scale, student protests or student organizations—be they formal or informal—that form around subordinated identities (e.g., an LGBTQ activist group) are examples of counterpublics in action.  We also see counterpublics within professional and scholarly associations such as ASHE’s Council for Ethnic Participation, AERA’s Special Interest Groups (SIGs), Knowledge Communities within NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and the Standing Committees and Commissions sponsored by ACPA: College Student Educators International.

We find Fraser’s notion of subaltern counterpublics to be a productive framework for advancing critical qualitative methodological perspectives within the higher education research community given our conceptualization of critical qualitative scholars as a subordinated group among those who study postsecondary policies, systems, institutions, and constituencies. Although prominent in interdisciplinary qualitative research conferences, handbooks, and journals (for example, the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, the Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research and journals such as Qualitative Inquiry and International Review of Qualitative Research), critical qualitative perspectives – those that seek to study issues of, race, gender, class, nation-states, globalization, democracy, etc., via empowering research processes such as participatory action research, photovoice, autoethnography – remain overshadowed by generic notions of qualitative research prominent within postpositivist and constructivist studies of higher education phenomenon and contexts (Pasque, Carducci, Kuntz, & Gildersleeve, 2012). The subordination of critical qualitative perspectives within higher education research is evident in the following review of higher education journal methodological content:

The 2010-2011 Editorial Report for the Review of Higher Education (Nora, 2011), the peer-reviewed journal of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, revealed that although 45% of manuscripts submitted used some sort of qualitative methodology, only 20% of articles accepted used qualitative methods…. Furthermore, in a review of three higher education journals considered by many to be the top tier of the field, the Journal of Higher Education, the Review of Higher Education and Research in Higher Education, Hutchinson and Lovell (2004) found that the majority of studies published utilized quantitative analysis (73.4%) and mixed methods (6.3%). Of the few qualitative studies published (20.3%), the majority were case study or generally “descriptive-qualitative.” Least often published was ethnography and action research, and critical methodologies were not significant enough to be coded in Hutchinson and Lovell’s study at all. (Pasque, Carducci, Kuntz, & Gildersleeve, 2012, p. 19)

Frustrated with the hegemonic methodological status quo within the higher education research community, we seek to draw upon Fraser’s (1997) notion of subaltern counterpublics in the creation of virtual (for example, this blog, our Twitter feed) and physical (e.g., ASHE symposium) spaces which recognize methodological differences and advocate for the redistribution of resources (e.g., inclusion in educational inquiry curricula and higher education research journals, provision of research funding, representation in peer review processes, etc.). Drawing inspiration from the examples of social and scholarly counterpublics described earlier in this post, the Qualitative Counterpublics in Higher Education project aims to foster collective action directed toward the articulation and enactment of methodological counter discourses which advance the empowering principles and practices of critical qualitative inquiry in higher education research.

We invite you to contribute to the establishment of this methodological counterpublic by sharing your reflections on this post in the comment section below. Feel free to respond to one or more of the reflective prompts, add additional thoughts, or pose your own question to the community.

  • What questions does this post raise for you?
  • Have you previously participated in or observed a subaltern counterpublic? What did this space or community look like? What was the nature of the collective action? What did you contribute or gain from involvement in this group?
  • What ideas does this post raise with respect to creating a qualitative methodological counterpublic within the higher education research community?
  • How might we establish a counterpublic that resists the normalizing effect of dominant research paradigms, policies, and practices?

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