Article Alert-Becoming Pure: The Civil Sphere, Media Practices and Constructing Civil Purification

Cultural Sociology has just published “Becoming Pure: The Civil Sphere, Media Practices and Constructing Civil Purification” by Stephen F. Ostertag of Tulane University. In his conclusion, he provides a synopsis of his findings and his analytical use of purity:

“I found that people compare themselves with and against each other regarding values and norms associated with news and responsible citizenship, and that these comparisons have implications for their sense of belonging within civil society. This process involves creating a mental heuristic in the form of a vague, generalized public that possesses qualities associated with the polluting ends of the binary culture codes. Using nonfiction news as the topic of consideration, some people imagine a public-at-large that is mostly unmotivated, gullible and ignorant of the important news of the day. As a heuristic device, this imagined public serves as a resource against which people compare themselves and express their disapproval, outrage and anger. By doing so, they demonstrate to themselves and to others that they are not like this imagined public, but instead have internalized the value system associated with the pure ends of the binary cultural codes. These demonstrations of discontent provide an opportunity for people to enhance their sense of self and see themselves as legitimate members of civil society. They ‘become’ pure.”

Thus, purity and purification are not the pivotal points of analysis, but the name given to the type of identity work a binary between the ignorant public and the knowledgeable private citizen accomplishes. Ostertag doesn’t use Douglas or any other work on purity, but his work may dovetail with Douglas’ assertion that purity and pollution beliefs are founded on visions of a good society.


Abstract: “This paper integrates the US civil sphere, European media as practice, and social psychological literatures to demonstrate how people construct their own civil purity and become pure. It uses in-depth interview data to uncover a language of civil purity that people draw on to construct their own belonging in civil society. It argues that some people create an imagined public-at-large that they infuse with polluting qualities associated with the binary cultural codes of civil society. This image functions as a mental heuristic, against which people compare themselves and see themselves as ‘better than’ on a number of moral values associated with civil society. This process of constructing civil purity is linked to one of the civil sphere’s two fundamental social institutions, namely communication. As a form of nonfiction media with record lows in trust and credibility, the mainstream news serves as a social topic through which we can witness the construction of civil purity.”