Communication, Contextualization, and Cognition in the European Public Sphere
The permissive consensus is dead. People have powerfully claimed their entitlement to be informed, if not involved, in EU politics. Bluntly put, it’s as simple as that: If Europe doesn’t succeed in enabling people to follow and evaluate European politics, whenever they are asked to vote in a referendum, there will be a likely tendency to say no to the unknown. Still, when asked specifically, people come up with a lot of further information about Europe, they do voice quite specific concerns, views and fears. Yet three things do not happen. People do not feel ade quately informed, they don’t make (m)any connections between the bits of information they have, and they don’t voice their specific concerns. Public treatments of Europe remain shallow, or elitist. My question is why that is so, and my hunch is that it has to do with the contextuali zation of knowledge. In this view, knowing that there is a certain Euro pean policy is neither necessary nor sufficient to create that political opinion needed for participation in any potential European public sphere. What is lacking, but needed, to come to such a position is con text: What’s the point of a policy? What problems are addressed? Who supports it? What other options are there? Even at a most basic level, people do not have such cues, which they tend to have regarding national politics. There, people use plenty of cues (party, sympathy, raised objection, issue context etc.) to arrive at often remarkably consis tent opinions. Also, they tend to have some idea about whether, and how, they are affected by something. Thus, they contextualize information to draw inferences in relation to themselves, and their social environment. This then forms an opinion, which is both necessary and potentially sufficient to create, join and sustain an exchange of views with others. Also, this enables them to identify (dis)similar positions regarding the issue at hand. A debate can emerge, participation becomes feasible. Without the sketched prerequisites, however, this is largely impossible in Europe, because information is insufficiently contextualized. Contex tual cues are derived from media coverage, the more so where experi ential knowledge is next-to-nonexistent. Zeroing in on the heavily under researched perspective of the individual making sense of his or her political environment, my project seeks to understand what contextual information people draw from EU media coverage, and what they make of it in terms of political attitudes and participation. Drawing upon contextual approaches both to media content (framing theory), and cognition (schema theory), and putting the suspected connection into a larger social and political perspective, I thereby try to make a contri- bution both to the practitioners’ debate on inventing new paths of legiti macy for the EU, to the theoretical understanding of homo politicus, and to the renewed emphasis on structural effects within the research tradi tion of media effects.