June 23, 2013, by Brigitte Nerlich

Public, publics and citizen: What do these words mean?

Sciencewise has published a paper ‘Which Publics? When?’  by my Making Science Public colleagues Alison Mohr, Sujatha Raman and Beverley Gibbs, which has already provoked some blog responses. One blog by Sciencewise Executive Chair Roland Jackson has given it a very positive reception but mentions “a nagging feeling that this word ‘public’ is part of the problem”. Nick Mahony, on his Creating Public website points out that: “There now seems to be an increasingly lively conversation taking place across science, the social sciences and the arts and humanities fields about what is meant by ‘the public’ in public engagement.” This made me think about the meaning of words like public, publics and citizen, three concepts central to the Sciencewise paper.

Finding meanings

When trying to understand the meaning of difficult words and concepts I usually delve int the Oxford English Dictionary and ferret around in the word’s semantic history. In this case I won’t do that, as the concepts and words are not difficult as such and I just want to know how they are used in ordinary language. As Ludwig Wittgenstein said, to understand the meaning of a word, you have to understand its use in a language. And as John Rupert Firth said: “You shall know a word by the company it keeps” (Firth, J. R. 1957:11)

The following investigation of the current meanings of these words is, I have, to confess, a very quick and dirty one and needs rather more thorough and methodologically sound research in the future. I would have liked to use the Bank of English, but have currently no access to this database. So instead I am using the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). This is “the largest freely-available corpus of English, and the only large and balanced corpus of American English.” The corpus contains more than 450 million words of text and is equally divided among spoken, fiction, popular magazines, newspapers, and academic texts. It includes 20 million words each year from 1990-2012 and the corpus is also updated regularly (the most recent texts are from Summer 2012). I should point out that I am not yet very familiar with the use of this database, so the results I report are rather provisional.

Publics, public and citizen

An overall search for the words public, publics and citizen reveals that the word public is by far the most frequently used word in this corpus and the word publics the least frequently used one, mainly restricted to academic texts. Citizen has a position in between, but its frequency seems to be slightly decreasing since 1990 when the corpus starts.

The corpus allows you to do a search using the Key Word in Context or KWIC function which then lists uses of the word you search for in context. (Disregard the colouring in the following examples).  Searching for the word publics reveals that this word is used in a variety of syntactic constructions. Here are some examples, one even refers to counterpublics [if you click on the snippet below it gets bigger – these snippets are only a few examples out of a list of 100 random hits arranged in alphabetical order]:



A KWIC search for public reveals a very different and much more uniform pattern, with public being used mostly as an adjective interacting with the meaning of a long list of nouns. Some of these nouns denote activities, such as debate in public debate or outreach in public outreach. One can even find public dialogue in the corpus. However, most adjective-noun combinations highlight institutional issues like public health, public schools, public policy, public television, public sphere and so on. Phrases like in the public or in public seem to be relatively rare. Overall, the word seems to have (what one may call) a rather passive semantic signature.



The KWIC search for citizen looks very different again. Already the first few entries make clear that this is a much more active word, as one can find the word action being used, as well as advocacy. Other phrasal compounds or combinations of two words with citizen as the first word are army, education, group, input, involvement, participation, protest and, of course, science, but also volunteers and watch dog, for example. One can also find verbs being used, such as accuse, express, move, show and so on. Overall, citizen has a really  active semantic signature, which contrasts strongly with the meaning of public and publics.



Roland Jackson had a nagging feeling that there was something about the word public that might cause problems when trying to write about public engagement, public dialogue and, I made add, ‘making science public’. As we have seen, publics is a word that’s rarely used in common language and confined mainly to academic use. Public is quite a common word, but is mainly used in contexts where ‘engagement’ is not really an issue, such as public affairs, public benefits, public crimes, public figures, public land, public morale, public pressure, public schools, public servants, public works and so on. There are of course attestations of public dialogue, outreach, and participation, but these more active uses are few and far between. Citizen, by contrast, has a quite straightforward active meaning (one almost starts humming ‘aux armes, citoyens‘ when reading the word) and goes, in a way, much better with participation. So, whereas publics might have to be coaxed into existence, citizens seem to be already there and ready to do their stuff, so to speak.

Added 25 June, 2013: Interesting post by @the_zooniverse on Putting the citizen in citizen science

Image: Piazza della Signoria wikimedia commons


Posted in publics