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Public and private as a topic of a multidisciplinary research

public and private as a topic of multidisciplinary research

The relationship between public and private reflects the state of politics, society, and culture. We can examine it today and throughout the course of history. Hannah Arendt, Hans Paul Bahrdt, Jürgen Habermas, and Richard Sennett place the beginnings of the polarity between public and private in various different epochs, and also define its nature differently. It is therefore all the more interesting to reflect on this polarity from the viewpoint of philosophy, sociology, cultural anthropology, art history, architecture, and literature.

The project is part of “Strategy AV21” within the framework of the research programme “Europe and the State: between Barbarism and Civilisation”. The institutes of the Czech Academy of Sciences involved in the project are the Institute of Art History (the coordinating institution), the Institute of Philosophy, the Institute of Sociology, the Institute of Ethnology, and the Institute of Czech Literature.

IN THE FIELD OF ART HISTORY, the theme of public and private is most obviously applicable to architecture and urbanism. Particularly in recent times, the role of public space as a key instrument for improving the quality of the urban environment has become increasingly prominent, while on the other hand fears are growing that it is threatened with disintegration as a result of the commercialisation of public life, the physical and mental mobility of people today, the increasing importance of virtual forms of communication, and so on. We can also often observe around us the blurring of the borders between public and private, with the expansion of private interests into public space. In urbanism and heritage conservation private interests are frequently given priority over public ones. Our society lacks the desire to present itself by means of public buildings, whereas society in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century set great store by such buildings and turned them into icons.

In the sphere of the visual arts the relationship between public and private can be studied both as a theme for works of art and also as the background against which various artistic disciplines are practised or were practised in the past, from the Middle Ages up till the present day. Research in this field covers issues relating to collecting, the history of museums, galleries, and libraries, the activities of artistic associations, groups, and organisations, and educational establishments for artists. It also includes the alternative culture under the former communist regime and the relationship between the official and non-official spheres at that time.

The Institute of Art History, CAS, has devoted many projects to these themes. (One example among completed projects is Urban Public Space.) The Institute has prepared a number of meetings to defend the public interest in heritage conservation issues, dealing for example with saving from demolition the house designed by the architects Kozák and Zasche on Wenceslas Square in Prague, or protecting the town of Horní Jiřetín from surface mining of brown coal. Likewise, during the interdisciplinary symposia in Plzeň dealing with 19th-century Czech society and culture, there are always a number of contributions relating to the theme of public and private (

Contemporary SOCIOLOGY deals with the question of the relationship between public and private in particular in terms of power, ways of negotiating and representing the power of individual groups of the population and politically committed groups, and the material and symbolic changes in spaces which these negotiations bring with them. The key questions are now who has the right to enter the public space and who has this right denied to them, in what ways and on the basis of which ideas this happens, and what are the forms of “resistance” or “subversion” on the level of the ideas and concrete activities of those who are forced out of the public space. In addition to such groups of people, sociologists also take an interest in different types of space and what happens there both materially and socially as a result of new delimitations of the border between private and public (the privatisation and commodification of spaces, for example in shopping centres, the effect of conservative and neoliberal policies in the public sphere, for example the differences in the status of men and women in public institutions such as universities and research centres, etc.).

In the Institute of Sociology of the CAS there are currently several projects under way that deal with similar themes. One example is the project Hobohemia: time and space of homeless persons in a post-socialist city (more information at, which deals with the mobility in time and space of homeless people, how they perceive and make use of places and time, and the everyday experience of existence in a situation that crosses the private-public dichotomy. Another example is the project Between Home and Nature: urban political ecology of allotment gardening in post-socialist city and its urban impacts (more information at This project studies the hybrid space of allotment garden colonies, which cross the border between private and public, and likewise the borders between individual and common, natural and non-natural, urban and non-urban, and where intensive negotiations are taking place about their continued existence and their role in towns.

The Institute of Philosophy of the CAS focuses on themes relating to philosophical and transdisciplinary research into public space. Its primary orientation will be towards authors who delimit or redefine public space in relation to the historically changing civil society and concentrate on the expression of public interests and the role of art and visual culture in public space. The key authors in this regard include J. Habermas, C. Calhoun, N. Fraser, M. Burawoy, S. Benhabib, R. Deutsche, and Miwon Kwon. The initial question is, under which conditions and in what kind of society is public space formed, when individuals join together, put forward arguments in a rational discussion, and articulate general interests in a sphere between the state, civil society, and the market. In order to review the conception of public space it will be important to take into account the processes of globalisation, transnationalisation, and cosmopolitanisation of society. Themes that are related to research into publicness and public space from the perspective of political and social philosophy are part of the annual international conferences entitled “Social and Political Science” that are held in the Lanna Villa in Prague, and of other activities organised by the Institute of Philosophy’s Centre of Global Studies and Department of Moral and Political Philosophy.

At the INSTITUTE OF CZECH LITERATURE of the Czech Academy of Sciences, a project relating to the theme of public and private is the Encyclopaedia of Czech Literary Samizdat, which has been compiled since 2015 by the Literary Lexicography Department of the Institute. The planned Encyclopaedia will include samizdat series of works, magazines, and the most important non-periodical collections in the fields of fiction, literary criticism, and journalism, and may also address the related fields of art and the humanities. It will also contain several entries providing surveys and contexts. The work will be completed and published in book form in 2019.

The nucleus of the editorial team consists of staff from the Institute of Czech Literature of the CAS, and researchers from other academic and non-academic workplaces are also involved in the project. The project has been supported by the Czech Science Foundation and is also part of the COST international project New Exploratory Phase in Research on East European Cultures of Dissent 1945–1989, which is coordinated by the Instytut Badań Literackich Polskiej Akademii Nauk in Warsaw. (More information at