New Bachelor Thesis #2: Circulating knowledge on radio

by Olof Bärtås

Ever since I first read Habermas “Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit” I have been interested in the concept of “the public sphere” or “die Öffentlichkeit” in modern society. The concept is as intriguing as it is intimidating; it is as abstract as it is involved in our everyday life. It is a concept which touches upon the basic political, economic and social foundations of society and, at the same time, simply an atmosphere or even ambience which we experience and operate within. A gateway into empirical studies concerning these questions is made possible through the theoretical discussions about “public arenas of knowledge”. Through history of knowledge, our understanding of the public sphere and societal knowledge can be enriched; knowledge, as already shown by Habermas, plays a central role in the public sphere.

In my bachelor thesis, I examine how the Swedish radio program OBS! (or Kulturkvarten) operated as a public arena of knowledge from 1969 to 1972 – i.e, how it offered possibilities and set limits for certain kinds of knowledge circulation. Drawing on theoretical discussions about “public circulation of knowledge”, my aim has been to characterize OBS! and its role in the public sphere during the examined years. I find OBS! especially interesting – and important to consider – since the radio-medium have often been disregarded in studies of the public sphere.

Firstly, using quantitative methods, my paper maps out and characterizes the knowledge which was in circulation in OBS!. In this part, I made a selection from the transcribed broadcasts and categorized them by the following categories: the forms of knowledge, the actors of knowledge, geographical orientation and fields of discipline. The results show that OBS! was a public arena of knowledge which was interested in its own time’s social, political and economic concerns (80 %); at the same time, the humanities and the natural sciences had a much smaller presence. This paper also indicates, contrary to earlier research, that OBS! mainly focused on European and American matters while “the Third World” had much lesser coverage. The actors contributing to the circulation of knowledge were mainly journalists and authors, but academics and politicians also played an important role. The main form of knowledge was reviews by and critique of different sorts of texts (almost 40 %). Debates, interviews and news were also an occurrent form of knowledge. 

Secondly, using qualitative methods, my paper makes two more specific analyses of circulation – of German and American knowledge. In this part of the paper, I studied what issues, and by which knowledge forms and specific actors, circulation was made possible. The thesis emphasizes OBS!’s interest in German literature and politics as well as the American war in Vietnam and the problems within American society. Several actors of knowledge played key role for the circulation of knowledge. The publisher Thomas von Vegesack, based in Berlin, played an important role for the circulation of knowledge regarding German literature and its condition. Bertil Häggman was part of a rather large circulation of conservative books as well as debating from this ideological position. Sigfrid Leijonhufvud, another important correspondent, was reporting about American societal discontent with the Vietnam war and racial problems. As shown in the quantitative part, the circulation of books was also an important gateway for these subjects

Theoretically, my paper wants to stress that the knowledge actors themselves might be viewed as parts of an “infrastructure of knowledge”; the correspondents provide a good picture of how specific actors – with their geography, interests and areas of focus – were crucial for particular forms of circulation. For example, thanks to von Vegesack, German celebrities such as Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass could discuss topics concerning free speech and publishing. To center studies of knowledge-circulation around specific actors seems to be a fruitful take.

OBS! can be seen in the light of a larger circulation of knowledge in postwar Sweden – a theme which is being studied in other ongoing projects at LUCK. To understand the role that knowledge had in the public sphere during these years is, from a genealogical point of view, important in the light of our time’s questions concerning knowledge in a digital and global era. The history of knowledge might provide some answers to why, in our times, the concept of knowledge is perceived as very fragmented.

Olof Bärtås defended his bachelor thesis in history at Lund University in June, 2021. The thesis (in Swedish) can be read here:

Photo by Alex Blăjan on Unsplash

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