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The Construction of General Public Interest: Risk, Legitimacy, and Power in a Public Hearing

The decisions of the economic actors in late modern society produce risks in addition to products and services. Thus, the parties likely to be affected by those decisions - individuals, communities, and society at large - seek to influence them. Public hearings are a key forum in society where this influence occurs. This paper uses a case study of a hearing to show how public hearings use legitimating practices to enact institutional power although they are commonly portrayed as risk-minimizing democratic mechanisms. Public hearings enact participation that is formal not substantive, create 'public good' that serves particular not general interests, and use evaluation which is normative or value-based and not rational. Public hearings thus legitimate government and corporate institutions through the demonstration of citizen participation, general interest, and rational evaluation. These processes enact ideological or image-based legitimation by constructing an image of the general public. This legitimation is illusory but effective for enacting state and corporate power.