Civil society

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Politics and government

Civil society is composed of the totality of voluntary civic and social organizations and institutions that form the basis of a functioning society as opposed to the force-backed structures of a state (regardless of that state's political system) and commercial institutions.


The term is often traced to Adam Ferguson, who saw the development of a "commercial state" as a way to change the corrupt feudal order and strengthen the liberty of the individual. While Ferguson did not draw a line between the state and the society, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a German philosopher, made this distinction in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right . In this work, civil society (Hegel used the term "buergerliche Gesellschaft" though it is now referred to as Zivilgesellschaft in German to emphasize a more inclusive community) was a stage on the dialectical relationship between Hegel's perceived opposites, the macro-community of the state and the micro-community of the family . Broadly speaking, the term was split, like Hegel's followers, to the political left and right. On the left, it became the foundation for Karl Marx's bourgeois society ; to the right it became a description for all non-state aspects of society, expanding out of the economic rigidity of Marxism into culture, society and politics


There are myriad definitions of civil society. The London School of Economics Centre for Civil Society working definition is illustrative:

Civil society refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values. In theory, its institutional forms are distinct from those of the state, family and market, though in practice, the boundaries between state, civil society, family and market are often complex, blurred and negotiated. Civil society commonly embraces a diversity of spaces, actors and institutional forms, varying in their degree of formality, autonomy and power. Civil societies are often populated by organisations such as registered charities, development non-governmental organisations, community groups, women's organisations, faith-based organisations, professional associations, trade unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy groups.

Civil society and democracy

The literature on links between civil society and democracy have their root in early liberal writings like those of Tocqueville. However they were developed in significant ways by 20th century theorists like Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba, who identified the role of civil society in a democratic order as vital .

They argued that the political element of many civil society organisations facilitates better awareness and a more informed citizenry, who make better voting choices, participate in politics, and hold government more accountable as a result . The statutes of these organizations have often been considered micro-constitutions because they accustom participants to the formalities of democratic decision making.

More recently, Robert Putnam has argued that even non-political organisations in civil society are vital for democracy. This is because they build social capital, trust and shared values, which are transferred into the political sphere and help to hold society together, facilitating an understanding of the interconnectedness of society and interests within it .

Others, however, have questioned how democratic civil society actually is. Some have noted that the civil society actors have now obtained a remarkable amount of political power without anyone directly electing or appointing them . Finally, other scholars have argued that, since the concept of civil society is closely related to democracy and representation, it should in turn be linked with ideas of nationality and nationalism .

Civil society and globalization: Global Civil Society

The term civil society is currently often used by critics and activists as a reference to sources of resistance to and the domain of social life which needs to be protected against globalization. This is because it is seen as acting beyond boundaries and across different territories . However, as civil society can, under many definitions, include those businesses and institutions who support globalization, this is a contested use .

On the other hand others see globalization as a social phenomenon bringing classical liberal values which inevitably lead to a larger role for civil society at the expense of politically derived state institutions.

Examples of civil society institutions

  • non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
  • private voluntary organizations (PVOs)
  • non-profit organizations (NPOs)
  • community-based organizations
  • Intermediary organizations for the voluntary and non-profit sector
  • community foundations
  • Community leadership development programs
  • civic clubs
  • trade unions
  • gender, cultural, and religious groups
  • charities
  • social and sports clubs
  • cooperatives
  • environmental groups
  • professional associations
  • academia
  • businesses
  • policy institutions
  • consumers/consumer organizations
  • the media
  • citizens' militia
  • religious organizations
  • civic groups
  • community organizations
  • clubs

Whether all of these institutions are by definition part of civil society is up for debate. Neera Chandhoke, a scientist from India, thinks not. She concludes that only institutions that are critical of the state are the real thing, while the rest are merely not governmental. The key here is that not every institution is a 'countervailing power' to the state. In developing countries, civil society is popular with aid donors because it can make government behave in a better way. But mock civil society organisations can exist that serve only to gain access to development aid.

Some noted scholars of civil society

  • Daniel Bell
  • Robert N. Bellah
  • Don E. Eberly
  • Michael Edwards
  • Jean Bethke Elshtain
  • Amitai Etzioni
  • Francis Fukuyama
  • Antonio Gramsci
  • Juergen Habermas
  • Patrick Hunout
  • Peter Dobkin Hall
  • Barry Dean Karl
  • John Keane
  • David Korten
  • Kathleen McCarthy
  • Frank Moulaert
  • Michael O'Neill
  • Elinor Ostrom
  • Robert Pekkanen
  • Robert Putnam
  • Nancy L. Rosenblum
  • Lester M. Salamon
  • Michael Sandel

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