Civil Society

views updated May 23 2018


Guido Hausmann and Manfred Hettling

The end of the cold war has signaled—for the time being—the end of one of the grand utopias of the nineteenth century. Although communist ideology in its many variations eroded before the end of the cold war, its demise accompanied as well as resulted from the end of utopianism. Beginning in the 1970s intellectuals from Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and other states in the former East bloc proclaimed "civil society" as a new "political program," not as a utopia. Herein lies a cause for the post-cold-war attraction all over Europe of the "civil society" model of social organization. This social organization, rooted in European antiquity and the Catholic Middle Ages but also distinctly influenced by the Reformation, contains many local, regional, and national shadings. Variations of civil society emerged in eighteenth-century Europe and North America and spread to other communities.


The various terms for civil society indicate the various traditions out of which it grew. Examples include the German bürgerliche Gesellschaft, the French société civile, the Anglo-American "civil society," the Italian civile condizione, and the Russian burzhuaznoe/grazhdankoe obshchestvo. Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century like Denis Diderot (1713–1784), Voltaire (1694–1778), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), in France; David Hume (1711–1776) and John Locke (1632–1704) in England; and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) in Germany defined the essential attributes of civil society. Among these were the idea of contractual relationships, the reduction of religion to a private conviction, individual human rights, and political freedoms.

In the ancient tradition descending from Aristotle, the term societas civilis, or civil society, always designated a political society—that is, a community of citizens bound together in a governing political bond as free and equal participants. A later tradition of the term originated in the early nineteenth century and was related to the emancipation of the newly risen middle classes from the feudal social order. The term "civil society" designated a society of private individuals distinguished by their ownership of property: in this more modern understanding of "civil society," the term does not include the notion of political participation. As Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) declared, civil society and the state stand in opposition to each other. In the Anglo-American tradition, the ancient understanding of the term prevailed. Here civil society remained connected to political participation—ever a predominant theme—whereas the two were separate on the European continent for a long time. Use of the term since the late twentieth century calls for the ancient bond linking the self-organization of citizens for their economic benefit with political participation and seeks to overcome the separation of apolitical civil society from the politics of the state.

The various traditions of the concept share the designation of a self-organizing society; they differ in how much this community participates in the political rule of the state. The claim to a political voice did not necessarily call into question the legitimacy of traditional monarchies. Such a claim could lead to the antimonarchical, revolutionary pathos of post-1789 France, but the outcome could also be a long-lasting, highly stable monarchy—if such a monarchy accepted its transformation into a political institution that represented only the common political goals of civil society. In the German-speaking world the tradition stemming from Hegel and Karl Marx (1818–1883), which defined civil society as a philosophical and ideological category, continued to exercise significant influence; this tradition held an apolitical understanding of the concept and called for a relatively strict division of state and society. A stronger reception of Anglo-American contract theory first arrived in (West) Germany after 1945.

The cornerstone of civil society was the self-organizing individual who had the right to bond with others in free associations. The individual citizen was defined as free from religious rule and as entitled to participate in political institutions by virtue of being an individual. In the Anglo-American states the right and natural freedom of the individual was of primary importance. This idea grew out of the Protestant tradition that made religious freedom an individual's indivisible right. This tradition interpreted religious freedom not as the result of tolerance—an instance of grace by the state—but as an inalienable human right, one that preceded the actions of any social institution. In the French tradition a concept of human rights prevailed that protected the individual from the state: freedom is understood as the restriction of potential state interference. No effective Russian tradition of individual rights ever developed. Unlike in Poland, no trace of the Renaissance, of humanism, or of the Reformation left its mark in Muscovite Russia. Only in the eighteenth century, Scottish, English, French, and—transmitted through East Prussia and the Baltic—German sources spread the European concept of freedom. However, alongside the ideas that asserted the primacy of individual rights were the equally lasting European concepts that projected individual freedoms onto the collective—the nation, state, or monarchy. These fit into a wholly different tradition.

The German Enlightenment tradition mixed different interpretations of the individual. Kant's model of civil society described the individual in various functions and social conditions. In Kant's view the legal foundation for civil society lay in the following principles: the freedom of every member of society based on his or her being "human"; the equality of members as "subjects"; and members' independence as "citizens." As a human being, anyone has the right to pursue happiness in his or her own way. As a subject everyone has to follow the law. As a citizen, anyone is a "lawmaker"; that is, he or she participates in the formation of the political will of society (or, in the parlance of American pragmatism, he or she will make the decisions that directly influence others). Freedom is conferred on all people, and at the same time every person—whether man or woman, rich or poor, aristocratic or bourgeois—is bound to obey the law. For Kant, restrictions on these universal proclamations and decrees came only with a final distinction, the "quality" of citizens. With this addendum, Kant articulated what was and is contained in all concepts of civil society, that not all people, but only those who meet certain prerequisites, gain a political say. Since Kant, the criteria for the exclusion of individual groups have fundamentally changed. Estate privileges (aristocracy), legal categories (patriciate, citizen status), economic requirements (property), and sex (the exclusion of women) no longer set limits to participation. As before, however, there still exist restrictions based on age, capacity for rational choice, criminal record, and national citizenship.

Equality only prevails within these social restrictions; only those people selected by these filters can form through their associations the core social element of any civil society. Association is the complementary concept to civil society. Whereas Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) in Leviathan (1651) placed the individual under the absolute sovereignty of the state in order to prevent civil war between individuals, all theorists of civil society—Locke in England, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) in France, Kant in Germany—have identified its uniqueness as the ability of persons to freely form associations among themselves in order to support one another and to regulate social life. The American pragmatism of John Dewey (1859–1952) also stands in this tradition.

Associations in civil society differ in principle from earlier forms of association in that the individual's identity is only partially defined by his or her participation in such groups. Associations and face-to-face communication exist in all societies; even totalitarianism could not do away with them. The aspect of association specific to civil society is based on functional differentiation: people participate only with a part of themselves; thus many different kinds of social circles can join together resulting in infinitely variable possibilities for interaction. The paradox is this: by limiting the common bond within associations, civil society makes an infinite variety of associations possible. Herein lies the tense relationship between particularity and universality that defines the dynamic of civil society.

Two decisive transformations have taken place in civil society since the eighteenth century: women gained the right to political participation in the twentieth century, and economic status is no longer a criterion for such participation. With these changes a central component of any conception of civil society as it had existed from the eighteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century also changed: political decision making was no longer the exclusive domain of men with property. Every society contained different expressions of this same phenomenon. In England political exclusion based on ownership, which has been called the politics of "possessive individualism" (C. B. Macpherson), prevailed. In France the political privileges of the propertied bourgeois dominated for a long time, despite the universalist political pathos connected to the term citoyen. In Germany, too, and even more in eastern European societies, economic hurdles to political participation were raised.

These restrictive models of civil society defined "independence" as the decisive category for participation. They attached an economic and moral value to the term so that it signified one's permitted conduct as well as one's membership in society. Bourgeois optimism for progress in the nineteenth century mediated the growing tension between real social inequalities and the utopian nature of commonly held middle-class ideals. The attainment of utopia would liberate the excluded, who as individuals would one day fulfill certain criteria and enter civil society, so that they, too, could become fellow "lawmakers." Many reached this goal, many did not. The workers' movement and the women's movement grew out of the attempt to change civil society's rules of exclusion. Apart from economic barriers to political participation, in western European societies there were restrictions based on religion and national origin (if often on an informal level), while in eastern Europe—that is, the Russian Empire—there were formal restrictions against non-Christians ( Jews, Muslims), which provoked protest movements.

The development toward conferring the principles of civil society on those excluded from participation seemed to signal the implementation and redemption of the civic ideal of individual self-fulfillment and civic equality. This optimism broke down, however, in many European societies at the end of the nineteenth century. Optimism for civic progress turned into fin-de-siècle criticism of civilized culture, and in practice optimism deteriorated into the authoritarian regimes of the interwar period. Ultimately, in Germany and the Soviet Union, it contributed to Hitlerism and Stalinism. The utopian potential first reappeared at the end of the twentieth century in the societies of Eastern Europe but was restricted to a political program for the transformation of the then socialist societies. Both the social utopia of civil society, based on the independence of the individual through his or her participation in ownership and education, and the political utopia of civil society, based on equal participation of all members, had lost little of their attraction. Nevertheless, in no way did a mere "revolution to catch up" ( Jürgen Habermas) occur in Eastern Europe, as some observers in the West judged it. From its beginnings in early modern times, the concept of civil society has been flexible enough to produce very diverse forms of social organization.


In the 1980s and 1990s the interpretations of Jürgen Habermas and Reinhart Koselleck fueled the discussion of civil society. It is perhaps no accident that these two thinkers emerged in Germany in the years after 1945. Both of them attempted to explain the collapse of civil society in Germany in the years before 1945. Reflection on this failure to build a lasting civil society provoked analysis of its structure in the postwar era. Another track in historiography follows the thought of Michel Foucault on the disciplinary and regulatory character of civil society. This mode of analysis uses the opposition between the promise of a universal society and the redemption of the particular individual to formulate a rigid critique of bourgeois ideology. It sharpens critical skepticism toward the paradoxes and unfulfilled potential of civil society, but in the process often forgets that this kind of self-criticism is a founding principle of civil society.

Historical research beginning in the 1970s and 1980s concentrated on analyzing various organized associations in the eighteenth century, the media, and individual social support networks. Investigations of the social substrata of civil society, including the bourgeoisie or middle classes, led to wide sociohistorical analyses of bourgeois professional groups and numerous microhistorical studies of cities as the space of middle-class activity. The economic and social heterogeneity of these professional groups, brought to light by empirical research, led scholars since the mid-1980s to analyze more closely the cultural practices, symbols, and images that dominated this world, in order to show the homogenizing forces presumed to operate within a differentiated society. Some researchers pose the question whether one could even speak of a middle class ("bourgeoisie") or whether the plural form, "middle classes," ("bourgeois societies") was more suitable. Much work concentrated on analyzing patterns of behavior and the cultural molding of individuals; an international comparative history of terminology also slowly developed.


Four characteristics define an ideal type of civil society, and the political theorizing of the eighteenth century already described them all: criticism, functional differentiation, sociability, and the media.

Nothing is more necessary for the process of enlightenment—for the gradual formation of a bourgeois society—than the freedom to criticize. In Kant's formulation, criticism is the potential "for reason in all matters to be put to public use." Free criticism, the results of which are open and to which all people are entitled, is the conditio sine qua non for the proper dynamic of a civil society.

Criticism is free, but a restriction exists. The freedom to criticize is conferred on an individual only in a socially compartmentalized function performed by the individual: for example, on a scholar within the literary and journalistic marketplace but not within an official public office. The attribute of a critic is conferred, potentially, on any person, regardless of sex, social position, or religious worldview. Historically, this means that within the existing estate-based social system of the eighteenth century, a sphere was constituted to which all persons had access, while at the same time they remained bound by the restrictions and regulations of their social environment.

Civil society occurs within designated, bounded social spheres and provides "spaces of interaction" (Koselleck) in which sociability can take place. In these spaces of interaction a specific form of face-to-face communication arises. Here society determines—ideally for all, but in fact for the few—that the restrictive social conditions of daily life are suspended. In their absence individuals interact with no prescribed or imposed purpose. Bourgeois sociability is based on this tension between the equality gained within these spheres of interaction and the continued inequality in the outside world. This tension gives rise to the impetus and promise of bourgeois self-improvement. The arenas of sociability complement the division and regulation of individual roles required for society to function.

Civil society is based not only on the sociability within spheres of interaction. It also links these spheres and enables them to communicate. The linking of disparate spheres of interaction takes place both in direct exchanges between people and also through institutions that make interaction possible. Both aspects, sociability as face-to-face communication and as mediated forms of networking, are required for the functioning of the public sphere in civil society.

One should not underestimate the role of the media in the exercise of sociability in the eighteenth century. Letters, printed writings, newspapers were indispensable for sociability. They created an intellectual horizon that stretched far beyond the daily world and made possible the first public world of readers in which the freedom to criticize could flourish. Similarly, one should not underestimate the fundamental significance of interpersonal communication in the personal sphere within the mass-media world of the twentieth century. Both are crucial for civil society.

The public sphere thrives in social arenas that are structured to promote sociability and connected by forms of media. Within these distinct spaces, individuals conduct themselves according to a functional division of roles. In the arena of sociability, the object criticized and the mode of rational criticism must be free of constraints. No restrictions can exist other than that the actors satisfy the requirements of their roles.

One can distinguish in this way the public sphere in civil society from similar forms of public conduct in premodern times. There were premodern forms of the "representative public sphere" where individuals decided the rules of civic conduct. There were also spheres dedicated solely to the enjoyment of public life; indeed, public life in the Middle Ages encompassed more areas of daily life than it does today. During the Middle Ages, individuals met at public gatherings and communicated as equals; for an example one need only refer to village communes. In these diverse forms of community the form of the public sphere did more than merely recreate the representational courtly model. Three elements distinguish the modern public sphere and bring it into an effective relationship with the rise of bourgeois society. First, the principle that criticism could be voiced on all issues; second, the functional division of roles; third, the growing significance of mediating institutions. (For example, the itinerant preacher no longer communicated the news; information was transmitted in writing.)

Sociability, the public sphere, and civil society do not stand one after the other in a tight causal relationship throughout European history, however. Eighteenth-century thought considered the opposite of rational conduct, "asocial sociability" (Kant), an important, complementary expression of the human craving for individualization. Forms of sociability also pervaded premodern societies, existing throughout the lower social strata to the same degree as in the middle and higher social strata. Pubs in market squares, restaurants, folk festivals, folk theaters, and religious festivals and celebrations offered a variety of options as diverse as the sociability at the courts. The spectrum of social forms has changed, but sociability as face-to-face communication has lost none of its importance. The public sphere in its more narrow sense as a political public space, however, holds a unique position in the development of modern civil society. In this sphere, the "lawmakers," that is, people making decisions for those who cannot directly participate, can address one another (Dewey).

The outward forms of the bases of civil society have been historically variable. Crucial moments in the history of such interaction would include the spread of the movable-type printing press in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; the explosion of a reading public, the emergence of salons, academies, lodges, public gathering places, and so on in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the transformation of media in the nineteenth century with the spread of daily newspapers that gradually pushed the censors aside. The rise of the commercialized press and sensational journalism hindered direct political interference in the media. In the United States and France such mass journalism spread in two waves, in the 1830s and again from the 1860s to the 1880s; in Russia and Germany it made its appearance in the final third of the nineteenth century. Print mass media focused on the novelty value of a news item rather than on an ideology. This tendency permitted the rise of an economically independent media market; at the same time, this initiated a dangerous process in which the individual reader was no longer an active, rational participant but a passive consumer of information conveyed through the marketplace. Many describe this as a decline, but civil society has always developed mechanisms to foster the independent political decision making of individual citizens, even under conditions dominated by the marketplace. In the twentieth century came the rapid spread of new media forms such as film, radio, television, and the Internet—all accompanied by intense public discussion about the dangers and consequences these would have for the political functioning of civil society.

Two examples, coffeehouses and reading societies, can be sketched briefly to illustrate how sociability and the journalistic public sphere were linked. The English coffeehouse emerged in Europe as the first institution that promoted the public exercise of reason. Late-twentieth-century research has supported and also modified Habermas's thesis on this phenomenon. From the mid-1660s coffeehouses spread not only in London (where there were already more than eighty in 1663) but also in many English, Scottish, and Irish towns; their triumphant march could barely be halted by a temporary prohibition against them in 1675. Not only men but also women, and not only members of the urban upper classes were among the rising number of visitors. Patrons discussed national and international events (what became known as coffeehouse politics) as well as local issues. Behind this phenomenon were rising beer prices, which made the coffeehouse a money-saving alternative to the pub and a popular place for the circulation of news. It competed with traditional social venues such as cockfights, lawn-bowling lanes, and "church-a les." As a drink, coffee not only was less expensive than beer but also symbolized the advance of rationality and the sober calculation of self-supporting people, where alcoholic drinks would be pushed aside.

The reading societies that arose in France and Germany in the second half of the eighteenth century contributed to public sociability and promoted the public sphere of journalism. Here members of the middle classes met to read (newspapers, reference works, and books were too expensive for everyone to buy for themselves), and this created spaces in which people could converse about issues of general interest outside their narrow professional interests or family ties. Reading societies became classic arenas for enlightened reasoning. They also allowed the possibility for entertainment, such as smoking, billiards, and card games, which increased their attractiveness.

Other forms of association were the academies and learned societies, while Masonic lodges served as middle-class forms of association par excellence. The principle of free association quickly proved very attractive to many different social groups, greatly contributing to the success of civil society. It was even attractive and useful to those who sought to oppose it. For instance, freedom of association benefited emerging free-market societies, and opponents of the free market in a short time banded together in associations designed to curtail its effects. All modern organizations and political parties since the nineteenth century grew from these roots.

The extent to which such associations defined public life can distinguish individual societies. They dominated public life in countries where state institutions were weak, such as England, Switzerland, the United States, and also the Netherlands and Scandinavia. In countries with a strong statist tradition such as France, Prussia, and especially Russia, they competed with the hierarchical structures of state authority. In Russia up to 1917 middle-class associational life could operate only in large cities. This was also one reason why in Russia no "bourgeois" social order could succeed. For a long time in southern Europe patriarchal clientele relationships and kinship networks were more significant than anything else.

Critics of Habermas argue that a single (middle class) public sphere never existed, only various sectional public spheres that competed with one another. In a historical perspective, there is no question that numerous communications networks developed in Europe. However, these various sectional public spheres were politically successful within the evolving national civil society only if they adopted its structural organization as their model. Just as political opponents of free association quickly adopted it as their organizational principle, public associations that resisted the free market served as the political decision makers that helped integrate into society the very free-market relations they sought to oppose. This in no way excluded differentiations between competing publics, but the many communication networks were always linked to one another. In this respect, the Internet is only the latest example of this type of interaction that provides all individuals with a potential connection as individuals to one another.


One cannot understand civil society without understanding the extensive social and economic transformation that seized European societies from the end of the eighteenth century. With literacy, secularization, industrialization, and urbanization, among other processes, came new professional groups and social strata based on education and property that increasingly eroded the traditional order based on birthright. Included in the new order were the entrepreneur and the salaried employee, the manager and the rentier, the lawyer and the engineer, the doctor and the teacher. This does not mean that in the European Middle Ages and in the early modern era there was no social and geographic mobility. Yet the bases for the new bourgeois social order were different: they were rooted far more firmly in individual attainment of property and educational credentials rather than in an estate-prescribed social position. It depended less on estate-based rank and lifestyle than on class condition. Place in the market economy determined social stratification in middle-class society. Late-twentieth-century studies have hotly debated the extent to which different social groups—the bourgeoisie (the economic middle class), the old urban citizenry, and the professions or the university educated (the "free professions")—formed this class. Are government officials, pastors, and priests included as well as lower-wage employees and handworkers? It is disputable whether one can designate heterogeneous occupational groups with a collective singular noun, such as "bourgeoisie" or "middle class." For this definition it is of central importance to establish its outer limits vis-à-vis the lower strata (peasants and manual laborers) as well as against the aristocracy, although it includes the notion of mobility for all and embraces the integration process (of becoming part of the bourgeoisie). Moreover, as a rule the demarcation from the lower classes was much stricter than from the upper classes. In Germany, though, the threshold into aristocracy was always higher than in England or France. In Russia from the early eighteenth century the Table of Ranks of Peter I (1672–1725) allowed the possibility of rising into the personal or hereditary nobility, and the non-Russian elites (the Cossacks elders of the Ukraine, the Polish aristocracy, the Baltic German barons, and so on) were also incorporated into the imperial aristocracy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As it did in other European countries, the aristocracy in Russia up to the twentieth century shielded itself from the lower classes.

However, even when by demarcating the boundary with the aristocracy and the lower classes a distinctive social profile of a middle social stratum is produced, it still displays an important degree of inner heterogeneity. While in Germany the traditional corporate urban citizenry still had great significance in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in England, where highly skilled master craftsmen had never played a comparable role, the importance of this old urban citizenry had long vanished.

From various social subgroups a special petite bourgeoisie emerged at the end of the nineteenth century in many European societies. Out of the old middle stratum, self-employed master craftsmen, small businessmen, and shopkeepers, a quickly growing throng of salaried employees and officials completed the new middle stratum. Those with university educations (the free professions) are another subgroup that developed its own diverse traditions and social positions in all the European countries. At the end of the nineteenth century in France one segment began to establish a separate social identity as "intellectuals" critical of the existing social order. But in Germany at least to the end of the nineteenth century the majority of the educated middle class understood themselves to be members of the bourgeoisie and sought employment in civil service. In Italy the university educated, especially lawyers, referred to themselves from 1875 as borghese and ceto medio (middle class), terms which had formerly served to describe the medieval and early modern middle class. In the twentieth century the university-educated in Italy first differentiated themselves as borghesia umanistica, and the term borghese increasingly referred to an economically defined social class composed of industrialists, businessmen, and bankers. In Italy and Germany the middle class long had a strong connection to the state and only gradually emerged more self-conscious and independent. In Russia a segment of those with a higher education considered themselves the intelligentsia and obtained their own social identity through their criticism of the aristocracy, the merchantry, and especially the autocratic political order. But in the Russian Empire well into the nineteenth century only civil service offered a means of subsistence. The rapid growth of the free professions, the limited possibilities of making a living by offering one's services on the free market, and the barriers to mobility in civil service led in Germany and Russia to increasing fragmentation and social isolation from the end of the nineteenth century. These also encouraged the political radicalization of a segment of university-educated intellectuals who could no longer be integrated into society.

The question of the economic, social, and cultural homogeneity of the "middle classes" remains one of the more difficult subjects for historical analysis. Some scholars study the specific forms of association and community in order to discover the networking and overlapping of social milieus that were once separate. Over time it has become clear that the analysis of these middle strata has for a long time been done too much from the perspective of a marxist-influenced view of class conflict. Studies have shown the crucial importance of the merchant strata in all Western societies well into the nineteenth century. The property owners, the overwhelming numbers of economically independent actors, clearly dominated the nineteenth century and were collectively the characteristic social type for the structure of the middle classes. The fundamental social roots of all civil societies—with the exception of Russia up to the beginning of the twentieth century—go back to the traditional figure of the property owner.

The common moral and social value system of the middle strata lay in the notion of ownership. Yet this included no common political value system for a class that had been described as taking political action in earlier times in pursuit of "possessive individualism." By the end of the nineteenth century the link between this social type and any distinct political value system disappeared. With this the far-reaching transformation of civil society took place. The increasing heterogeneity within the middle classes, which were the core of civil society, dissolved any close, direct link between political participation and economic status. Though many contemporaries at the time perceived this as a crisis, the societal form of civil society proved flexible enough to carry out this new social openness in a creative way.

In the twentieth century on the one hand the social-welfare state guaranteed a minimum economic status for its citizens (though there were and are huge differences between individual countries). On the other hand the spectrum of institutions and bureaucratic organizations was differentiated to such an extent that both participation and protest produced numerous possible reactions. It almost seems that the principal problem facing modern civil society after the twentieth century is no longer the social question but how to mobilize individual citizens into living politically engaged lives. Traditionally, engagement was not a problem because engagement—the role of the "lawmaker"—was for the propertied class inextricably wedded to the pursuit of their self-interest. The survival of civil society was based on dissolving this traditional bond between economic and political interest. Yet contemporary civil societies must reclaim individual citizens, whom no direct economic interest mobilizes into political action, for involvement in the public sphere. Optimists like Albert O. Hirschman trust that this phenomenon merely reflects the inevitable swing between the pursuit of private interests and the active shaping of public life. Insofar as civil society has lost its direct link to social support groups since the end of the nineteenth century, greater room has been created to find different political answers to social problems. This is the basis for the continuing stability and attractiveness of civil society as a societal model.


One of the founders of modern sociology, Max Weber (1864–1920), claimed that self-interest guides the actions of people, but ideas function as the switchmen that determine the rails on which the dynamic of self-interested action moves. Civil society always was and is based on a system of values, practices, and relational models. According to the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, its citizens are said to be "tangled in self-spun webs of meaning." Civil society requires such a system of rules, or "ideal types" of values and behavior models, that cultivate a specific "quality" in the character of the citizen and shape a "civil" way of life. This "bourgeois identity" always formulated a kind of ideal or utopian design for its conduct in the world. An image of utopia determined the direction in which the individual first develops into a citizen and defined the vision according to which any society will change into a civil society.

Every civil society requires an ethic of civic consciousness, a system of ideal types, of values and practices that mediate between the various ways of living in the world. After religion had lost its comprehensive role of explaining the world and structuring life, competing spheres of values and ways of living existed side by side in a tense relation. Such cultural symbol systems served as "switchmen"; their institutionalization into actual ways of conducting one's life (religion, relationships, economy, politics, law, art, love/sex, science, nature) has the force to structure in advance the direction in which motivations lead human conduct. Individuals carry out the "civic" direction of their lives along the idealized path of a given symbol system guided by the self-interested dynamic of their specific way of life. Thus there is only an apparent conflict between society and the individual. The urgent struggle between liberalism and communitarianism could therefore probably be only settled violently, because it has reduced the age-old interlocking of ideas and interests into an imaginary contradiction. From the outlook of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberal theorists of civil society, this opposition still appeared as an impermissible curtailment of individual freedom.

Since its beginnings, the cultural system that regulates civil society has undergone many transformations. Following industrialization and urbanization, the web of signification, in which and with which people interpreted their experiences and directed their actions, became dysfunctional. The decades around 1800 and around 1900 can both be understood as times of such radical change. Around 1800 "bourgeois identity" emerged as a cultural system that was adequate for a specific kind of social structure and social interaction and that interpreted societal experiences in an intelligible and tension-reducing way. From the 1890s the critique of cultured civilization, articulated by citizens and often indebted to their civic ideas, gave expression to the widening gap and growing tension between the mechanisms of social interaction and the systems that endowed them with meaning. The third fundamental period of radical change within civil society began in the 1960s, with the sweeping transformation of the values of western societies. Criticized by the orthodox of the left and right as destroying values and promoting social erosion, this transformation can also be understood as a process in which civil society's cultural system of rules provided new "switchmen" for human conduct.

This radical change caused many to diagnose a critical juncture in the history of civil society. Habermas, for example, perceived a "structural transformation of the public sphere" but later changed his diagnosis. He originally assumed a collapse of the public sphere and the disappearance of critical journalism. The more the public sphere extends outward, and with it the values of civil society, the more it loses its primary political function: to place all public events under the control of a critical public. In mass democracy and under the influence of mass media, critical public opinion turns into conformity and the cultivated, rational public turns into a cultural consumer. Habermas revised this thesis in 1990 after the transformation of values since the 1960s and the beginning of the collapse of communism in the Eastern European states. Yet others have continued with dire predictions. The idea that the independent individual—the critical citizen—would not survive in the public sphere of the mass media, as well as the argument that the public sphere as a genuine space of civil society would succumb to a tyranny of the private sphere, has found proponents (Sennett). De Tocqueville's insight, developed in his book on America, again proves valid: civil society delivers itself from danger with the same principles that threaten its continuation. However, the German example in the twentieth century indicates that civil society's capacity for self-preservation is imperiled under certain conditions. The structural transformation of the public sphere has not yet proven to be such a threat.

Looking back on the twentieth century, one can understand the astonishing vitality of civil society today in the following way. Late-nineteenth-century critics perceived a crisis in the no longer reconcilable tension between the value system (with its standards of conduct always oriented to the property owner) and the prevailing logic of business. One cannot understand the political crises and the movements opposing civil society of the twentieth century without understanding these insecurities. The ongoing transformation of values at the beginning of the twenty-first century will establish a new system of values that will prescribe new "switchmen" for different forms of behavior.


Those who emphasize the multifaceted and non-utopian character of civil society recognize the variety of cultural traditions and influences that have contributed to its character. At the same time elements such as the social contract, individual human rights, and political freedoms are core concepts of the European tradition. How civil societies in the twentieth century in the middle of Europe could break apart despite participating in this tradition will be the focus of future research. These studies will also seek to determine the prerequisites for a lasting civil society. A question of particular urgency will be how societies on Europe's periphery or outside Europe can build a civil society. These societies have already to some extent been in continuous contact with Europe. Often, however, neither the elites nor the tradition-bound majorities of these countries permit an open discussion of this question. This resistance hinders consensus building on subjects such as how to retain and change particular traditions and how to integrate "new" elements of civic, political culture so that the formation of a civil society is not perceived as a hegemonic takeover. The questions of modern nation building and middle-class society, of individuals and associations, and of the civic public sphere and civic consciousness indicate in any case that a complex image of humanity and a system of values form the basis of civil society. It does not merely concern a liberal economic system and the making of a middle social stratum. In the end, civil society's potential rests in its ever-changing character over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially its capacity to reform itself through open discussion about its own principles and procedural techniques, including the transformation of its own mechanisms of exclusion with regard to women, the lower classes, other nationalities, religions, and races. From here there are many possibilities for further research. In the center of it all are the elements of middle-class society and their relationships to one another throughout historical change: the public and freely accessible use of reason, spheres of direct social interaction, and mediated interaction. Prospective research will focus less on classic social history than on its connection with cultural, political, and economic history. There is less potential for research within a narrow national-historical perspective than in a comparative perspective that encompasses both European and non-European societies.

Translated from German by Mark Georgiev

See alsoMiddle Classes; New Social Movements; Professionals and Professionalization (volume 3);Reading (volume 5); and other articles in this section.



Calhoun, Craig, ed. Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge, Mass., 1992.

Cohen, Jean L., and Andrew Arato. Civil Society and Political Theory. Cambridge, Mass., 1992.

Geertz, Clifford. Interpretations of Culture: Selected Essays. New York, 1973.

Gellner, Ernest. Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals. London, 1994.

Goodman, Dena. "Public Sphere and Private Life: Toward a Synthesis of Current Historiographical Approaches to the Old Regime" History & Theory 31 (1992):1–20.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Translated by Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, Mass., 1989.

Hirschman, Albert O. Shifting Involvements: Private Interest and Public Action. Princeton, N.J., 1982.

Inglehart, Ronald. The Silent Revolution: Changing Values and Political Styles amongWestern Publics. Princeton, N.J., 1977.

Keane, John, ed. Civil Society and the State: New European Perspectives. London, 1988.

Koselleck, Reinhart. Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society. Oxford and New York, 1988.

Macpherson, C. B. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: From Hobbes toLocke. Oxford, 1962.

Michalski, Krzysztof, ed. Europa und die Civil Society: Castelgandolfo-Gespräche. Stuttgart, Germany, 1991.

Sennett, Richard. The Fall of Public Man. New York, 1977.

Weintraub, Jeff, and Krishnan Kumar, eds. Public and Private in Thought and Practice: Perspectives on a Grand Dichotomy. Chicago, 1997.

On Individual European Societies

Bácskai, Vera, ed. Bürgertum und bürgerliche Entwicklung in Mittel- und Osteuropa. 2 vols. Budapest, Hungary, 1986.

Banti, Alberto M. Terra e denaro: Una borghesia padana dell'Ottocento. Venice, 1989.

Clowes, Edith W., Samuel D. Kassow, and James L. West, eds. Between Tsar andPeople: Educated Society and the Quest for Public Identity in Late Imperial Russia. Princeton, N.J., 1991.

Daumard, Adeline. Les bourgeois et la bourgeoisie en France depuis 1815. Paris, 1987.

Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of theEnglish Middle Class, 1780–1850. Chicago, 1987.

François, Etienne, ed. Sociabilité et société bourgeoise en France, en Allemagne et enSuisse, 1750–1850: Geselligkeit, Vereinswesen und bürgerliche Gesellschaft in Frankreich, Deutschland und der Schweiz, 1750–1850. Paris, 1986.

Frykman, Jonas, and Orvar Löfgren. Culture Builders: A Historical Anthropology ofMiddle-Class Life. Translated by Alan Crozier. New Brunswick, N.J., 1987.

Goodman, Dena. The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment. Ithaca, N.Y., 1994.

Hall, Catherine. White, Male, and Middle-Class: Explorations in Feminism and History. Cambridge, U.K., 1992.

Hausmann, Guido. Universität und städtische Gesellschaft in Odessa, 1865–1917:Soziale und nationale Selbstorganisation an der Peripherie des Zarenreiches. Stuttgart, Germany, 1998.

Hettling, Manfred. Politische Bürgerlichkeit. Der Bürger zwischen Individualität undVergesellschaftung in Deutschland und der Schweiz von 1860 bis 1918. Göttingen, Germany, 1999.

Hull, Isabel V. Sexuality, State, and Civil Society in Germany, 1700–1815. Ithaca, N.Y., 1996.

Im Hof, Ulrich. Das gesellige Jahrhundert: Gesellschaft und Gesellschaften im Zeitalter der Aufklärung. Munich, 1982.

Kaplan, Marion. The Making of the Jewish Middle Class: Women, Family, and Identity in Imperial Germany. Oxford, 1991.

Kocka, Jürgen, and Allen Mitchell, eds. Bourgeois Society in Nineteenth-CenturyEurope. Oxford, 1993.

Landes, Joan B. Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution. Ithaca, N.Y., 1988.

Lindenmeyr, Adele. Poverty Is Not a Vice: Charity, Society, and the State in ImperialRussia. Princeton, N.J., 1996.

Pilbeam, P. M. The Middle Classes in Europe, 1789–1914: France, Germany, Italy, and Russia. Chicago, 1990.

Price, Roger. A Social History of Nineteenth-Century France. London, 1987.

Rieber, Alfred J. Merchants and Entrepreneurs in Imperial Russia. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1982.

Ringer, Fritz K. Education and Society in Modern Europe, 1815–1960. Bloomington, Ind., 1979.

Schorske, Carl E. Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture. New York, 1981.

Siegrist, Hannes, ed. Bürgerliche Berufe. Zur Sozialgeschichte der freien und akademischen Berufe im internationalen Vergleich. Göttingen, Germany, 1988.

Wehler, Hans-Ulrich. Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte. Vols. 1–3. Munich. 1987, 1995.

The authors wish to express their thanks to the Fritz Thyssen Foundation for its support of a conference comparing civil society in east and west Europe.

Civil Society

views updated May 18 2018

Civil Society


Civil society (from the Latin civilis societas ) is the realm of independent activity and voluntary association that is not organized by the state. The origin of the term is often traced to the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Adam Ferguson (17231816) and his Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767). Ferguson saw the new commercial civilization then displacing the older clan-based feudal order of the Scottish Highlands as enhancing individual liberty through the introduction of civil society, civil life, and economic society. In the same intellectual tradition, another Scottish Enlightenment philosopher and social theorist, Adam Smith (17231790), referred to the notion of civil society as the capacity of human communities for autonomous self-organization. For both Ferguson and Smith, the example of the free, self-regulating economic market demonstrated the possibility of social organization without the heavy-handed supervision of the state.

But it was the German idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831) who first drew the boundary between the spheres of state and society in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1820). For Hegel, civil society (bürgerliche Gesellschaft ) was the realm of the particular counterpoised to the state. It occupied the mesolevel (or intermediate stage) between the dialectical opposites of the macrocommunity of the state and the microcommunity of the family. In his view, civil society was a temporary mode of relations interposed between the individual (or the family) and the state, which was to be transcended when particular and common interests combined.

There are several competing definitions of what the concept of civil society involves. For some writers, like the French Enlightenment philosopher Charles Louis de Montesquieu (16891755) and the French social commentator Alexis de Tocqueville (18051859), civil society was the realm of intermediate associations that stood between the individual and the state. It includes social and economic arrangements, ethical and legal codes, contractual obligations, and institutions apart from the state, but its key attribute is that it refers to public life rather than private or household-based activities. Civil society is juxtaposed to the family and the state and exists within the framework of the rule of law, accepting a certain commitment to the political community and the rules of the game established by the state. Most writers in this tradition seem to have in mind the domain of public participation in voluntary organizations, the mass media, professional associations, labor unions, social movements, and the like. In their writings, civil society becomes a description for all nonstate aspects of society, including the economy, culture, social structures, and even politics.

Other thinkers, like the Swiss-born Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) and the German social theorist and revolutionary Karl Marx (18181883), tended to be more critical of civil society, which they saw as an economic and social order, developing in accordance with its own rules and independently of the state. In this conceptualization, civil society meant the social, economic, legal, and ethical arrangements of modern, industrial-capitalist society considered apart from the state. The concept generally referred to the specific mode of relations between the state and self-organized social groups which was first attained by the modern European nations, although its seeds can be found in earlier periods. While praising civil society, which is voluntarily formed by the citizens as a sphere of social self-organization between the private realm of the domestic and the state, Rousseau (1762) recognized that civil society can be plagued by evils such as social injustice, elitism, and economic inequality that contradicted his idea of the general will of the entire citizenry (volonté générale ). While Marx stressed the economic character of civil society in the fashion of Ferguson and Smith, he viewed it as an expression of crass materialism, brutal exploitation, anarchic competition, and economic inefficiency (Marx 1843). According to him, civil society was a morally decadent, oligarchic society rife with greed, egoism, individualism, and alienation that benefited only the privileged class of the bourgeoisie (that is, the wealthy owners of productive capital) who lived off the labor of the rest of society, especially the industrial working class (the proletariat).

For the prominent Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci (18911937), civil society was the bastion of hegemony by the economically dominant bourgeois class. In contrast to Marx, he defined civil society as a predominantly cultural and ideological sphere rather than an exclusively economic domain. He argued that in the developed capitalist countries, the state has close institutional and ideological links with civil society, in which the active consent of the mass public is manufactured on a daily basis. Public consent is not achieved through political democracy but through ideological hegemonythat is, propaganda, indoctrination, public education, and the inculcation of a worldview biased in favor of the socially and politically dominant class. Therefore, civil society is ultimately supportive of the bourgeois state, which uses it to shape popular beliefs and aspirations in its own ideological image (Gramsci 2001).

Today the study of civil society focuses on the causal link between democratization and the nonpolitical aspects of the contemporary social order, leaving open to debate the question of whether or not there is incongruence and conflict between civil society and the state. The existence of a self-organized, vibrant, and fully developed civil society that is free of the state and has numerous autonomous public arenas within which various voluntary associations regulate their own activities and govern their own members is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for a viable democracy and the transition from an authoritatrian or totalitarian regime to a democratic one. Civil society discourse has more recently drawn on the experience of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, where the anticommunist opposition embraced the revival of civil society as its raison dêtre during the years leading up to the revolutions of 1989. In fact the downfall of communism has often been linked theoretically to the revolt of residual or nascent civil society against the political intolerance and ideological rigidity of the communist state.

SEE ALSO Associations, Voluntary; Authoritarianism; Capitalism; Communism; Democratization; Gramsci, Antonio; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hegemony; Ideology; Marx, Karl; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Smith, Adam; Society; State, The; Tocqueville, Alexis de


Baker, Gideon. 2002. Civil Society and Democratic Theory: Alternative Voices. London and New York: Routledge.

Cohen, Jean L., and Andrew Arato. 1994. Civil Society and Political Theory. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dahrendorf, Ralf. 1997. After 1989: Morals, Revolution, and Civil Society. New York: St. Martins Press.

Gramsci, Antonio. 2001. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Trans. and ed. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey N. Smith. London: Electric Book.

Keane, John. 1998. Civil Society: Old Images, New Visions. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Marx, Karl. [1843] 1958. On the Jewish Question. Trans. Helen Lederer. Cincinnati, OH: Hebrew Union College. (Orig. pub. as Zur Judenfrage, 1843.)

Rosenblum, Nancy L., and Robert C. Post, eds. 2002. Civil Society and Government. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. [1762] 1987. On the Social Contract. Trans. and ed. Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett. (Orig. pub. as Du Contrat Social, 1762.)

Seligman, Adam B. 1995. The Idea of Civil Society. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rossen Vassilev

Civil Society: Responses in Africa and the Middle East

views updated May 29 2018

Civil Society: Responses in Africa and the Middle Eas

"All vogue words tend to share a similar fate," observes Zygmunt Bauman. "The more experiences they pretend to make apparent, the more they themselves become opaque. The more numerous are the orthodox truths they elbow out and supplant, the faster they turn into no-questions-asked canons" (p. 1). Bauman's specific subject was globalization, but he may well have been alluding to civil society. Ever since it made a blazing entry into mainstream political theory in the mid 1980s, civil society has had a quite remarkable career as a buzzword, both in policy and scholarly circles. Rare is that academic without a perspective on civil society. For all this analytic intensity however, civil society continues to evade the critical gaze, and seemingly definitive statements about its meaning or origin have merely given rise to even knottier dilemmas.

Ironically, history has been of little help. In most cases, historical excursion has only complicated the riddle, for civil society has not one but many genealogies. Its complex story traces back to a tangle of understandings, and scholars generally tend to privilege whatever genealogy best suits their purposes.

Apparently, many of the hurdles encountered in grappling with the idea of civil society could be scaled easily. One is the problem of definition, which, Iris Marion Young contends, has persisted simply because many scholars stubbornly hanker after a one-sentence definition. The implicit suggestion here is that deeper understanding of civil society might be gained if the inquirer were to take for granted its conceptual diversity. This may not be the vehicle that transports one to definitional nirvana, but there is at least the precognition of the inherent plurality of the subject. A second problem is the popular conflation of civil society as an idea, an ideal, and a device for the attainment of a vaguely defined "good society." Again, as Michael Edwards suggests, the problem comes not from this trifurcation, but rather from imagining that civil society cannot be all three at the same time.

Different Understandings

This definitional problem is not new, and one way of illustrating this is to briefly explore some of the several ways in which civil society has been historically understood. We deal with a dense and richly conflicted narrative, and the distinctions made here are, of necessity, a guide. The first understanding is that of civil society as the opposite of the state of nature. In this view, civil society points to a condition of refinement, a departure from a state in which humanity was slave to its instincts and passions, to one in which it is governed by reason and rationality. This is a mere prototype of course, as many who have sadly contemplated the horrors of the past century might readily attest, but it should help in underscoring the point that most times, civil society is merely that to which groups or peoples aspire. Even more important, implicit in this definition is an undeniable gender bias, especially given that women were often described as being closer to a state of nature than men. Therefore, civil society, at least within the framework of this understanding, is profoundly patriarchal. However, scholars like Adam Seligman have provided a more historically rooted picture. For him, the state of nature could be taken as the immediate post-Enlightenment seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Europe in which there was a clear need to tame the demon of unfeeling individuation, which had been an unexpected concomitant of the new era of rapid industrialization. According to this account, the accent on rationality as opposed to feelings that was the immediate by-product of the European Enlightenment, and the emergence of the market as the arena where the new individual could realize his newly found "freedom" had to be checked by something much larger than the private individual himself, hence "civil" society; a society, in Keith Tester's words, of "less barbarous manners." If nothing at all, it is this "civil" or "polite" society that defines and imposes the parameters of social conduct, "reestablishing some public (and perforce communal) space to mediate what are seen as the adverse effects of the ideology of individualism" (p. 28).

A second understanding is the envisioning of civil society as connoting the possession of certain values (privacy, individualism, and the market, say) that are present in and actually define the West but are, alas, in short supply or completely absent from other societies. Scholars generally trace the intellectual pedigree of this controversial formulation to Adam Ferguson (17231816) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831), but its most forceful affirmation could be seen in the writings of Ernest Gellner. According to this view, civil society is what his "Atlantic society" has that "others" do not; "others" here signifies either other cultures or sociopolitical systems, or a combination of both. Thus, civil society becomes, "like human rights, what authoritarian regimes lack by definition. It is what the Greeks, the Enlightenment and we today have; it is what despotic governments, whether in the past or the present, the here or the elsewhere, do not have" (Goody, p. 150).

Other conceptualizations certainly exist, and admittedly, it is well nigh impossible to scour the fastnesses of the history of political thought and philosophy for every analysis of the subject of civil society. One of the more influential formulations, in reality a conceptual first, has been the Hegelian delineation of civil society as that which is separate from the state. Drawing partly on the work of the Scottish chaplain Adam Ferguson, Hegel defines civil society as "the realm of difference, intermediate between the family and the state." His conception of civil society makes clearer sense within the ambit of his rather abstruse philosophy of history, which, mindful of the risks inherent in simplification, can be articulated thus: History is the evolution of consciousness and the modern world is the highest demonstration of that evolution. For Hegel then, civil society is "the achievement of modernity," one moment (the other two being the family and the state), in which the movement of the objective spirit (Geist ) can be analyzed (Schecter, 2000). Even though in sharp contrast to Ferguson he insisted on the ontological integrity of the state as having a "concrete existence" (Schecter, p. 38) of its own, Hegel shared Ferguson's derision for the state-of-nature construct. His case for its rejection is based on his appreciation of historical developments, particularly in the economic sphere. While the dichotomy that the state of nature/state of civilization presumed might have possibly made some sense at a historical moment, Hegel believed that profound changes in the economic realm had made this binary otiose, or useless. The indelible consequences of this economic revolution, he thought, were to be seen in the specific transformation of what was regarded as the private sphere. More specifically, the expansion of the economy, Hegel argued, had incorporated and dominated civil society, leaving the state to emerge more clearly as a "separate political sphere." The family, for its own part, is relegated to what is left of the by now "emaciated" public sphere.

Skeptics usually seize on this extensive mesh of meanings and nuances to assert that civil society is nothing more than a "plastic concept," one whose shelf life will come to an abrupt halt sooner rather than later. Optimists disagree. Indeed, they argue that the hermeneutic elasticity of civil society is good both for the subject and for the various political projects in whose cause it is usually invoked. Mary Kaldor, for example, thinks that the changing meaning arises from several factors: "the changing content and coverage of the termwhat it was not; the tension between normative and descriptive, idealistic and empiricist, subjective and objective implications of the concept; and the relative emphasis on the private and the public or the individual and the social" (p. 16).

Be that as it may, policy and scholarly infatuation with civil society has shown little sign of waning. To be sure, the immediate backcloth for the contemporary revival was lent by events in former Eastern Europe, where the idea inspired dissident groups intent on rolling back the authoritarian communist state. In this specific context, civil society was the social culture, one framed by the rule of law and an institutional civility that was lacking from the social system that the dissidents sought to destabilize and disestablish. Particular inspiration for the dissidents' challenge to the state had come from the prison writings of Antonio Gramsci (18911937), the atypical Italian Marxist who posited, contra Karl Marx, that civil society, being the sphere of culture, ideology, and associations, is equally that of contestation. While Marx reduces civil society to the market economy, arguing that it is basically a bourgeois lie, Gramsci contends that it (that is, civil society) "offers the popular classes an opportunity to deny the ruling classes hegemony in the realm of ideas, values and culture, as a basis for the ultimate seizure of power and the transformation of capitalist property relations and the state" (quoted in Bangura, pp. 4546). This, together with the work of Alexis de Tocqueville (18051859), who had speculated on the bountiful social capital accruing from Americans' "habit of association," had informed the quite successful invocation of the idea in Eastern Europe.

From Eastern Europe, the idea diffused to the rest of the world, where, fortuitously, it fed into the existing disenchantment with the welfare state across the Western world, the search for an ethical force in the wake of the perceived global slide into moral decay, the explosion in the number of NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), and the anticipation of greater civility amid the rampant surge of religious and other kinds of fundamentalism. Outside the West, particularly in the developing countries, the idea of civil society emerged in the thick of the struggle for democratic liberalization and social inclusion for marginalized groups. To be sure, this idea of civil society as a useful tool in the resistance to hegemony by dispossessed groups owes much to early feminist and suffragist movements in Britain. These movements drew heavily on the postulations of John Stuart Mill (among others) regarding civil society, while at the same time seeking to make the concept more inclusive. Across Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the association of civil society with democracy, or at least the possibility of its achievement, was common indeed. Many freely conflated the two, and the popular media treated them as though they were synonyms.

Alternative Genealogies

The embrace of the idea of civil society in non-Western contexts was always going to be difficult. First, there was the problem posed by the specifically Western origin of the idea, one that automatically generated the poser: Is civil society applicable or "thinkable" outside its specific Western cultural and geographic provenance, and might it be compatible with societies denounced by Gellner as "non-modular," "ritual-pervaded," and "segmentary"? Second, if civil society actually exists outside the West, in places like Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, what might it mean, and with what unit will scholars analyze it? Contrary to general belief, these dilemmas have not been raised by scholars in the West alone. Both Africans and Africanists, like Mahmood Mamdani, Peter Ekeh, Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, Eboe Hutchful, Thomas Callaghy, and Stephen Orvis, have expressed deep skepticism about the usefulness of the idea of civil society ("a vague, often confusing and ever-shifting concept") in explicating non-Western or, specifically African, realities; although in the process they have generated insights that have enriched the relevant literature considerably. This has also been the case in the Middle East and Asia, where thinkers like Sudipta Kaviraj, Sunil Khilnani, Neera Chandhoke, Farhad Kazemi, and Masoud Kamali have picked up the gauntlet.

As a result, issues surrounding the so-called alien nativity of civil society have led to the emergence of a critical and fascinating oeuvre. So powerful and diverse is this emergent corpus that Jude Howell and Jenny Pearce think that it forms the core of what might well be called an "alternative genealogy" of civil society. But what are its arguments? The first is to stress the crucial fact that, its Western origins notwithstanding, civil society has over the past decade become a useful tool in the resistance to hegemony by dispossessed groups. Howell and Pearce note that if there is a common thread in the non-Western application of civil society, it is its use to legitimize citizens' right to resist the prevailing development paradigm, thus showing how truly contested the liberal meanings of the concept are. In the process, "civil society has enabled critical voices to occupy an intellectual space where an alternative set of values and propositions on how societies ought to develop and change can be put forward, challenging those that would otherwise dominate" (Howell and Pearce, p. 36).

A second argument of the emergent alternative genealogy is to say that it does not serve any purpose to lay emphasis on the rash of possible meanings of civil society outside the West, especially as even in the West itself, it is impossible to point to a single coherent narrative of civil society. This position has been seemingly corroborated by the plethora of meanings of civil society advanced by different Western scholars. Examples are the imagination of civil society as: "the natural condition of freedom" (Keane); "a condition of education, refinement and sophistication as opposed to a condition of barbarism" (Tester); a "point of refuge from the dangerous totalising systems of state and economy that threatened the life-world" (Habermas); a "metaphor for Western liberalism" (Seckinelgin), and "the anchorage of liberty" (Dahrendorf).

Afro-Arab Discourses

For obvious reasons, the debate on the possibility and meanings of civil society outside the West has elicited a more spirited discourse in Africa and the Islamic world. Gellner, we recall, had vilified Islamic societies for "exemplifying a social order which seems to lack much capacity to provide political countervailing institutions, which is atomised without much individualism, and operates effectively without pluralism" (p. 29). The denial of civil society in Africa is inspired by a similar characterization.

In both cases, the challenge has been to postulate a theory of civil society that simultaneously recognizes the idea's Western origin and usefulness to the Afro-Arab world. This cannot be done without redefining the term, a cause that has been helped by its unique lack of a commonly agreed definition. Thus, formulating civil society as the "values of mutual support and solidarity [which] exist in the history of human sociability" (Howell and Pearce, p. 36), scholars in Africa and the Middle East argue that civil society has always existed in different forms in other societies. Not surprisingly, a wealth of literature has emerged on African and Islamic civil societies.

One outcome of these attempts, coupled with the ever-increasing policy focus on civil society is the emergence of the idea in a form that is not "civilizationally circumscribed" (Hefner, p. 221). There may be some residual skepticism about the applicability of civil society outside the West, but at least nobody seems to be saying that anymore. The global "professionalization of the third sector," to borrow the words of Michael Edwards, has led to the increased popularity of civil society, and these days the international aid industry seems to be more bothered about empowering civil society than defining it. While this ought to give cause for a pause, it seems more important to observe that in tandem with the "professionalization" of civil society, different local meanings are being created around the concept as part of an increasingly universal negotiation between citizens, states, and markets. This is the real future of the idea, and it would seem to be the next subject for scholarly research.

See also Civil Society: Europe and the United States ; Democracy ; Third World .


Bangura, Yusuf. "Authoritarian Rule and Democracy in Africa: A Theoretical Discourse." In Authoritarianism, Democracy, and Adjustment: The Politics of Economic Reform in Africa, edited by Peter Gibbon, Yusuf Bangura, and Arve Ofstad. Uppsala: Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, 1992.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Globalization: The Human Consequences. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Dahrendorf, Ralf. Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: In a Letter Intended to Have Been Sent to a Gentleman in Warsaw. London: Chatto and Windus, 1990.

Edwards, Michael. Civil Society. Malden, Mass.: Polity, 2004.

Gellner, Ernest. Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals. New York: Lane, 1994.

Goody, J. R. "Civil Society in an Extra-European Perspective." In Civil Society History and Possibilities, edited by Sudipta Kaviraj and Sunil Khilnani. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Habermas, Jürgen. Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. Translated by William Rehg. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996.

Hefner, Robert W. Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Howell, Jude, and Jenny Pearce. Civil Society and Development: A Critical Exploration. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2001.

Kaldor, Mary. Global Civil Society: An Answer to War. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2003.

Keane, John. Civil Society: Old Images, New Visions. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Lewis, David. "Civil Society in African Contexts: Reflections on the Usefulness of a Concept." Development and Change 33, no. 4 (2002): 569586.

Seckinelgin, Hakan. Civil Society as a Metaphor for Western Liberalism. London: London School of Economics and Political Science, 2002.

Seligman, Adam B. The Idea of Civil Society. New York: Free Press, 1992

Schecter, Darrow. Sovereign States or Political Communities?: Civil Society and Contemporary Politics. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2000.

Tester, Keith. Civil Society. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

Ebenezer Obadare

Civil Society: Europe and the United States

views updated May 23 2018

Civil Society: Europe and the United States

An ancient term of Western political and social theory, civil society has enjoyed enormous popularity in recent years and has outstripped its geographic origins to spread all over the world. Public leaders, newspaper writers, religious figures, social theorists, political activists, and commentators from many different perspectives now use the term on a regular basis. The term's meaning has shifted dramatically over the centuries, and different historical periods have understood it in distinct ways.

Three distinct usages can be delineated. Civil society first appears in classical Greek and Roman thought, which considered it to be synonymous with a politically organized commonwealtha view that was modified by the medieval church's distaste for purely political categories and came to describe a society organized around the primacy of religion. As powerful markets and centralized states began to erode medieval institutions, a second, and characteristically modern, liberal understanding arose that conceived of civil society as the arena of economic relations and institutions. Frightened by the consequences of the French Revolution and the advent of mass political activity, a third conception developed during the middle of the nineteenth century to describe civil society as a sphere of voluntary intermediate organizations that stand between the state and the citizen. Pioneered by Alexis de Tocqueville (18051859), this is the way civil society is understood in contemporary usage. Although chronologically distinct, each of these understandings contributes important insights to political and social life and sheds light on contemporary issues of democracy and equality.

Political and Religious Commonwealths

When Cicero (10643 b.c.e.) equated civil society with a politically constituted commonwealth, he expressed a powerful tendency to understand "civility" as the requirements of citizenship. His effort represented the most complete development of classical thinking about civil society. Plato (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.) had attempted to articulate an invariant ethical center for public life, an effort that Aristotle (c. 384322 b.c.e.) tried to correct by recognizing that people live their lives in different spheres and in multiple associations. Aristotle's respect for variation and distinction underlay a political theory that understood civil society as a moral-political association that improved the life of its citizens, but the Roman recognition of a legally protected private realm made it possible to equate civil society with republican virtues and political life. Imperial collapse led to St. Augustine of Hippo's (354430 c.e.) devastating attack on the classical tradition's effort to organize a self-reliant public sphere, but Christian insistence that civil society could be understood only in terms of the requirements of faith and church made it difficult to organize human affairs with such depraved material as fallen man. St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 12241274) was more willing than Augustine to recognize that politics could sustain a measure of moral action and constitute civil society, but the corrosive effects of markets and the pressure of centralizing kings brought the first period of theorizing to a halt.

Markets, Individuals, and Interests

Niccolò Machiavelli's (14691527) rediscovery of classical republicanism and Thomas Hobbes's (15881679) insistence that only a single point of sovereign power could protect the calculating individual and his interests pointed the way toward a fully modern conception of civil society. It was not long before those interests became expressed as property, production, and acquisition. John Locke's (16321704) civil society was made possible by the sovereign power of states, but it was really the pursuit of private interest that made political liberty worthwhile. Locke's clear preference for economic activity anchored many later conceptions, and Adam Smith (17231790) articulated the first fully bourgeois theory of civil society as a sphere of production and competition that was driven by the self-interested calculations of isolated individuals. The state played an organizing and protecting role, but Smith's conviction that economic processes could organize social life expressed liberalism's suspicion of centralized political power and its assumption that civil society is constituted by the market. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778), Immanuel Kant (17241804), and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831) would try to infuse civil societynow equated with "civilization"with solidarity and moral purpose, but it was plain that this tradition of thought understood civil society as a law-governed sphere where property, civil liberties, and political equality would enable self-serving individuals to make private decisions in conditions of freedom and security. If the classical view of civil society had been shaped by the ancient traditions of civil republicanism and came to an end with the fall of the Roman Empire, the second view was clearly related to the early framework of capitalism. Karl Marx's (18181883) desire to overcome civil society's foundation in the class relations of bourgeois society looked to a socialist state to democratize civil society itself and seemed to recapture a moment of the classical heritage. It also shed light on an important weakness in liberal theory by calling for democratic supervision of civil society's chaos and instability.

Intermediate Associations and the State

Drawing on Aristotle, Cicero, and Machiavelli for the theory of the mixed constitution, Baron de Montesquieu (16891755) located intermediate bodies at the heart of his aristocratic theory of civil society. His fear of royal power fed Edmund Burke's (17291797) defense of local privilege against the leveling and centralizing French Revolution, but it was Tocqueville's claim that voluntary activity connected individualistic, self-serving Americans to the common good that proved particularly powerful. Tocqueville's insight has fed most of the contemporary interest in civil society, in large measure because of his desire to limit the thrust of the democratic state by preserving local freedom, protecting pockets of local privilege, and nurturing traditions of self-organization. His assumption of widespread equality of condition meant that he did not have to examine how inequality and voluntary activity might reinforce one anothera matter that has become vitally important, given contemporary economic and political trends. Nevertheless, powerful American traditions of suspicion of the state and a history of local volunteerism have all but guaranteed that Tocqueville finds a ready audience in this countryparticularly in politically conservative periods.

Contemporary Issues

Interest in civil society was largely confined to academic circles until the early 1980s, when dissident Polish intellectuals and journalists began talking of "the rebellion of civil society against the state." It wasn't long before an influential body of Eastern European thought began to understand civil society as constitutional republics and intermediate associations. As Soviet-style socialism continued to be hostile to almost all spontaneous social initiatives, it made sense that dissidents would be interested in limiting state power and would be indifferent to the market's threat to freedom and equality. But their sunny optimism would soon fade away. As the East European civic forums, underground newspapers, student leagues, "flying universities," and other groupings began to yield to the logic of economics and the imperatives of politics, it became practically and theoretically imperative to understand how civil society can serve democracy in conditions of powerful markets and bureaucratized states. Voluntary organizations and social movements have contributed to freedom and equality in important ways, but the naive assumption that they constitute a democratic sphere of action in their own right has begun to yield to more sober questions of how local voluntary activity can serve democracy in an environment that is constituted by widening inequality and dominated by large, powerful institutions. It is important to understand how the local and the small can serve freedom and democracy with, not against, the universal and the large. Further intellectual and practical activity will be compelled to investigate how inequality and bureaucracy affect the ability to organize on the one hand, and how local activity can mitigate the effects of inequality and hold political structures to account on the other.

See also Citizenship ; Democracy ; Equality ; Society .


Eberly, Don E., ed. The Essential Civil Society Reader: Classic Essays in the American Civil Society Debate. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000.

Ehrenberg, John. Civil Society: The Critical History of an Idea. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

Seligman, Adam. The Idea of Civil Society. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Skocpol, Theda, and Morris P. Fiorina, eds. Civic Engagement in American Democracy. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1999. Verba, Sidney, Kay Lehman Schlozman, and Henry E. Brady. Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

John Ehrenberg

Civil Society

views updated Jun 11 2018


civil society in european thought
civil society and the state
civil society, class, and gender
science and sociability

The term civil society is an elusive and often contradictory abstraction that has been used by various philosophical traditions, and different types of civil societies have existed under a variety of regimes. Civil society may be briefly defined as a web of self-organized voluntary arrangements outside the direct control of the state that structure individual and collective action. A particularly important component of civil society is the public sphere—the domain of civil society that emerged during the Enlightenment, separate from and often antagonistic to the state, where public opinion can be formed. To many twentieth-century theorists, associations constitute the institutional core of the public sphere of civil society. Civil society is understood to be a construct of the educated and propertied classes, or bourgeoisie (bürgerliche Gesellschaft). The public sphere is also usually understood to be bourgeois but, if lacking a basis in private property, it may also be plebeian. Civil society is frequently tied to certain assumptions about individual autonomy that are Western or "liberal." Neo-Tocquevilleans regard civil society as the locus of individual liberty, initiative, and non-state sources of community. The concept is also attractive to the post-Marxist Left as a non–class based locus of grassroots political activity, more welcome than the socialist movement to the participation of marginalized groups, that seeks to influence state policy and democratize the social and political order.

civil society in european thought

Philosophers have imagined civil society as that which something else is not. To ancient political thinkers such as Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) and Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 b.c.e.), civil society was coterminous with the political community (polis, civitas); it was not the family and household. In early modern political thought, civil society was gradually separated from the political community, or state. Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and John Locke (1632–1704) theorized a civil society that protected certain prepolitical natural rights such as equality, freedom, and property. Thus, civil society was not the state of nature. Philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment such as Adam Ferguson (1723–1816), David Hume (1711–1776), and Adam Smith (1723–1790), as well as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), theorized a sphere of human relationships, institutions, and associations of autonomous individuals that satisfied needs and pursued (Enlightened) self-interest through the work and exchange of commercial society. Civil society meant "civilized" society, in contrast to barbarism or "rude" society. Philosophers of the Continental Enlightenment such as Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755) regarded the intermediary bodies of civil society as a bulwark against despotism and the abuses of political power and privilege. Civil society also signified a society of civility and religious toleration.

According to Hegel, civil society mediated between the family and the state. For the past two centuries this has been the dominant model. However, Hegel believed that for regulation and ethical guidance, civil society was dependent on the state. Like the Scots before him, Hegel saw a darker side of civil society—a possessive individualism and atomized relationships based on property. This was civil society as understood by Karl Marx (1818–1883)—egoism, individual isolation, disorder, and corruption, a "battlefield" where private interests struggled against each other. Marx reduced civil society to a product of the bourgeoisie and to the market relations of property, labor, and exchange. Marx's revolutionary project was to abolish capitalistic relations and to fuse state and society into one under socialism.

By the mid-nineteenth century, society largely replaced civil society as a concept, an indication that in western Europe propertied and educated men were secure in civil society. In the twentieth century the Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) restored civil society as a conceptual framework. Gramsci detached civil society from the capitalist economy and made the former a contested arena of identity formation and cultural reproduction that mediated between the latter and the state and transmitted a bourgeois ideology, thereby permitting the bourgeoisie to achieve "hegemony."

The model of the public sphere of Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) is very close to the civil society of Gramsci and has influenced many historians. Habermas defines the public sphere (Öffentlichkeit) of civil society as that space where private people, freed of duties and obligations to the ruler, come together voluntarily as a public to deliberate matters of common concern, voice opinions, and represent interests. It emerged under royal absolutism in the network for communicating information—the institutions and practices of market capitalism, a lively print culture, and new structured urban spaces where propertied men sought sociability, among them the salons, cafés, Masonic lodges, stages, and academies of London and Paris. Yet in the same way that it subjects the state to pressure, the public sphere is used as a vehicle of empowerment by groups, such as women and the propertyless, excluded from participation in civil society.

The usages of the term contain many contradictions. It is frequently unclear what is a condition, or prerequisite, for the existence of civil society, and what is a consequence of its development. It is often used to describe an existing state of affairs, but it may equally describe an ideal. When contrasted with the state, civil society signifies elements of the private world; when contrasted with the family, it signifies the public realm. It can signify an individualistic, amoral, neutral space; yet it is also seen as the site for the formation of civic virtues and community. It may be regarded as the site of property and market relations or as the noncommercial sphere. Civil society and the state may be in relations of harmony or conflict, or both over time within the same polity.

Despite the paradoxes of civil society, historians from a variety of national fields of nineteenth-century Europe use the concept, along with the public sphere, to examine the relationship between society and the state, and in particular society's gradual emancipation from state authority and the prospects for liberal democracy; class, gender and the construction of citizenship; sociability; the pursuit of science and learning; and movements for improvement and reform. The concept of civil society offers a way to study the capacity for individual initiative and the methods by which talent was mobilized for public purposes, civic cooperation, and interest group articulation and representation.

civil society and the state

The relationship between civil society and the state, especially on the Continent, was ambivalent throughout the nineteenth century. Civil society in most of Europe evolved from a state-enabled and often state-guided entity to one dominated by private initiative. Civil society was more likely to grow in scope when it avoided political activities that directly challenged authoritarian states.

In France, different regimes were suspicious of any spontaneous public initiative that might contradict state goals and repressed the intrusion of seemingly harmless associations of private persons into realms, such as religion and politics, considered to be the domain of the state or the established church. From 1810 to 1848 French civil society was highly regulated and, after a brief moment of freedom in 1848, again regulated under the Second Empire. Labor and industrial organizations, benefit societies, and scientific, literary, and artistic associations sprang up anyway in the Third Republic; though not officially authorized, some associations were tolerated and existed in a legal limbo. As the authoritarian state retreated during the second half of the century, the institutions of civil society were able to operate despite government restrictions and scrutiny, although it was not until the law of 1901 (contrat d'associations) that an association could be formed freely without prior authorization. Thus, France provides the example of a statist political culture underlying several regimes—monarchy, empire, republic—that combined tolerance with a high degree of regulation and supervision of civil society.

A similar pattern prevailed among the paternalistic authoritarian states of central Europe. German liberals sought a harmonious collaboration between civil society and the state in many enterprises, such as the provision of charity and the dissemination of new farming techniques. Prussia lacked freedom of association until 1849, and even then the authorities carefully scrutinized civil society; freedom of association was not granted until 1908. Because the German states prevented organized society from participating in political matters, seemingly innocuous activities acquired political implications; what began as collaboration and deference by the 1840s increasingly became confrontation and rebellion against authoritarian rule.

By creating and framing public opinion, exposing abuses of power and privilege, and making accountable the actions of officials, emerging European civil societies became breeding grounds for democratization. Clubs, reading societies, and cultural and patriotic groups along with universities and the press were basic building blocks of liberal political culture. But the institutional guarantors of civil society canonized in Western political thought—freedom from personal dependence and arbitrary domination, inviolability of person and domicile, the rule of law, civil rights, and a parliament or assembly of the estates—were present in only a few polities of western Europe and North America. States everywhere put up resistance to democratization, and the capacity of civil society to democratize the political order and state institutions varied greatly. This capacity was greatest in Great Britain, where civil society was strong, monarchical power was limited, and political society—that is, political movements and parties, parliamentary institutions, and elections (highly contested terrain between civil society and the state)—had already successfully claimed to represent the nation.

In southern, central, and eastern Europe, civil society offered a substitute for a highly controlled or denied popular representation. The public sphere of an emerging civil society was the site of individual and group assertion of rights against authoritarian regimes unwilling to recognize institutional limitations to their power. But the effort to create civil society was coterminous with the struggle for representation in political society, making the strength of the former and the democratization of the latter problematic. In many parts of Europe, civil society failed to create or secure democracy because of state resistance; fragile, fragmented, and polarized political institutions; and the character and dynamics of civil society itself. Low levels of urbanization and literacy, ruling oligarchies, the power of local notables and patronage networks, and low participation in public affairs were reasons for unsuccessful democratization, especially in southern Europe. In central and eastern Europe, institutions of civil society were divided along class and confessional lines and could not work toward consensus building. Although civic activism intensified throughout Europe, so too did political polarization.

civil society, class, and gender

Historians and social theorists of both liberal and Marxist persuasions have long postulated a link between the institutions of civil society and the middle class. In a venerable liberal sociological narrative, market capitalism and the bourgeoisie are the preconditions for civil society, the public sphere, and successful liberal democratic states. In the Marxist narrative the bourgeoisie carries out its historical mission by wresting economic and political power away from the landed aristocracy, thus effecting the "bourgeois" revolution. In much late-twentieth-century work, inspired by Gramsci, culture trumps capital, identities trump income, and values trump vocation. From this perspective, the hierarchies of value in civil society, commonly attributed to the bourgeoisie, were articulated through voluntary associations by a wide spectrum of liberal landowners, professionals, and government officials; the key markers are not class but education, urbanization, and sensibility.

Gender was also a factor in the formation of civil society and the public sphere. Reason, civil rights, property ownership, and the ability to judge and represent others in civil society corresponded discursively to the capacities of men, while the private sphere of nature, passion, and dependence corresponded to the capacities of women. Nineteenth-century civil societies were considered to be associations of free men, and insofar as most women—and many men, as well—were not legally free in their person, property, or labor, they were not considered fit for membership and were relegated to the private world of the household economy and family. Gender analysis provides an insight into the way in which the disenfranchised could and did enter the public realm despite exclusionary laws or practices. Especially in Great Britain, but also later in France and Germany and even Russia, women could join philanthropic, moral, and reform societies.

science and sociability

Inspired by Habermas, many historians have noted the significance of new forms of sociability that mushroomed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A variety of new settings, including literary clubs and societies of science and philosophy, nurtured new forms of sociability that stressed reciprocal and egalitarian Communication. Beginning in the eighteenth century Continental monarchs enabled, if not created, the institutions of civil society to encourage and patronize scientific, charitable, and cultural activities that could further national progress and demonstrate their "enlightened" reigns. In the nineteenth century, associations as well as other components of civil society aspired to assist and advise states in the collection of knowledge and in the improvement of the natural and human world for the public benefit. Despite the fact that on the European continent associations required government permission, tens of thousands of associations existed by the end of the nineteenth century. By providing new models of moral and cultural authority, science enlarged the space of a secular climate of opinion. Such institutions offered new forms of sociability, self-definition, and private initiative. In this way, scientific and learned societies enabled men to display distinction and gain recognition from others in civil society for their experience, talent, expertise, self-mastery, cultural stewardship, and civic leadership.

Civil society was the locus of movements of individual and social reform, especially efforts to provide education, to promote self-improvement and rational leisure as well as a thirst for positive knowledge, and to mobilize a public for reform causes. In this way, the poor, for example, could be removed from the state of nature in which they were commonly regarded as living and enter civil society. Private initiative founded associations to promote technological development and economic growth; to improve public health; to found public libraries and museums; to organize national congresses, public lectures, and scientific demonstrations; and to pursue sport and recreation. Major cities were the sites of an unofficial art public, a network of private persons outside state art academies that cooperated to patronize, produce, distribute, evaluate, and consume works and performances of art. Physicians, teachers, engineers, and lawyers, among others, developed in civil society a professional consciousness and fashioned a new ideal of public service. In this process, while men of science undoubtedly acted for personal and professional interests, they also claimed to represent the public or the nation.


Theories of civil society rarely provide a perfect fit to the historical experience. Most theories of civil society presuppose the existence of civil rights guaranteed by a state based on law; likewise, the public sphere requires a certain degree of publicity regarding affairs of state and of access to the public arena. By these criteria, only a few polities of western Europe have spawned robust civil societies. Elsewhere, notably in southern, central, and eastern Europe, the development of civil society was more contested.

The growth of civil society presumes the autonomy of the self-directed individual—the propertied nineteenth-century man. But civil society was also the site of internal conflict, as marginalized groups struggled for their own autonomy. The institutional core of civil society constituted by voluntary associations frequently preceded constitutions and representative bodies. The growth of civil society challenged the habit of authorities to demarcate "separate spheres," to borrow a term from gender history, of the state and of private life. By compelling the state to legitimate itself before public opinion, a voluntarily constituted, self-organized civil society acted as a counterweight to authority based on tradition, force, and ritual.

See alsoAssociations, Voluntary.


Arato, Andrew, and Jean Cohen. Civil Society and Political Theory. Cambridge, Mass., 1992.

Bermeo, Nancy, and Philip Nord, eds. Civil Society before Democracy: Lessons from Nineteenth-Century Europe. Lanham, Md., 2000.

Blackbourn, David, and Geoff Eley. The Peculiarities of German History: Bourgeois Society and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Germany. Oxford, U.K., 1984.

Bradley, Joseph. "Subjects into Citizens: Societies, Civil Society, and Autocracy in Tsarist Russia." The American Historical Review 107, no. 4 (October 2002): 1094–1123.

Calhoun, Craig, ed. Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge, Mass., 1992.

Clowes, Edith W., Samuel Kassow, and James West, eds. Between Tsar and People: Educated Society and the Quest for Public Identity in Late Imperial Russia. Princeton, N.J., 1991.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Translated by Thomas Burger. Cambridge, Mass., 1989.

Hall, John A., ed. Civil Society: Theory, History, Comparison. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.

Harrison, Carol. The Bourgeois Citizen in Nineteenth-Century France: Gender, Sociability, and the Uses of Emulation. Oxford, U.K., 1999.

Keane, John, ed. Civil Society and the State: New European Perspectives. London, 1988.

Kocka, Jürgen, and Allan Mitchell, eds. Bourgeois Society in Nineteenth-Century Europe. New York, 1993.

Nord, Phillip. The Republican Moment: Struggles for Democracy in Nineteenth-Century France. Cambridge, Mass., 1995.

Seligman, Adam B. The Idea of Civil Society. Princeton, N.J., 1992.

Taylor, Charles. "Modes of Civil Society." Public Culture 3, no. 1 (fall 1990): 95–118.

Tester, Keith. Civil Society. London and New York, 1992.

Trentmann, Frank, ed. Paradoxes of Civil Society: New Perspectives on Modern German and British History. New York and Oxford, U.K., 2000.

Joseph Bradley

Civil Society

views updated May 17 2018


Civil society refers to the sphere of human activity outside government, the market economy, and the family. It includes communities, churches, voluntary associations, philanthropic organizations, and social movements. Civil society potentially constitutes a venue for reasoned discussion that bridges social differences, empowers participation in public life, and encourages deliberation concerning ethical issues pertaining to science and technology.

Development and Problems

Derived from Aristotle and applied to the modern nation-state by eighteenth-century liberal reformers, the concept of civil society came to be so closely associated with bourgeois economic and political life that Karl Marx distrusted the idea. Neo-Marxists came to endorse a public arena independent of state- or party-controlled communication, however, and contemporary social scientists generally view intermediary associations as conducive to stable democracy. As civic disengagement became widespread in the 1970s and thereafter, coupled with globalization, deregulation of industry, and the rise of new social movements, the idea of building social capital by strengthening nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other social institutions that make democracywork seemed attractive to many social thinkers and activists, especially in the former Soviet sphere and in Latin America.

Defining the boundaries of civil society proves difficult, however. Publicly funded educational institutions catalyze research and discussion, yet are part of government. Most mass media are profit-making businesses; yet civic life depends on these institutions for informed inquiry. Conversely, some not-for-profit organizations such as hospitals are hard to distinguish from private businesses. Quakers and Unitarians may think deeply about social justice, but other religious groups turn away from social problems. So where exactly is civil society?

Also problematic is the idea of a venue/network where people with public-regarding values interact to produce outcomes endorsed by progressive social forces—saving the Mediterranean, stopping abusive labor practices, bringing AIDS drugs to Africa. However the Heritage Foundation and the Hoover Institution helped conservative Republicans create reform agendas that progressives perceive as exacerbating social differences and disempowering non-elites. Yet those research institutions clearly belong to the system of organized social inquiry and discourse. Perhaps, then, civil society belongs to no particular ideological camp, but can be mobilized by one's allies or opponents in the service of both good and ill.

A third difficulty is that most nongovernmental organizations are not altogether public. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) lobbies government for taxpayer subsidies for well-paid scientists, with much research arguably serving scientists' hobbies more than the public good. Auto and chemical workers' unions focus on higher wages for current members rather than on fairer income distribution or on innovating technologically to improve the quality of work life for all. And if admission to a not-for-profit science museum costs more than seeing a Hollywood film, in what sense is the museum a public institution?

Fourth, governments and corporations dominate technological decisions, relegating civil society to the periphery of innovations in robotics, nanotechnology, weaponry, computers, pharmaceuticals, electronics, transport, chemicals, and agriculture. There are too many businesses for the few NGOs to watch, and government officials usually side with business. Thus, although Consumers Union and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) make modest contributions to transportation safety, they are no match for investment tax credits to industry, trust funds for building highways, and billions spent marketing new cars.

Achievements and Limitations

Nevertheless, NGOs have been influential on aspects of environmental policy, including technological changes such as catalytic converters on cars, scrubbers on electric power plants, and support for renewable energy. The environmental movement has enrolled millions of people in opposing hazardous waste dumping, fighting installation of polluting facilities, and lobbying for tighter regulations. Health social movements have tilted medical care toward AIDS prevention and treatment. Although quite important, these are exceptions to the rule, and the rule is that civil society organizations participate in only a small fraction of technoscientific choices, rarely winning a large fraction of what they seek.

Such inherent disadvantages are magnified by elite dominance over fundamental ideas circulating within civil society. From clergy and nobles of centuries past to contemporary scientific spokespersons, government officials, and business executives, elites sometimes reinforce myths that limit critical inquiry and thoughtful deliberation concerning science, technology, and ethics. Such myths include, among many others:

  • That technoscience benefits all more or less equally, even though poorer persons and countries obviously are less able to purchase innovations;
  • That research and development should proceed quite rapidly, despite the fact that humans learn and react rather slowly to the many unintended consequences of technology;
  • That inherited economic and political institutions need not be fundamentally reconsidered, despite new organizational challenges involved in governing technological civilization.

It is of course rare to find societies where the dominant myths do not serve the interests of powerful organizations, affluent people, and experts themselves (Lindblom and Woodhouse 1993).

Perhaps the clearest connection between technological innovation and civil society is that television has displaced political conversation and other leisure activities, because "more television watching means less of virtually every form of civic participation and social involvement" (Putnam 2000, p. 228). Television maximalists lack time for civic engagement; the medium encourages individuation—as epitomized by the ubiquity of television sets in children's bedrooms; and an emphasis on individual rather than collective failings discourages viewers from trying to ameliorate social problems. Cell phones and email have been used in organizing public protests and even toppling a few governments, but cyberspace generally has not lived up to the hopes of early advocates as a space for public inquiry.

Capacities for public thought and action would be stronger in a commendable technological civilization, where civil society might function closer to the ideal speech situation envisioned by Jürgen Habermas. One of the most important changes would be to reduce the domination of public discourse by those with governmental, business, media, religious, and scientific authority; this would allow organizations and spokespersons to champion many more facets of many more issues than now occurs. Another important change, now partially under way, would be the evolution of an international civil society capable of reining in the worst practices of national governments, multinational corporations, and the global communities of technoscientists. Third, civil society participants would need to pay far more attention to ethical and policy issues pertaining to science and technology.

Overall, then, civil society advocates from Alexis de Toqueville to Michael Walzer surely are correct in recognizing that social capital plays an important role in building a society worth living in. Civil society plays an indispensable role in focusing, channeling, and helping to improve the quality of public thought: When anti-environmentalists win public office, for example, they cannot reverse most policies because pro-environmental discourse has become so widespread. Advocacy organizations play important roles in raising questions about the conduct of science and technology, and strengthening civil society probably is a necessary condition for a wiser, fairer technological civilization. However a balanced understanding of civil society must include recognition that it is difficult to conceptualize, is relatively weak compared with market and state, and possibly has been undermined as much as strengthened by the rise of global science and by recent technological developments.


SEE ALSO Citizenship;Liberalism;Nongovernmental Organizations.


Breyman, Steve. (2001). Why Movements Matter: The West German Peace Movement and U.S. Arms Control Policy. Albany: State University of New York Press. Argues that social movements are responsible for much of what works well in technological civilization.

Cohen, Jean L., and Andrew Arato. (1992). Civil Society and Political Theory. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. One of the most sophisticated analyses of the relationship between civil society and democratic government.

Ehrenberg, John. (1999). Civil Society: The Critical History of an Idea. New York: New York University Press. Places contemporary discussions in a historical context going back to Plato's concern that ambition, greed, and other private concerns would undermine public order.

Habermas, Jürgen. (1981). The Theory of Communicative Action. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. A classic perspective from a later version of critical theory.

Kaldor, Mary. (2003). Global Civil Society: An Answer to War. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press. Proposes that civil society could become an antidote to the war-making propensities of nation states.

Kaviraj, Sudipta, and Sunil Khilnani, eds. (2001). Civil Society: History and Possibilities. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Learned essays on European civil society and its possible futures, but under-emphasizing science and technology.

Keane, John. (2003). Global Civil Society? Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Argues that new democratic ways of living in a stronger global civil society are the key combating "turbocapitalism."

Lindblom, Charles E., and Edward J. Woodhouse. (1993). The Policy-Making Process, 3rd edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. Traces shortcomings in governmental policy to weaknesses in civil society, including "circularity" in public discourse whereby citizens tend to ask for no more than what business and governmental elites find it convenient to provide.

Nyhart, Lynn K., and Thomas H. Broman, eds. (2002). Osiris, Vol. 17: Science and Civil Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Putnam, Robert D. (1993). Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Demonstrates the importance of civic life to democracy via careful study of the public sphere in many Italian communities.

Putnam, Robert D. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster. One of the most thorough empirical studies of declining participation in community life.

Walzer, Michael, ed. (1997). Toward a Global Civil Society. New York: Berghahn Books. A leading political philosopher's interpretation of globalization and the prospects for a planet-wide civil society.

civil society

views updated May 21 2018

civil society There are several competing definitions of what this concept involves. However, its key attributes are that it refers to public life rather than private or household-based activities; it is juxtaposed to the family and the state; and it exists within the framework of the rule of law. Most authorities seem to have in mind the realm of public participation in voluntary associations, the mass media, professional associations, trade unions, and the like.

Interposed between the individual (or family) and the state for some thinkers (such as Hegel), it was a temporary phenomenon, to be transcended when particular and common interests combined. For others it was the realm of the particular counterpoised to the state, whereas for Antonio Gramsci it was the bastion of class hegemony, and ultimately (though not unequivocally) supportive of the state. More recent usage has drawn on the experience of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and the apparent atrophy or non-existence of the meso level of social relations, the sphere of social self-organization, and of that level in the articulation of interests that is to be found between the private realm of the domestic and the totalizing state.

Civil society is always seen as dynamic and embraces the notion of social movements. It can also be seen as the dynamic side of citizenship, which, combining as it does achieved rights and obligations, finds them practised, scrutinized, revamped, and redefined at the level of civil society. Thus, freedom of speech as an essential civil right depends on the culture and organization of publishers, journalists, and the reading public at large, both for the manner in which it is legitimized and for its scope and intensity. An excellent edited collection on this topic is Z. A. Pelczynski , The State and Civil Society (1984)

Civil Society

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This entry includes two subentries:

Europe and the United States
Responses in Africa and the Middle East

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Civil society

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Civil society