Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: civil society from A Glossary of UK Government and Politics

The arena of social life ‘above’ the personal realm of the family but ‘beneath’ the state. It comprises mainly voluntary organisations and civil associations that allow individuals to work together in groups, freely and independently of state regulation. A strong civil society is based upon a large and diverse array of associations and organisations and is widely seen as a bastion of a democracy.


Summary Article: Civil Society from International Encyclopedia of Political Science

From the perspective of political sociology, the concept of civil society refers to a certain type of society. Its basic characteristic is the attitudinal capability of its members, that is, citizens, to actively organize themselves to pursue certain (common) goals, within a framework of specific formal institutions. In detailed definitions, depending on particular research goals, civil society may therefore be defined in either attitudinal or institutional terms. This entry discusses their perspectives, their origins, and their applications to the contemporary world.

In the attitudinal perspective, the pivotal concept is that of citizenship as an individual's attitude toward the entire political collectivity and other individuals, as well as to institutions and procedures. The basis of this attitude is seen as the individual's internalization of the rights and obligations associated with membership in the collectivity, and this attitude constitutes the foundation of the citizen's role.

Elements of citizenship thus defined include, for instance, political identity and self-awareness, the character and sources of agency, law and order, attitudes toward recognized authorities, attitudes toward pluralism and diversity, the level of openness toward the terms of membership in a political community, and, finally, convictions regarding the nature of civil rights (their universality or particularity). From this perspective, a civil society is a state of democratic political culture, a conglomerate of norms and values typical of a community of citizens who are free and equal before the law, which they shape and develop through their active participation in a public life.

In the institutional approach, civil society is seen as an arena of citizens' activity embedded in an institutional framework, a structurally described sphere of social and individual autonomy that extends between the state and private life. This institutional framework includes, among others (constitutionally guaranteed), civil rights and freedoms (in particular, freedom of speech, assembly, and association and the right to vote), the rules for obtaining citizenship, the rule of law, and welfare state institutions. In this context, a civil society usually stands for the totality of institutions, organizations, and associations operating in the public sphere with relative autonomy from the state, established at the grassroots level and usually characterized by voluntary member participation.

No matter how it is defined, the concept of civil society is inextricably intertwined with the concepts of collective and individual autonomy and political sovereignty. To that extent, it also contains, at its deepest level, a strong normative postulate on how an autonomous community of free and equal citizens should be structured. This normative aspect is manifested in various theoretical approaches that present diverse solutions regarding the relations between the collective and the individual and between the private and the public. The opposing positions on that matter are especially clearly displayed in the disagreement between classical republican (or today, communitarian) concepts and liberal theories, which can in fact be described as a normative controversy over civil society. Theories of civil society, articulating the ideal of a free and self-governed community, inevitably refer to some kind of democratic social order. In the Tocquevillean perspective, civil society is a space for associational life and a condition for preserving a democratic political culture and truly free democratic institutions. Hence, this concept is cognitively useful especially in analyzing both the theory and the practice of democracy. It also gains a special importance in the era of globalization, in the modern world of cross-border structures, in the slogan of a “global civil society.”

Civil Society: Classical Roots and Modern Developments

The idea of a civil society is deeply rooted in European culture. It goes back to ancient Greek and Roman thought. To Aristotle, a civil society (koinonia politike) was an ethical and political community of free citizens pursuing and achieving full humanity through active participation in the life of the polis—its tradition, law, morality, and interest. The ancient Greek agora as a space of communication for citizens, a forum for exchange of arguments, for sharing visions of the common good and taking communal decisions, was the proper space of cogovernance and, hence, the realm of politics. What the Roman tradition contributed to the idea of civil society was the concept of natural law, discovered through rational thought. According to Cicero, the civil society (societas civilis) was the highest kind of social order, reflecting the eternal and unchangeable natural law, a community of people who recognize the same law and work together for the common good (res publica). A continuation of such republican thought on the eve of modern times can be found in the writings of the Renaissance Italian thinkers. For Niccolò Machiavelli, the civil society was a political community bound by efficient governance that ensured its stability, internal order, harmony, security, and glory. At the same time, this was a space for political virtue to emerge and be pursued. Despite differences, these classical republican perspectives have in common the perception of civic community as valuable in itself, defining a good to which individuals' particular interests must be subordinated. Here, the freedom and sovereignty of a political community as the common good is the prerequisite for an individual citizen's freedom, which is only achievable through membership in this political community. What regulates those freedoms is the authority of the law and political institutions as well as shared values and customs. This common good is discovered, identified, and, as a consequence, pursued through citizens' participation in public life. In this classical republican perspective, civil society is therefore a moral and political community pursuing a common good, where its citizens realize their freedom by exercising their rights, fulfilling their duties, and exhibiting civic virtues.

Modern times brought a dramatic reversal of this relationship. The revolution started with rationalism as a philosophical trend that regarded each human being as capable of rational judgment and established the individual, rather than the community, as the source of morality. This thought was followed up by the pioneers of the Enlightenment and liberalism, who held equal rights of individuals (e.g., habeas corpus, private property) to be natural and inalienable. The primordiality of those rights vis-à-vis the political assembly is expressed in the concept of the “social contract,” according to which a voluntary agreement of free and equal individuals is established to secure their natural rights against the abuse of power. The despotism of nation-states that emerged after the Westphalian Treaty of 1648 often gave rise to a negative definition of a citizen's freedom as a sense of security (founded on a law that restricts the arbitrariness of other political actors). Subsequent political revolutions in England, the United States, and France adopted and strengthened this modern perspective of an individual as holding natural rights and freedoms that a state, as a legal institution established by a voluntary political assembly of its citizens, must safeguard.

The classic liberal thinkers believed in fundamental individual rights that include property rights and the freedom to dispose of one's property. According to liberalism, the basic domain of freedom is the market, through which individuals can most efficiently pursue their particular interests. The clash of those individual interests is seen as a universal model shaping the dynamics of the free social space. Hence, in this liberal perspective, civil society is treated as a universe of free individuals who pursue their own goals in their own way while respecting agreed-on principles. It is a sphere of independence and freedom extending between the family and the state, where a spontaneous self-organization of individuals emerges, making it pluralist and heterogeneous (politically, economically, and culturally). What immanently binds this social space of diversity and conflicting interests is, according to the followers of the Scottish Enlightenment, either the inherent social impulse—the friendship and altruism of human beings—or conformism, vanity, and a desire to please others. Even though distinguished from the institution of the state, the sphere of civil society remains in a constructive relationship to it, as citizens use it to decide with others on matters of shared interest.

This liberal perspective on civil society became a negative point of reference for thinkers such as Georg Hegel and Karl Marx, who did not share its optimism as to the immanent powers regulating the conflicts of particular interests and egotisms. Both Hegel and Marx explicitly equated the civil society (bürgerliche Gesellschaft) with the economic society and the private sphere, with which they contrasted the public sphere as the only one capable of curbing conflicts and disparities within civil society. According to Hegel, the embodiment and guarantor of this superindividual order was the state. For Marx, it was a political civil society that can be created after the abolition of private property, which is the source of disparities, domination, and social conflicts. It was with reference to these two thinkers that Antonio Gramsci developed his concept of civil society in the first half of the 20th century.

However, from the mid-19th century until the 1970s, the interest in the concept of civil society virtually disappeared, replaced by a more detailed reflection on the institutional and normative framework of the democratic order. The renaissance of this idea in the last decades of the 20th century is related to the birth of opposition movements in Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe, where self-organizing social and civic structures operated beyond the state or in opposition to it. From the perspective of mainly Western analysts, the category of a civil society seemed to be an appropriate tool to describe them. Civic movements in authoritarian countries were undoubtedly a major impulse for the renaissance of interest in the category of civil society. It was all the more important, however, that they occurred concurrently with social and political phenomena and changes taking place in Western societies themselves (e.g., the welfare state crisis, new social movements). In the public debate, criticism was directed either at the excessive welfare state or at the alienation of representative democracies from civil society. The advocates of social and economic mobilization or social and political democratization, of increasing civic participation and involvement in public life, and of combating alienation and individualism quite often made reference to the classical republican visions of the truly civil society. At the same time, they forced political thinkers to revisit this issue in the context of the modern era.

With respect to the concept of civil society, the most interesting aspect of this debate is the dispute between liberals and communitarians, pursued with varying intensity over the past 30 years of the 20th century. Even though it is rooted in two different visions of the individual-collectivity relationship and the factors constituting the Self, this dispute finds its practical expression mostly in the different understanding of a civil society and its relationship to the democratic state. Putting it as simply as possible, for liberals, a state is one of the many voluntary assemblies of free and equal citizens who agree on the principles of justice, which they can reflect on, question, and renegotiate. Its basic role is to safeguard the agreed procedures. Those procedures (e.g., the rule of law) and the results of their application are what liberals are inclined to consider a “procedural” common good. A state, largely restricted to safeguarding the agreed rules, would open even more space for the development of a civil society. As a guardian of procedures, it should remain neutral to various goals, visions, and ideals of good life, which are to emerge and compete with one another within the very space of the civil society, in the “free marketplace of ideas.” It is civil society rather than the state that selects and orders these procedures. In this sense, a liberal civil society, as distinct from the state, remains in a constructive relationship with the state but is more significant than the latter. A political society is important but has no absolute priority.

For communitarians, by contrast, the state is the most powerful political community, defined as a particular “community of experience” in which a shared past and future are intertwined. The community's tradition is its substantial common good, and its maintenance is a common goal and endeavor. Active participation and involvement in the community's life leads to identification with its goals and generates a sense of solidarity, so promoting the culture of participation is a value worth supporting. A state may remain neutral on various matters but not on the matter of patriotism. Only by discovering the principles, ties, and loyalties that bind the community together can individuals fully understand their social and civic roles. Civil society is not a chaotic set of competing or cooperating associations but an entity united by a shared self-awareness of its own history, tradition, culture, institutions, and achievements; the goals and concepts presented in the “free market of ideas” must be intelligible to everyone and must be embedded in the culture or tradition of the community. Thus, the state is entitled and obliged to support a common understanding, by following the policy of preference for the common good and establishing a hierarchy of goals and values to inspire its members. This policy of preferring a substantially understood common good over the policy of neutrality makes the state the ultimate entity. In this sense, the state is more important than the civil society, or to put it in other words, a civil society is tantamount to both the political community and the state.

This controversy over ideas, theories, or even ideologies can often be found in daily life and disputes in liberal democracies. It refers, among other things, to the practical dimension of the relationship between the state and the civil society, in particular in different models of cooperation between public administrative structures and the so-called third sector.

State and Civil Society

Analytically, we can distinguish three types of relationships between the civil society and a democratic state. In the first, a civil society is a complement to the state. In the second, the state is a complement to civil society. In the third, the state and civil society are in an antagonistic relationship. The first type of relationship emerges where the state is the major agent for the redistribution of national wealth and takes responsibility for providing and operating many spheres of collective life (e.g., education, health care, pensions). In this situation, civic organizations enter only those areas of collective life that the state does not provide with sufficient social services. Such a relationship can be observed in welfare states characterized by an extended sphere of social benefits, and its theoretical grounds can be found in communitarian concepts. An excessive welfare state may, however, lead to the “learned helplessness” syndrome (or dependency on social benefits), which converts some citizens into the welfare state's clients. This weakens the vigor of civil society.

The second type of relationship refers to the situation where the state's responsibilities are restricted to the minimum (e.g., police, army, courts, diplomacy). The remaining part of public life is taken care of by grassroots citizens' groups. Such a relationship stems from liberal concepts of citizenship and state. It is worth noting that where a state's noninvolvement is too restricted, social inequalities may increase, which may lead to the marginalization or exclusion of some segments of society. This, in turn, reduces the vitality of a civil society because for marginalized individuals, dealing with public matters ceases to be of importance, having to focus on survival. The third type of relationship echoes the relation between individuals and the authoritarian state. It can be found predominantly in young democracies as this antagonistic relationship between citizens and the nondemocratic state is still present in the collective memory and in common cognitive structures. In this case, various organizations of civil society usually have little trust in the state institutions (and vice versa). As a consequence, conflict prevails over cooperation. Over time, especially when a young democracy has completed the consolidation phase, this generalized antagonism may disappear, replaced by civic defiance focused on certain acts of a democratic state.

Cognitive Usefulness of the Concept

The usefulness of the concept of civil society changes over time. There are periods where researchers' attention is drawn to other areas, with the civil society itself being treated as secondary to some more fundamental issues (e.g., the rule of law, functioning of democratic state institutions, party system development and functioning). In such cases, sociological or political science narratives push the concept of “civil society” to the background, if they refer to it at all. This happens where the subject of research is a well-consolidated democracy (at least in some of its aspects).

There are times, however, where researchers rediscover the cognitive usefulness of the concept. This takes place, for example, where a stable functioning and reproduction of the democratic order is disrupted and the very existence of democracy is jeopardized. This is also the case when new social movements emerge in the public sphere, contesting a particular part of reality as, for example, ecological movements that have had an impact on political decision makers and made the public opinion sensitive to the consequences of environmental devastation. However, the revival of this concept can be seen most clearly in times of great historical revolutions, leading to a democratic order that emerged after the breakdown of authoritarian systems, as was the case in the 1980s and 1990s.

In different theories of democracy, the analytical usefulness of the concept of civil society varies. Generally, in theories that focus solely on the procedural dimension of democracy, where the problem of civic participation in public life is of lesser importance, the usefulness of this concept is less than in theories focusing on substantial aspects. In the former approach, a civil society is reduced to the so-called third sector, understood as the totality of voluntary nongovernmental associations that articulate various interests in the public sphere. In the latter approach, the usefulness of civil society is greater as the activity of citizens in the public realm determines the vitality of democracy. Examples of such a perspective are the associational democracy model as well as the deliberative democracy model.

Civil Society and Globalization

In the globalized world of today, with the progress of technologies, transport, and, most of all, means of mass communication that cover the entire world, problems that used to be of local impact (humanitarian disasters, epidemics, financial crises) now turn into global issues. These problems are addressed by governments of nation-states, international economic and political organizations (e.g., the United Nations, the World Bank, or the World Trade Organization), as well as private financial or industrial multinational corporations. The global governance of transnational decision-making structures creates the need to ensure civil scrutiny and to build a “global civil society.”

However, using the concept of civil society in a global context creates both theoretical and practical difficulties. It is true that some institutions of civil society are becoming globalized. The 1980s were a breakthrough decade in this respect, when some civil initiatives (e.g., human rights and pacifist movements) transcended the borders of the nation-states. They referred to global problems and demanded global solutions as well. Some of those initiatives entered the institutional phase, which resulted in the emergence of nongovernmental civic institutions of global scope (e.g., Greenpeace, Transparency International, Amnesty International). However, the conclusion that we are dealing with the beginnings of a global civil society seems to be premature for a number of reasons.

First, a civil society consists of citizens to whom authorities, legitimated by democratic procedures (e.g., elections), are accountable for their decisions. Global governance cannot be equated with political power defined in this way; because there is no global accountability procedure, this relationship cannot be directly transposed to the global level. Second, there are no rules to legitimize the actions of global civil structures, as a result of which their activity faces claims of usurpation. Third, the emergence of “global civil society” would require a common normative base, on which even contradictory civil initiatives could meet and operate in mutual respect. In a global dimension, there is no such common cultural denominator. Even the concept of basic human rights is not generally recognized and is sometimes interpreted as a product of the Western culture and a tool for its expansion.

The importance of global governance is rising, as is that of global grassroots civil initiatives. However, because there is no “social contract” on the global level, both institutions that execute global governance and global civil organizations suffer from legitimacy deficits. Therefore, their relationship is usually antagonistic. Hence, the concept of civil society may again turn out to be a useful analytical category to describe further developments of globalization.

See also:

Accountability, Citizenship, Democracy, Types of, Liberalism, Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs), Participation, Political Culture, Republicanism, State

Further Readings
  • Alexander, J. C.2006 The civil sphere. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Cohen, J. L., & Arato, A.1992 Civil society and political theory. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Colás, A.2002 International civil society. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
  • Edwards, M.2004 Civil society. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
  • Gellner, E.1994 Conditions of liberty: Civil society and its rivals. London: Hamish Hamilton.
  • Habermas, J.1989 The structural transformation of the public sphere. Cambridge: MIT Press. (Original work published 1962).
  • Hall, J. A. (ed.). 1995 Civil society: Theory, history, comparison. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Keane, J.2003 Global civil society? Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Linz, J. J., & Stepan, A.1996 Problems of democratic transition and consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and post-communist Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Pérez-Diaz, V.1993 The return of civil society: The emergence of democratic Spain. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Wnuk-Lipinski, Edmund
    and and
    Bukowska, Xymena
    Institute of Political Studies, University of Warsaw Warsaw, Poland
    SAGE Publications, Inc.

    Related Credo Articles

    Full text Article Civil Society
    Encyclopedia of Geography

    With the advent of globalization, and the hegemonic dominance of the market-based paradigm of neoliberalism, the term civil society has been...

    Full text Article Civil Society
    International Encyclopedia of Human Geography

    Figure 1 Meeting of a women's neighborhood committee, Guatemala City. Box 1 Donor-supported civil society building: The Iraq...

    Full text Article civil society
    The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology

    According to Karl Marx , civil society is a fragmented capitalist world organized around individualism and materialistic competition of...

    See more from Credo