Mary Baldwin College, Staunton VA 24401
by Prof. Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
Civil Society definition:
diverse units of social identity and interest... independent of the state..., not only can restrain the arbitrary actions of rulers, but can also contribute to forming better citizens who are more aware of the preferences of others, more self-confident in their actions, and more civic-minded in their willingness to sacrifice for the common good. At its best, civil society provides an intermediate layer of governance between the individual and the state that is capable of resolving conflicts and controlling the behavior of members without public coercion... A viable civil society can mitigate conflicts...
Philippe Schmitter (above left) and Terry Lynn Karl (above right), "What Democracy is... and is Not," Journal of Democracy (Summer 1991).
Relationship to system model of politics:
Political systems exist in interaction with the social system that surrounds them. Demands from elements of the social system for policy responses from the political system often exceed the capacity of the political system to allocate scarce and desirable things. Civil society refocuses demand, and changes its characteristics. The existence of a viable civil society, therefore, stabilizes the political system.
functions of civil society:
A well developed civil society helps stabilize the political system in several ways:
1. Units of civil society ameliorate social problems. E.g., the amount of need for government action to respond to inadequate housing in a community is reduced by the private actions of a group like Habitat for Humanity. Even where poor housing persists, the existence of such groups symbolizes that society alone can solve problems.
2. Units of civil society, by being self governing and usually democratic in their internal processes, serve as learning laboratories in democratic arts of following prescribed procedures and compromise. They further socialize adults in the norms of the overall system.
above: A Habitat meeting at Stephen Austin State University (TX)
3. Units of civil society aggregate our separate grievances into larger group sets of grievances, while they also divert some of the existing level of social demand from being focused solely on the political system. E.g., neighbors upset with rising levels of crime, by organizing and meeting in Neighborhood Watch committees, may alter the form of demands made on a city government.
above: A Neighborhood Watch group gets organized in Torrance CA
Such organizations may, if successful, reduce the intensity of future demand by other individuals onto the political system by lowering crime, and by providing individuals an alternative course of action.
A different view: Opponents of civil society
“The first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, took it into his head to say ‘this is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. The human race would have been spared endless crimes, wars, murders, and horrors if someone had pulled up the stakes, or filled the ditch and cried out to his fellow man, ‘Do not listen to this imposter! You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to everyone, and the earth to no one!' ”
Jean Jacques Rousseau, 1752,
as quoted in Martin Malia, The Soviet Tragedy (NY: Free Press, 1994): 21.
“A class must be formed which has radical chains, a class in civil society which is not a class in civil society, a class which is the dissolution of all classes,… [a class] which cannot emancipate itself without… emancipating all, by a total redemption of humanity.”
Karl Marx, 1843
as quoted in Martin Malia, The Soviet Tragedy (NY: Free Press, 1994): 39.
For further reading about the concept of civil society, and analysis about the impact of civil society on political life in the U.S. and beyond, see:
Helmut Anheier, et. al., eds. Global Civil Society 2001 (London, UK: Sage Publications, 2001).
Robert Bellah, et al. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1986).
Sheri Berman, "Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic," World Politics 49, no. 3 (1997).
Jeffrey Berry, "The Rise of Citizen Groups," in Civic Engagement in American Democracy, eds. Theda Skocpol and Morris P. Fiorina (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press / New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999).
Michael Edwards, Civil Society (Cambridge UK: Polity Press, 2004).
John Ehrenberg, Civil Society: The Critical History of an Idea (New York: New York University Press, 1999).
Morris Fiorina, "Extreme Voices: The Dark Side of Civic Engagement," in Civic Engagement in American Democracy, eds. Theda Skocpol and Morris P. Fiorina (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press / New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999).
James Gibson, "Social Networks, Civil Society, and the Prospects for Consolidating Russia's Democratic Transition." American Journal of Political Science 45, no. 1 (2001).
John Knight, "Making Citizens in Postwar Japan: National and Local Perspectives." In Civil Society: Challenging Western Models, eds. Chris Hann, and Elizabeth Dunn (London, UK: Routledge, 1996).
Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2001).
Robert Putnam and Lewis Feldstein, Better Together: Restoring the American Community (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2003).
Robert Putnam, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993).
Adam Seligman, The Idea of Civil Society (New York: Free Press, 1992).
Theda Skocpol, ed. Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life (Norman OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003).
Theda Skocpol, "Advocates Without Members: The Recent Transformation of American Civic Life," in Civic Engagement in American Democracy, eds. Theda Skocpol and Morris P. Fiorina (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press / New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999).
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