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Civil Society

Abstract and Keywords

Considerable definitional vagueness exists regarding civil society, in part due to the concept's long history and multiple underlying schools of thought. Issues of multiculturalism and social justice are central to the term. Civil society is also a global concept, referring to the supranational sphere. The social work profession can benefit from collaborative action with local civil society associations in working to dismantle structural inequality and enhance opportunities for disadvantaged populations.

Keywords: civil society, social capital, networks, collective action, associations, democracy


In community practice, the notion of civil society is far from novel, despite changing definitions over time. Consensus around the term suggests that civil society comprises the sphere outside of the government and market in which private voluntary associations, linked by dense networks of trust and reciprocity, work collectively to address common problems (Figueira-McDonough, 2001; Foley & Edwards, 1996). Civil society includes a variety of actors, such as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), charities, foundations, neighborhood committees, faith-based organizations, professional associations, trade unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, and interest groups (Centre for Civil Society, 2004).

Recognition of the three interrelated roles of civil society is useful. In economic terms, civil society focuses on promoting individual and collective well-being, providing services that states and markets fail to offer, and fostering social values, networks, and institutions that undergird productive market economies. In the social context, a “civil” society is one in which positive social norms, cultural traditions, and innovation are promoted. Through membership in civil-society groups, citizens demonstrate their commitment to pursuing the common good. Finally, the political role of civil society focuses on strengthening civic associations, fomenting transparency and accountability among governmental organizations, and increasing citizen participation in the political process (Edwards, 2004).

Historical Context

One rationale for the definitional overlap is that, because of the concept's long history, it is possible to use different philosophical understandings of civil society to support current ideologies and goals. It is thus helpful to understand the origins of the term, influenced by philosophers from Ancient Greece, the Middle Ages, and the Age of Enlightenment.

According to the classical school of thought, there was no division between civil society and the state. Aristotle's polis consisted of a religious and political association in which active citizens shared the tasks of ruling and being ruled. The state was considered the “civil” form of society and shaped both institutions and policies. This meaning of civil society continued through the Middle Ages, as the late medieval school of thought characterized civil society as politically organized commonwealths, or nation-states. In these rights-based societies, rulers and the ruled were governed by law, which consisted of a social contract among citizens (Edwards, 2004).

Subsequently, Enlightenment thinkers began to emphasize capitalism as a replacement for feudalism and as the grounds for new individual rights and liberties. Civil society thus became separate from the state and more narrowly associated with the market, as capitalism was presumed to produce democracy, fair allocation of resources, and social respect (Edwards, 2004; Figueira-McDonough, 2001). Voluntary associations became essential in minimizing centralized power and protecting individuals' newly acquired rights from the state. However, with the expansion of capitalism, society soon recognized the “uncivil” consequences, among them increasing income disparity between the rich and poor (Edwards, 2004; Figueira-McDonough, 2001). This precipitated yet another definitional revision of civil society: As a sphere of voluntary institutions of public life independent of both the state and the market (Anheier, Glasius, & Kaldor, 2001; Figueira-McDonough, 2001).

Today, the notion of civil society shares conceptual overlap with similar terms, such as the “independent sector,” “third sector,” “nonprofit sector,” and “voluntary sector.” Within both Western democracies moving toward privatizing and contracting out services, as well as in former communist governments downsizing their welfare states, civil society associations are instrumental in promoting individual well-being, along with societal, economic, and political progress (Anheier & Kendall, 2001; Anheier & Seibel, 1990; Kramer, 2000).

Theoretical Positions

Definitional overlap can also be explained by the three predominating schools of thought underlying the concept (Edwards, 2004).

First, civil society is considered a part of society, characterized by “third sector” associations separate from the state, market, private business, and corporate structures, in which membership and activities are voluntary. Theories of civil society as associational life explain how to address institutional and community challenges through nonstate means. Two key works that support this perspective are French political thinker de Tocqueville's (1947 [1835]) account of the prolific nature of voluntary associations in 19th-century America and Putnam's (2000) longitudinal analysis of civic engagement and social capital in 20th-century America.

Second, civil society is also perceived as a kind of society, characterized by positive norms and values, including cooperation, trust, tolerance, and nonviolence. Theories of the good society describe the normative values and goals associated with the societal pursuit for democracy, equality, and human progress. Rosemblum's (1998) key virtues of democracy, including civility and challenging societal injustices, are consistent with this position.

Lastly, civil society is considered as the public sphere, or an arena in which collective dialogue, deliberation, and negotiation regarding the common good can occur (Fisher & Karger, 1997). Theories of the public sphere provide a framework for democratic discussion and negotiation around social goals and the strategies needed to achieve them. The work of German philosopher and sociologist Habermas (1984), on critical theory and the public sphere, and by British political theorist Keane (1998, 2003) support the notion of civil society as the public sphere in which an informed polity deliberates democratically about the common good.

Multiculturalism and Social Justice

To understand the application of civil society theories in practice by people of different religions, ethnicities, classes, and ideological perspectives, multiculturalism and social justice are paramount. Civil society as a concept in social work is often grounded in local community development. When communities succeed in organizing themselves and securing needed services and resources, multiculturalism is central to promoting democracy (Figueira-McDonough, 2001). A multicultural perspective acknowledges and utilizes the community's cultural diversity while concurrently aiming to dismantle structures that perpetuate inequality (Gutierrez, Alvarez, Nemon, & Lewis, 1996; Rivera & Erlich, 1998). Participation in civic associations that work collectively toward local development is one means through which residents achieve structural change and social justice. Voluntary associations also promote proactive participation and leadership.

Global Civil Society

In addition to civil society as a domestic concept, there is growing literature on the global nature of civil society (Anheier et al., 2001, 2005; Edwards, 2004; Keane, 2003). Global civil society comprises an international social sphere within which interest groups, social movements, and individuals dialogue and negotiate with each other and with governmental actors and transnational corporations around social, economic, and environmental issues. In an age of increasing international economic and cultural integration due to globalization, global norms and standards are needed to protect universal human rights, promote equitable cooperation, and achieve the peaceful resolution of conflict around the world.

Within this global civil sphere, civil society actors from international development organizations to media to social movements are engaged in dialogue, debate, and organizing around the future direction of globalization, democracy, and development. For instance, mobilization of voters by civil society groups and global media sources have increased citizen awareness and participation in the political process and influenced local and national election outcomes in India, Spain, Great Britain, and the United States. Further, global philanthropy—orchestrated through transnational civil society groups and social movements—has been a major catalyst in the economic and social development and rehabilitation of regions and countries affected by natural disasters, economic recessions, and political strife (Anheier, Glasius, & Kaldor, 2005). Despite positive achievements, transnational citizen mobilization and action remain limited in their capacity to effect global economic and political reform, as systemic, sustainable change requires participation from governmental and corporate actors as well.

Implications for Social Work in Creating Civil Society

Civil society as a sphere of voluntary associations is also relevant to social work, for it is within this arena that practitioners engage disadvantaged groups in collective action and participatory democracy. The following roles provide guidelines for social workers to create and strengthen civil society locally, nationally, and globally.

As practitioners, combating all forms of inequality and discrimination at the individual, organizational, and societal levels will extend civil rights to more individuals and increase their opportunities to actively participate in society. As policy makers, encouraging institutional partnerships, supporting natural forms of associational activity, and strengthening the financial independence of civil society groups will help create the necessary infrastructure and prerequisites for collective action (Edwards, 2004). As advocates, ensuring the presence of sustainable voluntary associations and NGOs in a community or region while simultaneously continuing to garner governmental support and resources will create public–private partnerships to address local issues.

As researchers and evaluators, strengthening university–agency partnerships using participatory action research and engaging communities and policy makers in the research process will foster sustainable practice and policy responses to complex social issues (Lerner, Fisher, & Weinberg, 2000; Soska & Johnson, 2004). Finally, as educators, integrating the Global Standards for the Education and Training of the Social Work Profession into social work curricula will facilitate the preparation of locally and globally minded social workers as well as the reciprocal inclusion of social work more fully into civil society, and civil society more fully into social work (IFSW, 2005; Sewpaul, 2005).


Anheier, H. K., Glasius, M., & Kaldor, M. (2001). Introducing global civil society. In H. Anheier, M. Glasius, & M. Kaldor (Eds.), Global civil society (pp. 3–22). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

    Anheier, H. K., Glasius, M., & Kaldor, M. (2005). Global civil society 2004/5. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Find this resource:

      Anheier, H. K., & Kendall, J. (Eds.). (2001). Third sector policy at the crossroads: An international nonprofit analysis. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

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          Centre for Civil Society. (2004). Introduction. Retrieved December 13, 2006, from

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              Figueira-McDonough, J. (2001). Community analysis and praxis: Toward a grounded civil society. Philadelphia: Brunner-Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.Find this resource:

                Fisher, R., & Karger, H. (1997). Social work and community in a private world: Getting out in public. New York: Longman.Find this resource:

                  Foley, M. W., & Edwards, B. (1996). The paradox of civil society. Journal of Democracy, 7(3), 38–52.Find this resource:

                    Gutierrez, L., Alvarez, A. R., Nemon, H., & Lewis, E. A. (1996). Multicultural community organizing: A strategy for change. Social Work, 41(5), 501–508.Find this resource:

                      Habermas, J. (1984). The theory of communicative action, Translated by T. McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press.Find this resource:

                        International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW). (2005). Global standards for the education and training of the social work profession. Retrieved December 18, 2006, from

                        Keane, J. (1998). Civil society: Old images, new visions. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Find this resource:

                          Keane, J. (2003). Global civil society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

                            Kramer, R. M. (2000). A third sector in the third millennium? Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 11(1), 1–23.Find this resource:

                              Lerner, R. M., Fisher, C. B., & Weinberg, R. A. (2000). Toward a science for and of the people: Promoting civil society through the application of developmental science. Child Development, 71(1), 11–20.Find this resource:

                                Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster.Find this resource:

                                  Rivera, F. G., & Erlich, J. L. (Eds.). (1998). Community organizing in a diverse society (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.Find this resource:

                                    Rosemblum, N. (1998). Membership and morals: The personal uses of pluralism in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

                                      Sewpaul, V. (2005). Global standards: Promise and pitfalls for re-inscribing social work into civil society. International Journal of Social Welfare, 14, 210–217.Find this resource:

                                        Soska, T. M., & Johnson, A. K. (Eds.). (2004). University–community partnerships: Universities in civic engagement. Binghamton, NY: The Haworth Press.Find this resource:

                                          Further Reading

                                          Center for Civil Society Studies, Institute for Policy Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

                                          Center for Civil Society, University of California, Los Angeles, School of Public Affairs.

                                          Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, The City University of New York, The Graduate Center.

                                          Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy, University of Southern California, School of Policy, Planning, and Development.

                                          Centre for Civil Society, London School of Economics.

                                          Civicus: World Alliance for Citizen's Participation.

                                          Development Gateway Foundation: Civil Society.

                                          Independent Sector.

                                          International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW).

                                          International Society for Third-Sector Research (ISTR).

                                          Nonprofit and Public Management Center, University of Michigan.

                                          Public/Private Ventures.

                                          United Nations and Civil Society.

                                          United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Civil Society Organizations (CSO) Division.

                                          United Nations Global Civil Society Forum.

                                          World Bank and Civil Society.,pagePK:220469~theSitePK:228717,00.html