Civil Society

Civil society is a region between the family and the state with more expansive social ties and public engagement, as opposed to the more constrained functions of the state or the economy. It is a group of people united by shared passions and activities.
Civil Society Sociology Definition


Civil society is a region between the family and the state with more expansive social ties and public engagement, as opposed to the more constrained functions of the state or the economy. It is a group of people united by shared passions and activities.

Civil society comprises communities, groups, or organizations that operate outside the governmental and for-profit sectors and aim to advance the people’s interests. They support and advocate for various social causes.

Adam Ferguson and Civil Society

The term “civil society,” which refers to a social consensus based on agreements on norms and values, gained traction in eighteenth-century ideas about the individual, the social contract, and the state. Civil society assumes a certain amount of freedom, but the state demands a certain amount of power. Adam Ferguson (1723–1816) utilized the idea to contrast the tyranny of the East with the civilization of western Europe in his An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767).

Adam Ferguson popularised the phrase during the Scottish Enlightenment to contrast non-western forms of society and their more “despotic” governance systems with Western civilization and its related forms of government and politics.

Later, it referred to the complex web of non-governmental entities that stand in the gap between the family and the state. Examples include churches, labor unions, voluntary organizations like the Freemasons and the Buffaloes, and sports teams. A robust and active civil society is considered necessary for a happy and productive society. It brings people together outside their familial ties in non-commercial connections and functions as a check on the state’s authority. A hallmark of totalitarian governments (like those in communist eastern Europe) is their destruction of civil society by outlawing or seizing control of the forms they do not control.

A hallmark of totalitarian governments (like those in communist eastern Europe) is their destruction of civil society by outlawing or seizing control of the forms they do not control.

According to Adam Ferguson, humans moved from fundamental, clan-based martial cultures to sophisticated economic ones as civil society evolved. However, this social segregation process and sense of community loss posed a hazard of escalating conflict and weakening social cohesion.

A new order that secures people and property “without demanding responsibility to friends and cabals” might be established by civil society, which calls for the distribution of power and office, the application of the law, and liberal (i.e., accommodating) feelings.

Major attributes of civil society

  1. Instead of referring to personal or domestic activities, it speaks about public life.
  2. It is juxtaposed with the family and the government;
  3. It operates within the confines of the rule of law.

Characteristics of civil society

  1. Civil society theorists were anxious to maintain the concept of a place for public discourse and private association.
  2. Civil society refers to ethically regulated relationships that enable anonymous social transactions and promote social integration, as opposed to any informal or private social contacts that occur in all countries.
  3. As atomized individualism and excessive governmental authority threaten to foster an authoritarian environment, civil society is viewed as a countermeasure.
  4. Civil society embraces the idea of social movements, which are considered dynamic. It is an aspect of citizenship that combines rights and responsibilities gained and sees them put into practice, examined, reworked, and redefined at the level of civil society.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and the Civil Society

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s The Philosophy of Right made it evident how “civil society,” “civility,” and “civilization” are related.

He acknowledged civic society as a specific sphere of ethical existence that exists or acts as a middleman between the family and the state.

Hegel saw civil society as between the economy and the state, a coercive institution based on self-interest.

The historical development of civil society as an expression of bourgeois civilization has allowed for individual freedom and the enjoyment of rights.

Democracy and civil society

The idea of “civil society” is still significant in modern sociology since democracy cannot be sustained without the health of civic institutions.

Civil society is known as the public arena in which views are produced, formed, and shared. This forum for discussion is significant since it allows for spirited criticism of ministers and government programs.

The creation of social venues where discourse, disagreement, and critique might occur was one of the characteristics of bourgeois society.

Jurgen Habermas and Civil Society

Jurgen Habermas, in his work “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere,” advanced the hypothesis that the monopolistic control of newspapers, radio, television, and cinema has significantly hampered the possibilities of critical discourse and debate (1962).

Sociologists partially influenced by Manuel Castells’ idea of the network society have disputed Habermas’ pessimistic assessment of contemporary society and assert that modern electronic technology, such as cell phones and computers, has produced new opportunities for discussion and dialogue.

These technologies enable a new global civil society that is difficult for governments to regulate, and they also provide quick and affordable ways to have political discussions. The cybercafé is the place of the new forms of information interchange, while the coffee house served as the primary location of Habermas’s old bourgeois public sphere, where newspapers could be read and discussed over coffee.

Thomas Hobbes and Civil Society

A “social contract” between subjects and the state connected the political and civil parts of society, according to Thomas Hobbes’ idea of the sovereign state (Leviathan). The state’s acquisition of sovereignty shielded society from an all-out conflict. Although the political system predominated, the civil and political systems were mutually supportive, and although private conduct was subject to the laws of sovereign nations, it was otherwise solely constrained by morality and the conventions of civic society.

John Locke and Civil Society

John Locke improved the position of civil society as a place of association, contract, and property governed by law by refuting Hobbes’s pessimistic views of human nature. According to Locke, when people establish a commonwealth of property, they give the state permission to protect them from harm, but they do so on a conditional basis, and political power is subject to the law derived from inherent human rights in civil society.

In the Two Treatises of Government (1690), John Locke (1632–1704) argued that the social contract, which established civil society as opposed to the “state of nature,” was vital to safeguard individual and property rights.

The powers separation, the rule of law, and limited government, representative governance are the requirements of a liberal civil society. These political institutions are crucial for safeguarding civil society, but Locke maintained that the preservation of property was one of the primary duties of the state.

C. B. Macpherson criticizes Locke in The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (1962) for offering a crude defense of capitalism.

The classical tradition of civil society theory

A notion of civil society developed in the classical tradition is intimately related to liberal market principles and civic engagement. The Scottish moralists, Ferguson, Tocqueville, Durkheim, and modern authors like Robert Putnam, are all connected by this concept. 

Democracies are more stable and shielded from governmental intrusion when active, unofficial, and volunteer organizations and networks are present. As a result, civil society has a recursive property: it fortifies the (liberal democratic) state while defending it against intrusion. On the other hand, authoritarianism is justified and reinforced by the lack of civil society. 

Hegel and Civil Society

Marx’s criticism of class polarisation as “the fight between immense riches and huge poverty… develops into the utmost disintegration of will, inner revolt, and hate” was foreshadowed by Hegel’s critique of civil society. Issues in civil society will be solved if the constitutional legal state integrates civic life with ethical life.

Hegel believed that civil society was split between ethical life and egotistical self-interest, underlined an inherent contradiction between disputes in commercial communities and the need for social peace. Through diversification into distinct sectors, such as the family (socialization towards moral autonomy), civil society (production, distribution, and consumption), and the state, the objective spirit gains self-knowledge.

Karl Marx and Civil Society

Marx disregarded civic society as a proxy for bourgeois society, a scene of strife, class oppression, and fictitious liberation. The proletariat’s triumph would replace the old civil society with a classless organization that lacked political authority and civil society rivalries.

Karl Marx criticized Hegel’s conception of civil society, contending that bourgeois society was defined by class conflict and economic self-interest. Marx viewed that such societies were not a place for civilized cooperation; instead, it was the pinnacle of bourgeois culture, which only served to conceal the actual conflict between irreconcilable classes.

Antonio Gramsci and Civil Society

The work of Italian Marxist revolutionary Antonio Gramsci, who believed that the state was a blend of power with consent or hegemony with compulsion, resurrected the concept of civil society in the 20th century. Gramsci revived the idea to counteract economic reductionism and characterized civil society as an arena for cultural resistance to bourgeois power.

According to Gramsci, it is a group of social institutions that organizes consent, while political society organizes force. If the ruling hegemony is to be overthrown, intellectuals must lead the working class and restructure civil society via political education.

Gramsci saw the need for a moral alternative at the local level since the Roman Catholic Church had a significant role in establishing ethical leadership in Italy.

Eurocommunist societies

In the 1970s and 1980s, this phrase was popular with Eurocommunist parties, but oddly, it had a massive resurgence after the anti-communist uprisings of 1989.

The main goal was to identify varied social places for public discourse, neighborhood projects, and non-profit citizens’ groups that weren’t just extensions of the market or adjuncts of the state.

The revolutions of 1989, according to Arato (1991), were “self-limiting” in that they rejected centralized authority and futuristic utopias.

The Communist rule would be replaced by self-governing civic communities and democracy always open by active people.

Many critics are disappointed in post-communist civil societies due to distrust-based cultures, a custom of doing business informally, and the consolidation of particularistic ideologies and components. Some argue that global civil society comprises international non-governmental organizations, transnational social movements, and digitally mediated social networks that exist alongside and may even replace national state-civil society ties.

Criticism in the modern day

Although the concept of civil society has been widely adopted, there is a conflict. The unchecked expansion of world markets brought about by global neoliberalism has led to increased levels of social inequality that neither states nor international organizations can address.

There is a danger of an overly elastic and underdeveloped idea here since global political and business institutions are nested inside restricting networks of a global civil society.

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