Introduction: Civil Society and the Geometry of Human Relations
Abstract and Keywords
This article discusses the importance of civil society in the study of the geometry of human relations. It explains that civil society offers malleable framework through which to examine the geometry of human relations and it sheds light on the changing geometry of human relations by frames and spaces in which the agency and imagination of individuals can be combined to address the key issues of the day. This article also discusses the rise and fall, the forms, and norms and achievements of civil society.
Civil society is one of the most enduring and confusing concepts in social science, and for that reason it is an excellent candidate for the analytic explorations that an Oxford handbook can provide. The concept is enduring because it offers a malleable framework through which to examine the “geometry of human relations,” as John Ehrenberg puts it in chapter 2—the patterns of collective action and interaction that provide societies with at least partial answers to questions of structure and authority, meaning and belonging, citizenship and self-direction. From the time of classical Greece, thinkers have returned to civil society as one way of generating new energy and ideas around old and familiar questions as the world has changed around them. But civil society is also a confusing and contested concept because so many different definitions and understandings exist (often poorly connected to and articulated with the others), and because the claims that are sometimes made for its explanatory power never quite match up to the complexities and contingencies of real cultures and societies, especially when interpretations fashioned at one time or in one part of the world are transported to another.
Hence, if civil society does shed light on the changing geometry of human relations, it does so not by substantiating any universal patterns, formulae, or equations, but by providing frames and spaces in which the agency and imagination of individuals can be combined to address the key issues of the day. In this respect, and (p. 4) borrowing from Michael Walzer's (1998, 123–24) oft-quoted definition, civil society is the sphere of uncoerced human association between the individual and the state, in which people undertake collective action for normative and substantive purposes, relatively independent of government and the market. What levels of “coercion” actually exist in practice, how “independent” civil society can be from these other spheres of action, which “norms” are reproduced and represented, and what “purposes” are pursued to what effect, are, of course, the stuff of continued and necessary debates, but the beauty of this definition is that it can encompass many different answers and interpretations while calling attention to a set of core mechanisms and concerns. For this reason it provides the best starting point for the discussion that follows.
1. The Rise and Fall of Civil Society
Although the theory and history of civil society are very broad, the ways in which these ideas have been applied in policy, politics, and practice have been much narrower and more restrictive, causing further confusion and creating rising dissatisfaction in some quarters with the concept as a whole. Indeed, most of the problems of the contemporary civil society debate stem from a powerful but unreflectively reductive approach that posits a mechanical relationship between certain forms of voluntary citizen action, the norms and commitments they are presumed to generate, and the achievement of macro-level goals such as democratization and poverty reduction. In this sense, although ideas about civil society have grown in popularity among politicians and policy makers since the late 1980s, scholarly support has fallen away, or at least has given way to rising suspicion and critical questioning. As is common with other concepts in social science such as “participation” and “development,” the more that ideas are appropriated in this way the muddier they become, and the greater the need to subject them to critical interrogation in the ways that the contributors to this handbook all seek to do. Indeed, this is the crucial task if the promise of civil society is to be rescued from the confusion and manipulation that have grown up around it.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the worldwide democratic openings that followed, the idea of civil society returned to the center of intellectual and political debate, and it continued to gain in prominence throughout the 1990s. Everyone, it seemed, saw a “strong civil society” as one of the cornerstones of democracy, “good governance,” pluralism, and the achievement of important social and economic goals. Perhaps it was even the “big idea” for the twenty-first century, enjoying support across the political spectrum, in many different parts of the world, and among theorists, activists, and policy makers alike (Edwards 2009). In this sense civil society was the undoubted beneficiary of broader political and intellectual trends that sought alternatives to the deadening effects of state centralization—the (p. 5) dominant motif of the 1960s and 1970s—and the human consequences of an over-reliance on the market: the defining theme of the twenty years that followed. Civil society became the missing link in attempts to address the problems that these paradigms created—the magic ingredient that might correct generations of state and market “failure” and resolve the tensions between social cohesion and capitalism that have preoccupied social scientists at least since the publication of Karl Polanyi's book The Great Transformation in 1944 (Polanyi  2001).
This sense of optimism was carried through the first decade of the twenty-first century under the rubric of “third-way” politics, “compassionate conservatism,” communitarian thinking, and other calls for greater citizen participation, devolution, and local empowerment across the United States, most of Europe, and a good part of the “developing” world, at least in rhetorical terms. Perhaps it was no surprise then that these ideas became formally embedded in state policy in the United Kingdom in 2010 under the slogan of the “big society,” as defined by the Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties. Even that most bureaucratic of institutions, the European Union, began to encourage more participation in its political structures in 2010 in the form of legislation to encourage petitions and other forms of citizen involvement.1 And “building civil society” across the Middle East has been an explicit goal of U.S. foreign policy since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. of September 11th, 2001, aiming to cement democracy and siphon discontent into more positive avenues for action in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
These are ambitious—and some would say foolish—aspirations, which civil society, or indeed any set of concepts and ideas, could never hope to meet, except by reducing the richness and diversity of the concept to a set of predefined, actionable instruments of limited value and coherence in those areas that are amenable to external funding and support. The result has been the proliferation of government-sponsored volunteering programs, “capacity-building” for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the replacement of civil society by a set of narrower concepts that are easier to operationalize such as the “third sector,” the “nonprofit sector,” and the “social economy.” Debates about the cultural and political significance of civil society have been displaced by arguments about its economic role, particularly the supposed benefits that accrue from providing health, education, and other goods and services on a not-for-profit basis to lower income groups as states continue to retreat from their social obligations. What began as an additional category to the state and the market—a distinct source of both value and values—has been relegated to the status of a residual—something that exists only because these other institutions have blind spots and weaknesses, greatly reducing its potential to act as a force for structural or systemic change. Despite the continued rhetoric of public participation, intrusive regulation by governments—and at times outright repression—remains commonplace. And what was once a conversation about democracy and self-expression has become increasingly technocratic, dominated by elites who seek to shape civil society for their own ends and increasingly mimicking the language and practices of businesses and market-based investment (Edwards 2010). Of course, there has been tension for many years between radical and neo-liberal interpretations of civil society, (p. 6) the former seeing it is the ground from which to challenge the status quo and build new alternatives, and the latter as the service-providing not-for-profit sector necessitated by “market failure,” but the increasing influence of the latter is leading to growing skepticism in some quarters about the power of collective action, social movements, democratic decision making, community organizing and the noncommercial values of solidarity, service and cooperation.
Will these trends undermine civil society's transformative potential by reducing the ability or willingness of citizens’ groups to hold public and private power accountable for its actions, generate alternative ideas and policy positions, push for fundamental changes in the structures of power, and organize collective action on a scale large enough to force through long-term shifts in politics, economics, and social relations? Perhaps, but on a more positive note the 2000s have also seen increasing interest in new avenues for citizen organizing (often based around the Internet and stimulated by other forms of information technology), and in the potential of participatory, direct, and deliberative forms of democracy, in which civil society has a central role to play. These trends have their roots in two developments. The first is the inability of conventional, representative forms of democracy to activate, channel, and aggregate the diverse voices of citizens in modern societies, making additional avenues essential to the successful functioning of the polity. The second is the continued popularity of citizen protest and other forms of direct organizing and engagement despite attempts to weaken, repress, or suppress them in both authoritarian and democratic regimes. Perhaps there is something written into the genetic code of human beings that resists attempts to bureaucratize the self-organizing principles of civil society or reduce citizen action to a subset of the market. Either way, these innovations, if they continue to grow and deepen, might provide a counterweight to continued privatization and top-down government control, returning some of the richness and radical intent of much civil society thinking and practice to the mainstream.
Given these developments, it is all the more important that scholars bring their traditional virtues of rigor, critical independence, long engagement, and historical depth to the continuing debate about civil society and its many meanings, in order to encourage a more analytical approach to its potential as a vehicle for understanding and changing key elements of our world, but without dismissing or desiccating the ability of ideas that are straightforward in their essence to inspire successive generations in their struggles for a better life. This is the approach of all the contributors to the Oxford Handbook of Civil Society, who, while recognizing the contestation and cooptation that surround this concept, are not imprisoned or immobilized by the conceptual and empirical difficulties this presents. Instead, they search for insights that both “live” in particular settings and have something to say about civil society in broader terms across a range of contexts and approaches, though it is fair to say that North American authors and experiences are somewhat overrepresented. These insights help to create a more expansive vision of civil society's many possibilities, while guarding against the misuse or monopolization of the term by any one set of interests or school of thought. And the starting point of this (p. 7) process is to break apart the confusion and conflation that surrounds civil society in contemporary usage in order to create a strong foundation for reintegrating diverse perspectives into a coherent set of theories, policies and practices.
2. The Forms of Civil Society
One of the reasons for the continued confusion of the civil society debate is that this is such an elastic concept, seen by many as a part of society (the world of voluntary associations), by some as a kind of society (marked out by certain social norms), and by others as a space for citizen action and engagement (described as the public square or sphere). Rather than seeing these definitions as mutually exclusive or linked together in rigid, universal ways, it is more useful to explore how they relate to each other in different contexts and theoretical approaches.
To that end, sections II and III of this handbook explore the debate from the perspective of the first of these definitions—the forms of civil society—across a widely contrasting set of organizational and geographical conditions. This is important because much current civil society research, funding, and policy making is highly ethnocentric, informed by a partial reading of work dating back to the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville in mid-nineteenth-century America which placed voluntary associations of various kinds at the center of civil society thinking and action, but later translated to settings with completely different cultures of collective action, histories, and contemporary conditions. It is this sense of mimicry that has stimulated the export of models developed in North America and Western Europe to other parts of the world with unsurprisingly disappointing results. I have deliberately chosen contexts such as China, India, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East as key locations in which ideas about civil society are being contested and reimagined, alongside more “predictable” contexts such as Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the United States. Lisa Jordan's chapter on global civil society explores the increasingly important terrain of transnational or cross-border citizen organizing that is adding yet more diversity to these patterns.
In the popular imagination, as well as in the minds of most funders and policy makers, it is the forms of civil society that immediately spring to mind, often conflated with particular norms and achievements that they are assumed to produce or generate. Certainly, citizen action, participation, and deliberation all require a physical infrastructure through which they can be expressed, and in that sense a focus on voluntary and quasi-voluntary organizations is not only appropriate but extremely important. Two caveats apply. The first is that civil society organizations cover a huge range of entities of different types, sizes, purposes, and levels of formality, including community or grassroots associations, social movements, labor unions, professional groups, advocacy and development NGOs, formally registered nonprofits, social enterprises, and many others. What is important about these (p. 8) organizations is less their individual existence, identity, or functioning than the ways in which they interact with each other and with the institutions of the state and the market in complex civil society assemblages, ecologies, or “ecosystems,” which vary widely in their details from one context to another. As in a real, biological ecosystem, each element is related to the others and gains strength from the system's diversity and organic growth, so that all members of society can activate their interests and intents through associational life. Conversely, any move towards greater homogeneity weakens the civil society ecosystem and leads to its erosion, and eventually its collapse. This is why an over-reliance on any particular form—such as NGOs with weak roots in society, for example—is so dangerous.
The second caveat is that associational ecosystems rarely lead to predictable effects, because they are organic, constantly evolving human creations, most successful when they are most embedded in the “soil and water” of local conditions and mechanisms of support. Studying the gaps and disconnections of real associational ecosystems is therefore likely to pay significant dividends, even if it also complicates the lessons that can be learned for policy and practice. Most important of all, it is clear from an examination of any empirical setting that associations exhibit support for a broad range of different norms, policies, and beliefs, especially at the level of implementation—the means by which even widely agreed norms are assumed to be achieved in practice across the institutions of the state, market, and civil society. Therefore, the links between “forms and norms” that are often taken for granted in analyses of civil society may be much weaker, or perhaps may not exist at all, outside of particular historical and contemporary settings.
3. The Norms of Civil Society
Civil society is often used as shorthand for the kind of society in which people want to live, marked out by norms, values, and achievements that they consider to be positive and important. Indeed, these normative aspirations are the most powerful source of energy that drives collective action, though they may take a very pragmatic or prosaic form in meeting the day-to-day needs of individuals and their communities. But it is clear that the forms of civil society do not automatically produce these norms and achievements, first because opinions of what is “positive” vary so widely within and between societies, and second because both societal progress and normative consensus result from the interaction of all the institutions in which our dispositions are formed and action is taken, including those of the state and the market. The idea that a “natural” transmission belt exists between a “strong civil society,” measured in terms of the strength and density of voluntary associations, a “society that is strong and civil,” measured in terms of positive social norms such as trust, tolerance, and cooperation, and a “good society,” measured by its macro-level achievements in addressing poverty, inequality, discrimination, and (p. 9) other large-scale ills, has been heavily criticized by civil society scholars, particularly in the aftermath of Robert Putnam's (1993; 2000) well-known claims about “social capital” and its effects. Historical and empirical evidence also confirms that voluntary associations can play roles which are widely considered to be retrogressive, as in Weimar Germany, the Lebanese “civil wars,” and ethnic cleansing in Rwanda, to name but three examples.
However, to say that norms vary among citizens and their associations is a statement of the obvious, and does little to advance the civil society debate, though it is sometimes seized on by critics as a key weakness that invalidates the utility of these ideas. Of more interest is to pose a series of questions about normative diversity and conflict that create space to consider whether and why these differences might be significant, how they might be reconciled, and whether any objective boundaries can or should be drawn between the “civil” and the “uncivil”—something of a “fool's errand” if Clifford Bob is to be believed in chapter 17. Without accepting that all associations have to be “schools of democratic citizenship,” what impact do different kinds of civic participation have on social norms? Without accepting that all “good citizens” must sign up to a standard normative agenda, what values do they hold in common, and what tradeoffs do they make between different values such as equality and freedom? And without accepting that all differences have to be negotiated to some sort of consensus in order to preserve democracy, what do the theory and practice of civil society have to say about the mediating effects of the associational ecosystems described in brief above?
Section IV explores these questions through contributions that deal with what one might call the “contested core” values of civil society such as civility, diversity, and equality, and through the ambiguous terrain of social capital, religion, and spirituality, where normative questions are especially significant. These values are core to the notion of civil society because without some level of agreement on and attachment to them, collective action, associational life, and processes of participation and deliberation are unlikely to produce the results that theory predicts. For example, large-scale inequality or discrimination will privilege some interests and agendas over others and distort the public sphere. However, these core values will also be contested, both in their own meaning and in the weight that different groups attach to them. In some normative critiques of civil society, examples such as the mafia and Al-Qaeda are used to prove this point, but they offer little of use to the debate because they are so extreme—close to the forms of civil society in some senses but closer to straightforward criminal, military, or paramilitary activities that work against even the broadest interpretation of these core norms.
Of more interest are the normative differences that exist between “ordinary” associations of various kinds, which are the inevitable result of the diversity that civil society is supposed to encourage and protect. These variations are rooted not only in culture, faith, and ideology, but in much deeper social differences such as gender and ethnicity, which color ideas about civil society itself in more fundamental ways. Hilde Coffé and Catherine Bolzendahl explore the impact of such differences through the prism of gender in chapter 20. However, even these deep-rooted (p. 10) differences pose no threat to the utility or integrity of civil society thinking, so long as it embraces the theory of the public sphere.
4. The Spaces of Civil Society
A strong tradition of civil society thinking emphasizes the spaces in which citizens engage with one another and with the institutions of the state and the market, rather than the forms or the norms of civil society in and of themselves. This tradition is less visible in the discourse of most politicians and funders, perhaps because it leads to fewer immediate avenues for action beyond support for the independent media and conflict resolution projects, but it is critical to the utility of civil society as a conceptual frame, particularly because it offers a mechanism by which differences between associations and their agendas can be held and, in some cases, sorted through, to create a new sense of the public interest—a new public—that is strong enough to break through the logjam of embedded power relations and politics. Anchored in Antonio Gramsci's thinking about civil society as a site for the development of hegemony and contestation, in John Dewey's philosophy of pragmatic public engagement and deliberation, and in Jürgen Habermas's theory of the “public sphere,” this approach puts the spotlight on the processes of citizen participation which do so much to determine outcomes, and on the structural conditions which frame, expand, or contract them for different groups at different times. Indeed, without the insights and practical possibilities offered by the public sphere, civil society would signify little more than a disaggregated collection of activities and beliefs.
This last point is especially important, because it refocuses our attention away from micro-level studies of, and support for, individual associations, towards the macro-level issues that funders, policy makers and even some academics often ignore when they think about civil society and its effects. These macro-level issues—such as insecurity, inequality, factionalism, the structure of communications, and the extent of civil and political liberties—shape the ability of any population to activate their citizenship through public processes; to undertake projects of “public work” together, as Harry Boyte puts it in chapter 26; and to engage with each other across the lines of difference in order to fashion alliances, networks, and social movements strong enough to exert sufficient pressure for reforms in public policy and the market. Section V explores the forces that strengthen and erode these public spaces and the processes they contain, through which citizens engage with each other, argue and deliberate about the issues of the day, build consensus around the future direction of their societies, and participate in democracy, governance, and “dialogic politics.”
In modern, market-based societies, threats to the public sphere come from many different sources, though all are related in some way to the continued privatization and commercialization of human activity from which civil society is far from (p. 11) immune—this being part of the general “decline of the public” in every sphere of life that characterizes the course of contemporary capitalism (Marquand 2004). Once seen as a counterweight to these threats, the distinctive forms and norms of voluntary associations and of philanthropy are being increasingly submerged within the market itself, as business principles are used to promote “more effective” performance, usually in terms of service provision by not-for-profit groups. The “hyper-individualism” that characterizes the marketplace offers no support for collective action or processes of public work, and provides nothing to hold communities together in the face of increasing economic and social stress. Rising levels of insecurity, risk, and inequality make civic participation much more difficult and demanding, further skewing the public sphere towards the interests of elites. Secondary and higher education policies favor a narrow band of technical skills rather than broader capacities for “civic knowledge,” as Peter Levine puts it in chapter 29, thereby eroding the ability of ordinary people to make their voices heard. And despite the rhetoric of official support for civil society and “public-private partnership,” government attitudes in most countries continue to veer from social engineering to straightforward repression, especially with regard to large-scale citizen mobilization, advocacy, and protest.
Of course, there are also opportunities for greater engagement in the public sphere as a result of new information technologies, community media, “public journalism,” and the new forms of civil society organizing that are being developed around these innovations. Attitudes towards these innovations vary from wild optimism to undue pessimism, with the truth lying somewhere in between, but even the most successful find it difficult to reverse the structural inequalities of the public sphere, especially because so much new communication is virtual rather than face-to-face, and may therefore be less effective as a tool for confronting the raw realities of politics and power and for reshaping—as opposed to reinforcing—existing norms and values among communities of interest. The “cyber-optimists” that Roberta Lentz describes in chapter 27 may disagree, but the balance sheet of the public sphere in most countries leans more heavily towards the losses than the gains, imperiling the ability of public spaces to promote democratic engagement and consensus-building and placing a question mark over civil society's ultimate achievements.
5. The Achievements of Civil Society
Each of these theoretical approaches to the forms, norms, and spaces of civil society has much to offer, but it is the achievements of civil society that are most important, and understanding those achievements rests on combining insights from all these different schools of thought in each particular setting. How do the structures of associational life and the dynamics of the public sphere help or hinder the achievement of “good society” goals? This is the most important question in the civil society debate, and also the least explored—perhaps because it is so complex, refusing (p. 12) to yield any easy answers or straightforward policy prescriptions. All the contributors to this handbook struggle with this question, and unsurprisingly they end up in very different places. But posing the question in this way already helps to move the conversation away from two responses that have bedeviled the debate thus far. The first is a rigid adherence to one of these approaches to the exclusion of the others, and the second is a tendency to tie each approach together in universal terms, prompting scholars and policy makers to overgeneralize in their conclusions—most commonly, the conclusion that “building” more civil society organizations will automatically cement “positive” social norms and practices, thereby contributing in a similarly linear fashion to the deepening of democracy, the eradication of poverty, and the achievement of other macro-social goals.
This conclusion is not, of course, completely incorrect, but when one examines how democracy has actually been deepened, poverty reduced, peace restored or maintained, and power relations and market economies transformed—as the contributors to section VI all attempt to do—it is clear that civil society is only one of many forces at work, and that it has often been a progenitor of these problems as well as a contributor to their resolution. In unpicking these complicated patterns of cause and effect, all the richness and diversity of civil society thinking must be brought to bear on the analysis. Understanding the forms of civil society helps to illumine which kinds of collective action are most important around specific issues and their contexts, and where gaps or disconnects in the associational ecosystem may require attention. For example, evidence from Bangladesh suggests that the growth of service-providing NGOs has extended access to health, education, and economic services among the poor but has failed to achieve any significant impact on social mobilization or political empowerment—areas which are fundamental to large-scale, long-term progress (Kabeer, Mahmud, and Castro 2010). Understanding the norms of civil society takes us on a journey into just these areas, penetrating more deeply into the forces that drive social change such as the values, beliefs, and ideologies that exert their influence beneath the surface of citizen action and underpin the success or failure of social movements and other attempts to shift the rules of the game. And understanding the spaces of civil society is vital if we are to get to grips with the tasks of debate and consensus-building around these norms, and of contesting and reshaping the power relations that ultimately determine the success of social action. When the analysis of forms, norms, and spaces is incorporated into a single, integrated framework, new light can be shed on civil society's achievements even in the most complicated and difficult of circumstances. Seen in this way, civil society is simultaneously a goal to aim for, a means of achieving it, and a framework for engaging with each other about ends and means.
If this is true, than the practical task of nurturing or encouraging civil society becomes much more complex, way beyond the usual agenda of organizational development and support for greater citizen participation. Therefore it is fitting that this handbook closes with three contributions in section VII that look at the record of efforts to promote civil society through various forms of philanthropy (p. 13) and foreign aid, a task which has occupied the attention of many donor agencies especially since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The verdict of these authors is somewhat pessimistic, largely because foundations and other funders have mis-specified the tasks involved and exaggerated their potential influence. Paradoxically, civil society may be nurtured most effectively when donors do less, not more, stepping back to allow citizens themselves to dictate the agenda and evolve a variety of civil societies to suit their contexts and concerns.
The goal of this introduction has been to lay out the basic parameters of the civil society debate in order to help the reader situate the many different contributions that follow in a wider context. Necessarily, this has involved abandoning any one particular understanding, interpretation, or point of view, beyond the idea that civil society is a composite of forms, norms, and spaces in the sense of Michael Walzer's definition of “uncoerced human association” between the individual and the state. This may seem overly complex or unduly vague, but it represents a much better starting point than framing the debate only in terms of Habermas, deTocqueville, or any of the other icons of the civil society pantheon. Once liberated from the idea that civil society must mean one thing in every context, it is easier to engender a wide-ranging conversation about the core elements of this idea as well as its contested peripheries, while still relating theory to practice in actionable ways.
There is unlikely to be a specific endpoint or winner in the civil society debate, because the concept of civil society is continually being reshaped and reinterpreted by new actors in new contexts—yet the idea that voluntary collective action can influence the world for the better is unlikely to dissipate or be defeated. Many different varieties of civil society will be created in this way in the future, containing hybrid organizational forms, norms which may depart from traditional notions of cooperation and solidarity, and spaces which are occupied by a wider range of cross-sector partnerships and alliances. Scholars must bring to bear the widest possible array of tools and approaches to interpret the costs and benefits of these changes—free, as far as is humanly possible, from ethnocentric and other assumptions. This task is likely to be framed by increasing pressures from governments, businesses, and others to redefine the conventional roles, rights, and responsibilities of civil society associations, the public sphere, and their associated values. And these pressures will test and reshape the practice of citizen action in service to the good society in both positive and negative ways that are sure to have important implications for civil society theory. I hope that the Oxford Handbook of Civil Society will help readers of all persuasions to chart a course through these uncertain waters with greater understanding, insight, and success.
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(1.) “Europe Turns Ear Toward Voice of the People,” by S. Daley and S. Castle, New York Times July 22, 2010.