The Revival of Civil Society: Global and comparative perspectives – edited by Michael G Schechter

The relationship between globalization and civil society is the theme of this collection of essays. The book originates from a symposium of political scientists, economists, philosophers and sociologists held at Michigan State University in March 1997. The collection is ambitious, using an international perspective to cover definitions of civil society, empirical data from selected countries, and practical lessons from the field.

Part 1, called ‘Multiple and Evolving Meanings of Civil Society and Globalization’, is theoretical. Louis Hunt traces civil society back to its Enlightenment roots. He shows that the meaning of civil society was just as confused then as it is now. Jonas Zoninsein uses a fivefold model of society, defining civil society in contradistinction to the state, political society, economic society and the economy. He goes on to relate civil society to current theories of international relations, concluding with the question ‘How far can global civil society go?’ Michael Schechter suggests that globalization has had the double effect of weakening states and intergovernmental institutions and strengthening civil society in many countries.

Part 2, called ‘Global and Comparative Case Studies’, includes four ’empirical’ studies. One concentrates on Central Europe (Czech Republic and Hungary) and another on the Caribbean (Trinidad and Guyana), while two focus on Central America. There is also a chapter on underground activities — crime in organized networks — revealing the dark side of globalization.

Part 3, called ‘Lessons from the Field’, consists of a single chapter by Kimberly Stanton, a programme officer at the MacArthur Foundation. She reflects on the practice of developing civil society based on her experience of giving grants.

The book contains many interesting and useful insights. People who want to understand the history of civil society simply have to read Louis Hunt’s study, and people who have ever wondered whether developing NGOs will deliver civil society goals should read Kimberly Stanton. Indeed, any serious student of civil society should read this book.

But — and there are always buts — I have four reservations.

First, it is inappropriate to have ‘global’ in the title of a book without a study from the southern hemisphere. All contributors hail from the Americas and it shows. Michael Schechter’s assertion that globalization has weakened states and strengthened civil society, for instance, would be greeted with derision in many parts of the South.

Second, the ’empirical’ part of the book is not really empirical at all. None of the five Part 2 authors has done any original research. Instead, they rely on secondary data and literature, and sometimes omit vital references. Norman Graham, for instance, in his study of the Czech Republic and Hungary, appears unaware of the ground-breaking 1998 study by Charities Evaluation Services called From Transition to Development.

Third, the book is beset with jargon. We have ‘supra-intersubjectivity’, ‘counter-hegemonic tendency’, ‘confined solidarity’ and other examples of the principle of ‘never use a short word when a long one will do’.

Fourth, save for Kimberly Stanton’s reflections as a grantmaker, little of the writing is aimed at the needs of the practitioner. The theoretical parts of the book fail to resolve differences of view between academics, so the practitioner is left floundering about what goals they should be heading for.

We need to bridge the gulf between academics and practitioners. Save for a small number of notable exceptions, doers don’t write and writers don’t do. The result is that we lack a soundly based practice-based theory of civil society and how to develop it. We need a symposium of academics and practitioners to address this.

Barry Knight is Secretary to the Foundation for Civil Society, UK. He can be contacted via email at

The Revival of Civil Society: Global and comparative perspectives
edited by Michael G Schechter Macmillan Press (UK)/ St Martin’s Press (USA) £45
To order, contact Macmillan Distribution.
Tel +44 1256 329 242
Fax +44 1256 812 521

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next Book review to read

Books in Brief

Alliance magazine