Civil society – is it anything more than a metaphor for hope for a better world?

Barry Knight

‘Rarely has there been a concept in the development field that has grabbed people’s attention so quickly and become so widely used in such a short space of time as the concept of civil society,’ writes Richard Holloway in his Civil Society Toolbox.[1]

An alternative version might read: ‘Rarely in the history of development can a term have progressed so quickly from obscurity to meaninglessness without even a nanosecond of coherence.’

Richard Holloway’s right. Until ten years ago, the use of the term was confined to a few freedom fighters in oppressive regimes in Eastern Europe, South Africa and South America. An Internet search today reveals more than 34,000 websites in which the term is used.

Across the world, the prefix ‘civil society’ has suddenly become attached to centres, research institutions, foundations, university departments, government units, challenge funds, projects, conferences, and much else. We even have the beginnings of an index from CIVICUS. Civil society is everywhere being strengthened, promoted and reinvented. This adds up to a huge industry.

But what is civil society? Is it an important political idea? A trendy jargon term for NGO activists? A job creation scheme for academics? A refuge for politicians who have run out of ideas? Or is it all of these?

It is striking that so much energy is being put into something that is so vague. Civil society is so plastic that it appeals right across the political spectrum. By endorsing civil society, people can commit to anything. By the same token, there is room for everyone to be disappointed. One has only to look to the fate of the ‘third way’ in Germany. Because it is attracting so much criticism for being a vacuous concept, it is being quietly dropped. If the same fate befalls civil society, the notion of citizenship may fall off the political agenda, to be replaced with a new and unsympathetic set of ideas. A parallel might be the notion of state planning, which gripped the world’s governments in the 1940s, but was followed by disillusion and fell into disrepute, to be replaced by a new ideology in the 1970s – the free market.

Words, just like everything else, are subject to fashion, so civil society could soon become a burned out idea. To survive, it needs to stake its claim as something particular and useful that people can agree on. It is useless to claim, as many academics do, that civil society is a contested term. If it is contested, what justification is there in continuing to use it unless we want to perpetuate confusion?

Our view is simple: define it or drop it.

A plethora of uses

A useful starting point for understanding the meaning of any term is to find out how it is used. In researching this article, we have come across some systematically different uses of the term civil society. These include the following:

  • anything that’s not government;
  • the sphere of interaction between the state and the market;
  • non-governmental organizations (NGOs): variously called voluntary organizations, charities, non-profits, third sector organizations and civil society organizations;
  • community organizations: variously called civil society organizations, citizens’ organizations, people’s organizations, village associations, networks of kith and kin, women’s groups and clans;
  • societies and clubs: groups that express a variety of interests from choral societies to pigeon clubs;
  • partnership organizations: hybrids in various blends of public, private, voluntary and community organizations to regenerate the economy or the environment;
  • social movements: coalitions or broad-based organizations forming a bulwark against global capitalism, and pressing forward issues relating to consumers, women, land, race and the environment;
  • citizen action: what citizens do to improve their living and working conditions;
    press and media: the freedom of which is a vital part of civil society;
  • the Internet: as a vehicle for mass communication leading to citizen action and the leaderless demonstrations in Seattle, Davos and Washington during the winter of 1999/2000.
  • café society: dissidents creating space to talk to one another;
  • politeness: situations where people say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.

Given this plethora of uses, it is hardly surprising that the attempt to come up with a satisfactory definition of civil society has encountered such difficulties. Even the attempt to define civil society organizations, arguably a less daunting task, has tended to fall at one of two hurdles – either defining the term too narrowly and facing a barrage of criticism because of what is left out or defining it so inclusively as to make the term vacuous. The absurd frequency with which the question ‘And what about the Ku Klux Klan? Isn’t it part of civil society?’ still arises, and the (theoretical rather than practical) perplexity it continues to create, must surely be seen as a symptom of the failure of the attempt to define civil society in descriptive terms.

With so many different uses in evidence, one might perhaps conclude that civil society is a portmanteau term used to point to a vague sphere of relationships. Under this interpretation civil society acts as a unifier that enables people with little in common to find something that they have in common so that they can talk to one another.

Civil society and progress

And what do they talk about? A content analysis of conferences on civil society would reveal that what they talk about is progress. They talk about how to improve society; how to reduce poverty; how to increase democracy; how to create unity in the struggle for these goods. Civil society functions in this way as a metaphor for hope for a better world.

There is nothing wrong with this. Indeed, our view is that it is impossible to separate the idea of civil society from the idea of progress towards a better world. This argument brings civil society right back to its eighteenth-century origins. The Enlightenment, particularly in Scotland, saw the need to replace societies based on slavery, military power and religious intolerance with societies based on commercialism and civil (as opposed to religious or military) society. In addition to the respect gained through ‘transactions based on equality’ – that is, the ability to trade in the market – the recognition of what people did in the public sphere for the common good was seen as an essential component of the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

It is striking that the idea of civil society has emerged again at points of great transition. This time the shift is from authoritarian regimes to liberal democracies. Civil society is here contrasted with the state and the market economy.

What has gone wrong in our understanding of civil society is that the recent literature has separated it from the idea of progress in transition. Instead, it has tended to conceive civil society as a coefficient of organizations and sectors. When this approach is combined with (a) the domination of the field of study by economists and (b) the academic convention of citing all known references in a given field, it tends to produce a narrowness of view which might be called the ‘conventional wisdom of the dominant group’.[2]

Such conventional wisdom about civil society is limited and distorted because it relies on top-down research methods which locate organizations as the primary unit of analysis, largely because organizations, or at least registered organizations, are easy to see.

Individual and collective action …

Participatory research methodology used with 10,000 citizens in 47 countries for a study conducted by the Commonwealth Foundation offers a different perspective.[3] Results emerging from this study suggest that citizens, including many who come from hitherto excluded and marginalized sections of our societies, define civil society as individual and collective action towards the common public good.

This first part of this definition suggests that the unit of analysis of civil society should be ‘individual and collective action’. It is therefore not just the province of organizational behaviour conforming to some standard of not being government or business. Far from it, such individual and collective action may include actions by government officials and business entrepreneurs as citizens, acting for the common public good in their communities and neighbourhoods. This connects with the agenda of global corporate citizenship (that is to say that companies can work individually and collectively for the common public good) and standards of good governance in the public sphere (government as an individual stakeholder in collective decision-taking and action).

… towards the common public good

The second part of the definition suggests a further unit of analysis, namely ‘the common public good’. The literature on civil society has tended to run a mile from such ideas because it is easier to count and classify organizations than it is to wrestle with the messy and turbulent world of purposes and values. But this is the big one, and it is the one we should not run away from.

Our view is that it is impossible to separate civil society from purposes and values. Is the Ku Klux Klan part of civil society because it is a voluntary, non-profit organization with a membership structure and a dues base, which pursues its purposes vigorously and with passion? No, of course it’s not. It fails on the criterion of ‘common public good’ because it preaches a philosophy of separation, supremacy and sectarianism. How could hatred form the basis of the common public good?

Critics will suggest that the idea of a ‘common public good’ is a contested term. We agree. It involves values, and by definition values are contestable. We would argue, however, that the term ‘civil society’ need not be contested. Instead of arguing about what is and is not included in civil society, we should be arguing about what is and is not included in the notion of the common public good.

There is probably more agreement than we think. Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of CIVICUS, made a plea for work on values at the International Society of Third Sector Research conference held in Dublin in early July. He suggested that previous work, for instance the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, gave a precedent for how this could be done.

In fact we suspect that people actually working on the ground are using values-based concepts of civil society all the time. This is after all what makes sense of their commitment to it. Take, for example, the last paragraph of John Batten’s article on page 10.

We would suggest that the term civil society has usefulness only if it is used to indicate a means of achieving a better world. On our definition, civil society is more than a metaphor; it is individual and collective action, sometimes pursued through NGOs and sometimes not, in pursuit of the common public good.

The appeal of this definition of civil society is that the common public good is something that we know we haven’t got but that we can strive for. In striving, there is the prospect of finding some unity about how to achieve this common public good.

Now, that really is civil society.

1  Richard Holloway’s Civil Society Toolbox can be found on the Internet at
2  In systems theory, C H Waddington gave this idea the acronym of ‘Cowdung’ (C H Waddington (1977) Tools for Thought London: Jonathon Cape).
3  See Commonwealth Foundation (1999) Citizens and Governance. A number of regional reports are shortly to be published, and a full-length academic report is in process. For details of the programme contact Colin Ball, Director of the Commonwealth Foundation, at or see the website at

Barry Knight is Secretary to the Foundation for Civil Society, UK. He can be contacted at
Caroline Hartnell is editor of Alliance. She can be contacted at

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