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What is Civil Society?

This essay explores the concept of civil society as it is understood by various scholars in the field. It notes that there is no single definition and it highlights the complications of measuring and understanding what is civil society. Further, it explores whether this concept can be applied to non-democratic states and how this may be problematic.

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Civil Society must first be defined in order to understand and measure the term. This is problematic. While not necessarily contradictory, competing notions of civil society emerge within the literature. Civil society literature focuses on at least one of two features of civil society: associations and norms (Putnam 1993 and 2000, Ibrahim 1998, Al-Sayyid 1993, Berman 1997). I refer to the first as either a traditionalist or a minimalist approach. This approach involves the existence of organizations such as NGOs, trade unions, professional associations, social clubs, etc. The second involves the norms that these associations are expected to generate: tolerance, pluralism, and trust? which I term civic norms. Whether scholars of civil society choose to study the associational aspect, the norms aspect, or both generally depends on how they define civil society.
Traditional notions of civil society date back to Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and Montesquieu and involve an inchoate, yet implicit underpinning of norms. In more recent history, civil society was understood as emerging jointly with industrialization (Schwendler 1995). As a result, understandings of civil society have focused on how organizations relate to the state and economic setting. Organizations that were centered around economic or job related interests were assumed to encapsulate civil society. Scholars of today who focus on this associational aspect of civil society include Sheri Berman and Ernest Gellner. Gellner maintains the traditional focus on civil society's relation to economics and refers to civil society as "institutions and associations independent of the state" (1991, 498). Berman's seminal work on the Weimar Republic implicitly equates civil society with associationalism (1997). Based within the literature it can be assumed that civil society involves organizations and associations; however, the level of importance or exclusiveness of this component varies among scholars.
The second aspect of civil society, with its application of norms and behavior, is much more ambiguous and difficult to measure. Scholars advocating the norms aspect of civil society define it similarly to their associationally-focused peers; yet, they move beyond it to include the realm of behavior, understanding, culture, tolerance, pluralism, and trust. This second way of ...