Civil Society: Definitions & Conceptual Issues

Civil society is a term widely used in peacebuilding literature and in practitioners' discourses, but it does not have a commonly agreed upon definition. In fact, from its origin, this concept has been loaded with an excessive number of, at times contradictory, meanings, deriving from a range of philosophical trends that do not entirely agree with one another.1 Contemporary discourses and practices are critiqued for forgetting this history and diversity. These current trends also reflect different conceptions of what civil society is meant to represent and which forms comprise it. It is vital to understand these conceptual issues, as they have a decisive impact on policies and practices.

What is civil society?

A generally agreed upon conceptual framework

While definitions of civil society as a concept often diverge from one another, overall agreement exists that this notion encompasses "the arena of voluntary, uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values." Most scholars and practitioners working in peacebuilding actually refer to that very expression.2 They also broadly agree that "civil society commonly embraces a diversity of spaces, actors and institutional forms, varying in their degree of formality, autonomy and power."3 However, it is frequently noted that in practice, the term is not utilized in such diverse ways. In addition, while this framework establishes general parameters with which to understand civil society, it does not offer a consensus on a precise definition or exact forms.

Divergences in definitions: Civil society's relation to the market and to the state

To define civil society further, authors generally try to describe its institutional forms and position in relation to other sectors of society. In agreement with the Centre for Civil Society at the London School of Economics, most scholars consider civil society a sector on its own vis-à-vis the three other main societal sectors--state, market, and family. Although there is some degree of consensus in the literature on this basic distinction, the designation of actors is contested.

In the field of peacebuilding, the two main divergences concern the relation to the market and to the state. Some definitions see civil society as distinct from business and markets, while others see business and markets as part of civil society. Similarly, in relation to the state, civil society is at times perceived as distinct from government and as politically neutral (if not apolitical), or at least "free from state and political control."4 Some authors, meanwhile, see it as inherently political. Both distinctions, explicit or implicit, may have important consequences. For instance, donors may see political neutrality as a definitional feature of civil society; as a consequence, the most impactful civil society groups may be overlooked when it comes to support.

An alternative vision: Civil society as a space between societal sectors

Some researchers have noted that, in practice, the boundaries between the different sectors are often complex, blurred, and negotiated.5 Others suggest the usefulness of distinguishing among the political (the state apparatus, political parties, and parliamentarians), economic (companies and markets), and private spheres, and of defining a space where these spheres overlap. From that perspective, civil society would not be a sector on its own "but the space between societal sectors. . . . Thus, some actors do not belong just to one sector but operate in various spheres."6

This approach is based on the reality that civil society members--like most individuals who make up societies--can have multiple, even overlapping identities and roles given the different networks in which they operate. For instance, people who are employed by the private sector may also participate in community-based groups in their own area. Hence, as people are capable of operating in different spheres and groups, they can simultaneously serve more than one purpose. These actors may even play on these multiple identities and the ambiguity they sometimes create in interactions with outsiders.7 Typically, politico-military actors and groups would also have their own humanitarian branches, or their own non-governmental organizations (NGOs). This perspective helps us apply a less rigid typology of what civil society is supposed to represent, and allows for the discovery and participation of those groups that may not correspond to a western vision of civil society groups, such as more indigenous traditional forms of organization.  Go to Forms of civil society

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Historical roots of the notion of civil society

Some of the confusion around the definition of civil society may be linked to the historical evolution of this notion in the Western Hemisphere. Indeed, civil society has been an almost purely western concept, fashioned in a specific historical period. Other notions of civil society that might have existed in other regions or at different times are hardly reflected in the international debate on civil society.

Civil society, as defined by philosophers John Locke, Georg Wilhelm, Friedrich Hegel, and more recent thinkers in the 20th century (to name only a few decisive stages in the development of the concept in the Western Hemisphere), refers to greatly differing views on social realities and on conceptions of the interaction of civil society with the state and with the market.

According to Mary Kaldor, "For early modern thinkers, there was no distinction between civil society and the state. Civil society was a type of state characterized by a social contract."8 This was, in particular, the vision defended by the philosopher, Locke (1632-1704). However, it is interesting to note that contemporary interpretations of Locke's vision differ. Most authors stress that Locke's notion of civil society was intrinsically linked to the state, meaning that civil society is a society governed by laws, based on the principle of equality before the law, in which everyone, including the ruler, is subject to the law.9 Others argue that Locke actually "was the first in modern times to stress that civil society is a body in its own right, separate from the state. The first task of this civil society is to protect the individual--his/her rights and property--against the state and its arbitrary interventions."10 The important point here is that Locke defined civil society in relation to the state, which remained the central actor.

It was not until the 19th century that civil society became clearly conceptualized as distinct from the state. Hegel (1770-1831) defined civil society as the intermediate realm between the family and the state, "where individual becomes a public person and, through membership in various institutions, is able to reconcile the particular and the universal."11

The definition narrowed again in the 20th century, when civil society came to be understood as the realm not only between the state and the family but also as occupying the space outside the market, state, and family.12

In addition, civil society has evolved as a key element of the democratization agenda. The notion of civic engagement has been central in that respect. The notion of civic engagement has been widely used by social capital theorists and refers mainly to the participation of individuals in civil life and groupings. Alexander de Tocqueville (1805-59), who first introduced the term, saw associations as schools of democracy, in which democratic thinking, attitudes, and behavior are learned, with the additional aim of protecting and defending individual rights against potentially authoritarian regimes and tyrannical majorities in society. According to de Tocqueville, "Civic virtues like tolerance, acceptance, honesty and trust are really integrated into the character of civic individuals."13
Go to Introduction to Peacebuilding and The critiques of the liberal peace

These premises were supported by social scientists like Robert Putnam, who proposed the notion of social capital as a framework for understanding outcomes of civic engagement. Contrasted with physical, economic, and human capital, social capital refers to "features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit."14 It can be viewed as an intangible resource accumulated by civil society that can be expended when a society finds itself in crisis. The argument centers around the idea that, "for a variety of reasons, life is easier in a community blessed with a substantial stock of social capital. In the first place, networks of civic engagement foster sturdy norms of generalized reciprocity and encourage the emergence of social trust. Such networks facilitate coordination and communication, amplify reputations, and thus allow dilemmas of collective action to be resolved."15 According to Putnam, the norms and networks of civic engagement also powerfully affect the performance of representative government.16

While there are many critiques and discourses on the relative merits of these perspectives, it is evident that civil society has deep historical roots in western societies--a fact that has implications in peacebuilding work conducted "civil society" actors, mostly in non-western contexts.

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Contemporary approaches and discourses

The notions of social capital and civil engagement are regularly referred to in the discourses and writings of some donor agencies. The World Bank, for instance, uses the term "civil engagement," which is broader than the activities and roles of organized civil society and includes the actions of individuals and loose groupings or associations. As a consequence, a distinction has been made by some authors and policy makers alike between civil society as the general concept or the activities of groups, organizations, associations, and movements and civil society as civic engagement referring to the activities of individuals or non-organized groupings.17

Some authors disagree with this vision, as they consider the idea of organized associational grouping central to the notion of civil society. As such, a few individuals alone cannot pretend to represent this sphere as a whole, though donors may be tempted to ask them to do so when seeking interlocutors. Some also stress that civic engagement is commonly associated with groups supposedly representing "democratic" values. As scholar Richard Crook points out, "Deeply embedded cultural, ethnic or religious associations cannot . . . be excluded even though their values may not in themselves be 'democratic.'"18 However, it is common practice to exclude associations without "democratic" values from accepted forms of civic engagement, and as a consequence from civil society support programs.

Beyond this referencing of notions of civic engagement and social capital, most contemporary discourses on civil society tend to forget the historical variety of the notion, its cultural specificities, and its evolution. This has concrete consequences for donors and practitioners alike.

First, the range of organizational modalities considered forms of civil society tends to be narrowed. In particular, when working in non-western contexts, donors may seek out structures that correspond to the form that civil society has taken in industrialized western societies, forgetting that even within that context, civil society has varied according to local political cultures and historical evolutions. Of course, the diversity is even greater outside of the western world.19

Authors from the South have demonstrated that historical elements of "civil society" that do not correspond to western forms can be found in non-western political systems, although they may have been ignored at best, repressed at worst, and transformed through history, in particular during the colonial period.20 These authors stress the importance of taking into consideration elements of local political cultures, as well as of traditional political systems. In particular, informal networks and traditional forms of organization (including faith-based organizations) may, in different cultural contexts, embody indigenous forms of civil society that are often overlooked. The risk is simply looking for forms that mirror what outsiders expect but that lack local cultural roots.

Second, depending on their knowledge and understanding of local history, outsiders may also implicitly convey an excessively rigid vision of a clear dichotomous relationship between society and state. Even stricter may be perspectives on what groups and activities are supposed to be part of the political sphere, as well as on the nature of the interaction between local governments and these societies. As Béatrice Pouligny points out, "Obviously, even in Western contexts, this distinction is far from being so clearcut, but it tends to be considered in an even more rigid way in places where 'civil society' is presented as an alternative to a dysfunctional or even 'failed' state."21 In such contexts, the promotion of civil society has been an important component of a neo-liberal agenda. As Kristian Berg Harpviken and Kjell Erling Kjellman argue, "In this view, the role of the state is reduced, and the provision of goods and services is partially assumed by flexible combinations of governmental, nongovernmental, and private institutional actors."22

By supporting civil society over the state, policy makers and practitioners alike may once again forget the diversity of local contexts and historical trajectories, as well as the numerous evolutions that have shaped the local relationship between society and state. Indeed, in some contexts, it may be difficult to uphold such a strong distinction between civil society on the one hand and the state and the market on the other. This can even lead to support for illegitimate or insufficiently representative forms of civil society.

The very West-oriented history of civil society and the lack of integration of other socio-political cultures explain why there is a persistent debate about the appropriateness of applying the notion of civil society to non-western contexts.23 In practice, the use of "civil society" may often be more normative than analytic, which is an indication of a political agenda rather than an actual descriptive category. In many cases, it may be useful to distinguish between an ideal version of civil society and how it operates locally. For instance, many analysts have observed that a strong western assumption exists that, in many cases, civil society organizations (CSOs) are "civic" by nature when they can actually be "uncivil" in their behavior and orientation.24

These different conceptual ambiguities are at the origin of most of the debates surrounding policies and programs related to civil society in peacebuilding, as well as to implementation challenges that arise from such activities.

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Forms of "civil society"

Actor-oriented and function-oriented models

Civil society is sometimes defined by referring to the organizational forms it includes. This may sometimes be perceived as a more tangible way to grasp this category of actors, and as a way to avoid long debates. Within this, a number of models is used to distinguish civil society actors.

Actor-oriented models focus on what groups constitute civil society. Different open-ended lists can be produced to that purpose. For instance, the London School of Economics and Political Science Centre for Civil Society suggests that "civil societies are often populated by organisations such as registered charities, development non-governmental organisations, community groups, womens organisations, faith-based organisations, professional associations, trades unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy groups."25 Similarly, nearly each organization and academic institution likely would present a fairly different list from the next, with some, for instance, including or excluding institutions such as the media and the business sector.

Meanwhile, function-oriented models focus on the different roles civil society organizations (CSOs) are supposed to play in a given society and in relation to other entities. Some would further distinguish civil society according to sectors of activities, separating out organizations involved in, for instance, human rights, development, humanitarian relief, conflict resolution/transformation, education, and so forth.

Organizations also are distinguished by the way they operate and are managed. To that point, the distinction between international and domestic actors (outsiders and insiders) is key in discussing the role of civil society in peacebuilding, as their impact on the democratic agenda will be very different. Among domestic actors, another important distinction is made between capital-based organizations, which generally have a national ambition, and entirely local, community-based groups, which often are operating in rural areas.

An important aside to this discussion is that all of these distinctions need to be interpreted according to the specificity of individual context and, in particular, of local political cultures, as these may greatly affect the positions and roles of the actors concerned.

A number of expressions are commonly used as synonyms for civil society or as descriptive of the forms it takes. These include third sector (non-profit, voluntary, and independent), NGOs, and community-based (or grassroots) organizations.

Third sector (non-profit, voluntary, and independent)

Civil society is commonly referred to as the non-profit, the voluntary, the independent, or the third sector. As Thania Paffenholz and Christoph Spurk suggest, "This third sector gained considerable attention in the 1990s as it started to operate outside the confines of the state and the market, and thus mostly outside government control or beyond profit orientation. Despite its heterogeneity the entities of the third sector show a number of common features:

  • They are set up as organizations, i.e., they have an institutional presence;
  • They do not distribute profits or dividends to managers or owners;
  • They are self governing;
  • They are voluntary in the sense that membership is not legally required, and attract some level of voluntary contribution of time or money; and
  • They provide services to their members or to clients."26

Non-governmental organizations

Some development practitioners are inclined to equate civil society organizations with non-governmental organizations (NGOs). This is somewhat reflected in the peacebuilding field. A common definition of NGOs is lacking, but it is possible to distinguish two basic criteria in the existing literature. The term "NGO" refers to a freely constituted group of persons or private collectivities for non-profit purposes. According to United Nations criteria, NGOs operating in at least three countries are considered to be international NGOs (INGOs). The Union of International Associations adds a supplementary criterion for INGOs: the membership and financial resources of the organization must originate from at least three countries.27

In practice, NGOs are considered as such if they self-declare their NGO status and receive funds from donors in that capacity, having presented sufficient institutional forms, professionalism, and guarantees requested from donors. Indeed, social movements and different forms of grassroots organizations are often neglected and would not fit the criteria set by donors, particularly in terms of degree of institutionalization. Increasingly, the notion of NGOs (at times also CSOs for some donors) is contrasted with grassroots organizations, where local NGOs serve as intermediaries between donors or INGOs and local communities.

NGOs can be elements of a particular civil society but they do not represent the whole, although the latter is a common misconception in the field and one that is constantly debated in the literature. Furthermore, some researchers argue that "NGOs are part of civil society only if they act together with citizen, corporate and autonomous institutions to engender the peaceful pursuit of a variety of societal interests, and do so in ways that help to counterbalance any particular partisan force that seeks to dominate."28 In other words, while their contribution as service providers is recognized and valued as such, some analysts question their true qualification as civil society and, as a consequence, their actual contribution to the democratization process.

Community-based (or grassroots) organizations

Community-based organizations are generally contrasted with NGOs, which are understood as professional-oriented organizations that mainly provide services to "beneficiaries" (community-based organizations among them). Grassroots organizations are generally thought of as managed by members or directly on behalf of members of a community. They are generally not very institutionalized (at least in the western and formal sense).

Another way to conceptualize the distinction between NGOs and community-based organizations is to refer to the difference between social and community ties suggested by the social scientist, Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936). Social ties are essentially governed by utility and reason, while organizations, based on community ties, are motivated by affection and the internalization of common values. Tönnies posits, "Of course, in reality, the limits between both modalities of organization are not fixed. Moreover, they relate to social categories that vary greatly from one context to another. Nevertheless, this distinction appears relevant in different contexts and particularly useful to understand the variety of forms of organization existing from one society to another, distinguishing between community based groups and those in a median positions between the political sphere (in its professional, and even institutional sense) and the community sphere."29

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"Global civil society"

"Global civil society" refers both to transnational movements, particularly those involved in different debates around global governance issues, and to a political discourse and imagery.30 As a social phenomenon, global civil society refers to different networks and platforms "inhabited by activists, NGOs and neoliberals, as well as national and religious groups, where they argue about, campaign for (or against), negotiate about, or lobby for the arrangements that shape global development."31

The 1990s saw a significant increase in worldwide NGO activities and their involvement in the UN system. Transnational NGOs and networks especially have contributed to placing globally important issues on the international agenda, and they have conducted international campaigns that were directly related to peacebuilding (e.g., on landmines, "blood diamonds," the Publish What You Pay anti-corruption movement, the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, and the Darfur Consortium).

However, the appropriateness and relevance of identifying the notion of global civil society is highly debated. Some scholars observe, "If there is a 'transnational civil society,' this term designates an arena of struggle, a fragmented and contested area where the politics of transnational civil society is centrally about the way in which certain groups emerge and are legitimized (by governments, institutions, and other groups)."32 Indeed, critics of the notion of a global civil society and global civil society actors have tended to focus on how legitimate it really is to refer to such civil society as participatory. In practice, as Paffenholz and Spurk suggest, "while valuing the expertise and competence of international NGOs, their claim of being representatives of the worlds peoples is questioned."33 In such circumstances, civil society is criticized as being stratified. Where western organizations dominate the global civil society scene, their perspective is given more weight in any participatory forum than are local or non-western views.34

1. Béatrice Pouligny, "Civil Society and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: Ambiguities of International Programmes Aimed at Building New Societies," Security Dialogue 36, no. 4 (2005): 497. See also, Centre for Civil Society (CCS), "Definition of Civil Society."
2. See, for instance, Pouligny, "Civil Society and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding," 497; Charles (Chip) Hauss, "Civil Society," Beyond Intractability, eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess (Boulder: Conflict Research Consortium, 2003); Thania Paffenholz and Christoph Spurk, Civil Society, Civil Engagement, and Peacebuilding (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2006), 2 ;Joseph J. Foy, From Civil War to Civil Society: Lessons from the IFES Democratic Development Programs in Deeply Divided Societies (Washington DC: International Foundation for Electoral Systems, 2002).
3. This quote is frequently used by different authors and practitioners. See also, CCS, "Definition of Civil Society."
4. Mari Fitzduff, Civil Society and Peacebuilding"The New Fifth Estate? (The Hague: Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict, 2004), 1.
5. Pouligny, "Civil Society and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding." See also, World Bank Social Development Department, Civil Society and Peacebuilding: Potential, Limitations and Critical Factors (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2006), 2-3.
6. Paffenholz and Spurk, Civil Society, Civil Engagement, 2.
7. Pouligny, Civil Society and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding, 500. See also, Béatrice Pouligny, Peace Operations Seen from Below: UN Missions and Local People (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 2006), 67 and sq.
8. Mary Kaldor, The Idea of Global Civil Society, International Affairs 79, no. 3 (2003): 584.
9. Ibid.
10. Paffenholz and Spurk, Civil Society, Civil Engagement, 4.
11. Kaldor, "The Idea of Global Civil Society," 584.
12. Ibid.
13. Paffenholz and Spurk, Civil Society, Civil Engagement, 4.
14. Robert D. Putnam, "Bowling Alone: Americas Declining Social Capital," Journal of Democracy 6, no. 1 (1995): 66-67.
15. Ibid., 67.
16. Ibid.
17. Paffenholz and Spurk, Civil Society, Civil Engagement, 2-3.
18. Richard Crook, Strengthening Democratic Governance in Conflict Torn Societies: Civil Organisations, Democratic Effectiveness and Political Conflict (Brighton: Institute of Development Studies, 2001), 1.
19. Pouligny, "Civil Society and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding," 497-500; Kristian Berg Harpviken and Kjell Erling Kjellman, Beyond Blueprints: Civil Society and Peacebuilding (Oslo: International Peace Research Institute, 2004), 13.
20. Regarding Africa, see, in particular, Kwadwo Appiagyei-Atua. Civil Society, Human Rights and Development in Africa: A Critical Analysis, Peace, Conflict and Development 2, no. 2 (2002); Mahmood Mamdani, "The Politics of Peasant Ethnic Communities an Urban Civil Society: Reflections on an African Dilemma," in Disappearing Peasantries? Rural Labour in Africa, Asia and Latin America, ed. Deborah Bryceson, Cristóbal Kay, and Jos Mooij (London: Intermediate Technology Publications, 2000); Noria Mashumba and Yaliwe Clarke, The Peacebuilding Role of Civil Society in Southern Africa (Cape Town: Centre for Conflict Resolution, 2005).
21. Pouligny, "Civil Society and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding," 500.
22. Harpviken and Kjellman, Beyond Blueprints, 5, 13.
23. Paffenholz and Spurk, Civil Society, Civil Engagement, 3.
24. Crook, Strengthening Democratic Governance, 11.
25. CCS, "Definition of Civil Society."
26. Paffenholz and Spurk, Civil Society, Civil Engagement, 6.
27.Béatrice Pouligny, "NGOs as Transnational Forces? Beyond the Myth, Evolving Interactions which Question the Political," draft for the International Colloquium Globalisation Project, Resilience or Erosion? The State under Attack"From Above and Below, Center for International Studies and Research, Paris, France, June 15-16, 2000, 1.
28. Michael Lund, Peter Uvin, and Sarah Cohen, What Really Works in Preventing and Rebuilding Failed States: Building Civil Society in Post-Conflict Environments: From the Micro to the Macro (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2006), 3.
29. Béatrice Pouligny. Peace Operations Seen from Below, 67-69.
30. Ibid.; Pouligny, "NGOs as Transnational Forces"
31. Kaldor. "The Idea of Global Civil Society," 584.
32. Andrew Hurrell and Ngaire Woods, Globalisation and Inequality, Millennium 24, no. 3 (1995): 468; Pouligny, "NGOs as Transnational Forces," 39-40.
33. Paffenholz and Spurk, Civil Society, Civil Engagement, 6.
34. Martina Fischer, Civil Society in Conflict Transformation: Ambivalence, Potentials and Challenges (Berlin: Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management, 2006), 10.

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