Civil society is an unusual concept in that it always seems to require being
defined before it is applied or discussed. In part this is because the concept
was rarely used in American discourse before the late eighties and many people
are therefore unfamiliar with it. In part it is a result of an inherent
ambiguity or elasticity in the concept. (This is not so unusual. The apparently
straightforward notion of freedom can in certain circumstances carry a meaning
closer to license than to liberty.)
Perhaps the simplest way to see civil society is as a "third sector,"
distinct from government and business. In this view, civil society refers
essentially to the so-called "intermediary institutions" such as professional
associations, religious groups, labor unions, citizen advocacy organizations,
that give voice to various sectors of society and enrich public participation in
But this does not solve every definitional question that the idea of civil
society can give rise to. Many would hold that a free and vigorous press is an
essential element in civil society. But most newspapers and TV stations in
the U.S. are run as for-profit businesses. Should they be counted as part of
civil society, of the third sector, or should they be seen as part of the
A second problem associated with the concept of civil society is this: Is it
a strictly objective and descriptive term that, for example, treats the League
of Women Voters and the Ku Klux Klan equally as "third sector citizen
organizations"? Or does the concept of civil society imply other, related
values: for example, a commitment to democracy and equal treatment of all
citizens before the law? This would exclude the KKK, needless to say.
Or, a more difficult question of values: Is the idea of civil society
consistent with substantial state subsidies for a large number of third sector
organizations, as occurs in parts of Europe? Is it consistent with substantial
corporate subsidies of many third sector organizations, as occurs in America?
Are there distinctively American and European (or French, Swedish, German, etc.)
types of civil society?
How do you understand the concept of civil society. Is it a term you find
useful? Is there a definition that you particularly favor? Please
share your thoughts with other visitors to this website. Provide your name and
e-mail address if you would like a response.
My (favorite definition of) (biggest question about) civil society is as