Civil Society

The State

The State is a nation or territory considered as an organized political community under one government. A state is a form of political association, and political association is itself only one form of human association. Other associations range from clubs to business enterprises to churches. Human beings relate to one another, however, not only in associations but also in other collective arrangements, such as families, neighborhoods, cities, religions, cultures, societies, and nations. The state is not the only form of political association. Other examples of political associations include townships, counties, provinces, condominiums, territories, confederations, international organizations (such as the UN) and supranational organizations (such as the EU). To define the state is to account for the kind of political association it is, and to describe its relation to other forms of human association, and other kinds of human collectivity more generally.

Civil Society

Civil society is one of the “hottest” concepts in all of the social sciences that touch on political life. Because so many countries have established more democratic regimes in recent years, there has been renewed interest in popular engagement in political life and everything else that relates to the way that political cultures or basic values and beliefs affect the way a state is governed. More recently, there has also been growing interest in how strengthening civil society can contribute to conflict resolution.

Civil society is the “aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens.” Civil society includes the family and the private sphere, referred to as the “third sector” of society, distinct from government and’s 21st Century Lexicon defines civil society as 1) the aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens or 2) individuals and organizations in a society which are independent of the government. Sometimes the term civil society is used in the more general sense of “the elements such as freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, etc, that make up a democratic society” (Collins English Dictionary).

The State and Civil Society

Today it is not so much economic freedom that interests theorists of civil society (although such freedom is often presupposed); rather, it is the power and role of associational freedom vis-à-vis the state that, for reasons we touch on below, begs to be studied, analyzed, investigated, and criticized. What sort of associations are we talking about? The kinds of associations that scholars concentrate on—whether they are choral societies, NGOs, or social movements—reflect different understandings of the relation of civil society to the state. In what follows we take up six such relations in order to illustrate the range of contemporary debate surrounding civil society:

  1. Civil society apart from the state;
  2. Civil society against the state;
  3. Civil society in support of the state;
  4. Civil society in dialogue with the state;
  5. Civil society in partnership with the state;
  6. Civil society beyond the state.

These six perspectives on society/state relations are not mutually exclusive nor do they necessarily compete with each other. As will become clear, it is possible to hold to a number of these views at the same time. What they do represent are different ways of answering the question: “what is important or interesting in the relationship between civil society and the state?” In each case we identify the empirical questions that are correlative to the theoretical articulation of this relationship.

A growing number of democratic theorists suggest that it is useful to think of civil society as in a creative and critical dialogue with the state. This dialogue is characterized by a type of accountability in which the state must defend, justify, and generally give an account of its actions in answer to the multiple and plural voices raised in civil society. In this view of the relationship, one put forth most clearly by Jürgen Habermas, civil society as public sphere becomes the central theme. The public sphere is understood as an extension of civil society. It is where the ideas, interests, values, and ideologies formed within civil society are voiced and made politically effective (Habermas 1996, 367).


  • Hauss, Charles (Chip). “Civil Society.” Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: August 2003 <;.
  • Phillips, Anne, Honig, Bonnie & Dryzek, John S. (Editors) The Oxford Handbook of Political Theory, Print publication date: 2008, Published to Oxford Handbooks Online: September 2009, doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199548439.001.0001

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