Islamic Studies Civil Society
Clement M. Henry, Jolie M. F. Wood
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0016


The most general definition of “civil society” that is widely accepted in the early 21st century describes it as the realm of associational life between the individual or family and the state. The concept of civil society is often regarded as a specifically western European construct that can be applied only with difficulty, if at all, to regions outside western Europe and the United States or only to societies where civil liberties, such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, are guaranteed; where the rights of minorities are protected; or where democratic institutions of governance are established. Other scholars argue that the term can be reinterpreted to describe the essential dynamics of public deliberation, interest-group formation, and demands for government accountability that exist in various forms in a broad spectrum of societies and polities. With regard to the Muslim world in particular, the debate over the concept’s universality is especially sharp, as many of the works cited below will illustrate.

General Overviews

The concept of civil society has its modern origins in Western social philosophy of the 18th and 19th centuries. The most prominent early developers of the concept include John Locke, Adam Ferguson, Immanuel Kant, Charles de Montesquieu, G. W. F. Hegel, and Alexis de Tocqueville. Since then, Habermas 1989 has made significant contributions to the understanding of civil society, and scholars such as Cohen and Arato 1992, Berman 1997, Putnam 1993, and Seligman 1995 have given the concept renewed scrutiny.

  • Berman, Sheri. “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic.” World Politics 49 (April 1997): 401–429.

    DOI: 10.1353/wp.1997.0008

    This seminal article raised alarm bells about social capital and civil society, suggesting that they could promote authoritarian rather than democratic regimes by displacing and weakening centrist parties, as in the Weimar Republic.

  • Cohen, Jean L., and Andrew Arato. Civil Society and Political Theory. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992.

    This widely cited work provides a comprehensive introduction to the historical concept of civil society and argues that, despite the social and political specificity of it origins, it can be “reconstructed” as a modern concept that is relevant to all types of societies.

  • Gellner, Ernest. Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1994.

    Gellner argues that “modularity,” that is, the ability to separate oneself from ascriptive or traditional identities, associations, and occupations, is the defining feature of civil society, whereas “segmentalism” defines a traditional society, where a person cannot be involved in associations except for those determined by his or her traditional occupation or ascriptive identity.

  • Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.

    Originally written in the late 1950s as a doctoral dissertation, this book is a classic that links the “public sphere” of civil society to the evolution of modern capitalism and consolidation of media conglomerates.

  • Putnam, Robert D., with Robert Leonardi and Raffaella Y. Nanetti. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

    Putnam argues that the density of secondary associations in northern Italy, products of centuries of history, better explains the functioning of regional government than economic development. These associations, whether they be soccer leagues or bird-watchers’ societies, accumulate the social capital that facilitates political participation. The question arises whether those parts of Italy (and much of the Muslim world) that did not enjoy the north’s history of medieval urban autonomy can ever “make democracy work.”

  • Seligman, Adam B. The Idea of Civil Society. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

    Seligman presents a history of the concept of civil society since the 18th century and shows how the unresolved tension between two main strands of thought have continued, clouding discussions of civil society in Eastern Europe, the West, and elsewhere.

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