In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Global Civil Society

  • Introduction

International Relations Global Civil Society
Debora Spini
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0021


The category of “civil society” regained a prominent place in theoretical and political debates after the end of the Cold War and throughout the 1990s acquired a markedly “global” dimension. On the one hand, the scope and meaning of politics have undergone a profound transformation. As the line dividing politics, economy, and society is increasingly blurred, social actors have acquired an unquestionable political relevance. On the other hand, globalization processes have dramatically subverted the distinction between domestic and international politics. In this context, civil society, once a space enshrined by the borders of nation-states, now stretches above and beyond state boundaries. All non-governmental organizations that for their scope and composition are defined as global or transnational have experienced a rocketing growth in number and influence. Civil society organizations are becoming full-fledged actors in global governance. The theoretical debate has also concentrated on the role of civil society in constructing democracy beyond the borders of nation-states. This article analyzes works that consider civil society as composed of groups constituted on a voluntary basis engaging on issues of common interest and functioning transnationally or supernationally; for this reason, it does not consider literature on social movements but includes works where civil society is considered a key actor in global governance. Although the literature is growing fast, the very definition of “global civil society” (GCS) remains controversial. Most authors are influenced by the experiences of 1989 and by the theoretical works of Habermas and Cohen and Arato. Civil society is thus described as composed by groups formed on a voluntary basis (in a certain sense “private”) that mobilize on issues of public interest. Oftentimes GCS is associated, by both media and scholarly literature, with organizations acting on issues such as environment, human rights, and global justice. Most scholarship does not include GCS actors coming from the sphere of economy; only a minority looks at Hegel, Marx, or Gramsci. This choice in many cases does not help capture the transformations of politics in an age marked by a growing interconnection between social, political, and economic agency. The literature considered here will be divided according to two main perspectives, descriptive and normative. However, as some authors tend to overlap the descriptive and the normative levels, cross-references will be necessary. This article concentrates on the last decade of scholarship.

General Overviews

The nature and composition of GCS have been mapped by a few groundbreaking research teams and centers, beginning with the London School of Economics and Johns Hopkins University. Other interesting programs are the Building Global Democracy Programme and the Transdemos program. This section takes into consideration only works or websites on global civil society and does not consider purely comparative literature. It will therefore mention comparative projects, such as the CIVICUS Civil Society Index (cited under the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies), only insofar as they specifically address GCS.

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