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

  • Introduction
  • Historical Texts
  • General Overviews
  • Political Theory
  • Region-Specific Scholarship: Africa, Latin America, and Asia
  • Civil Society, Policy, and Multilateral Organizations
  • Global/Transnational Civil Society
  • Civil Society in the Digital Age

Sociology Civil Society
Lauren E. Eastwood
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0148


What civil society encompasses is a highly contested subject in political and social theory. This debate speaks to the inherent complexity of the dynamics scholars of “civil society” attempt to address. The concept has been deliberated since the mid-1700s, yet there has been a marked revival of the use of the term since the 1980s. This recent resurgence has been attributed to scholarly engagement with questions related to democracy, accountability, and participation in the public sphere in light of such dynamics as economic globalization, the fall of the Soviet Union, and perceptions of declining civic engagement in democratic governance. Scholars broadly agree that the notion of civil society pertains to the realm of voluntary participation in a public sphere that is distinct from government per se. The re-popularization of the notion has occurred within both academic and non-academic arenas, as politicians, activists, and institutions increasingly utilize the term “civil society” with the intent of speaking to the role of individuals in influencing a wide range of public issues. In terms of origins, political theorists point to 18th-century Enlightenment ideas related to the social contract as a basis of both authority and social cohesion. However, it is not unusual for scholars of civil society to reference political thought related to the Greek city-state, as questions of accountability, transparency, and democracy were raised in that context as well. Within scholarship on civil society, various approaches can be identified in relation to the sorts of issues that are being addressed. For example, work that investigates the revolutionary potential of civil society often critiques the hegemonic power of the state and posits analysis of the role of individuals who voluntarily associate in opposition to anti-democratic institutions, governments, and policy processes. While not mutually exclusive to this characterization of civil society, work that focuses more on the role of individuals in sustaining robust democratic traditions focuses on civil society as associational life. This is often articulated in terms of social values such as trust, reciprocity, and caring. While there is much contention in scholarly circles about the meaning of the term “civil society,” many scholars who use the term argue that in spite of its shortcomings, with proper specification it is a useful way of grappling with complex issues involving the relationship of individuals to the public sphere.

Historical Texts

Scholarship on civil society periodically references the fact that ideas about democracy and participation are not entirely new and were addressed by ancient Greek philosophers, where one engaged in the polis. This formulation, which equates civil society with the state, can be seen in Rousseau 1920. In Locke 1988, the notion of civil society can be seen as the realm of social reciprocity that was often conceived as being relatively synonymous with the state. Yet also in Locke we see possibilities for the shift in the manner in which civil society began to be taken up, which allowed for a conceptualization of the notion as being distinct from the state. Yet, in the 1700s, this work retained a focus on governance and the nature of humans as political beings. This transformation laid the groundwork for 19th-century analyses of the meaning of social existence outside of the realm of the state. Tocqueville 2000 (originally published in two volumes in French in 1835 and 1840) has had a significant influence on theorists who grapple with the ambiguities inherent in highly diverse societies that value individualism. In a different vein, as Scottish Enlightenment-based thinkers, the authors of Smith 2010 and Ferguson 1980 posit contrasting theories related to the social contract, yet all grapple with the emerging nature of governance in an era of Enlightenment-based claims regarding human capacity to reason, and therefore to self-govern. In contrast to these theories that often valorized individual volition, Marx 1843 critiqued human action in civil society as being “egoistic” and therefore counterproductive to the aims of true democracy. The Gramsci 1971 reading of civil society was substantially different than Marx’s, in that he chose to emphasize the potential for civil society to operate in a counter-hegemonic fashion, providing a more “revolutionary” conceptualization of the concept of civil society in opposition to a (potentially) totalitarian state.

  • Ferguson, Adam. 1980. An essay on the history of civil society. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

    Originally published in 1767. Seen as representative of the Scottish Enlightenment, Ferguson’s texts take up emerging notions of governance in the 18th century.

  • Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the prison notebooks. New York: International.

    In his prison notebooks, Gramsci develops the concept of “hegemony” and its relationship to civil society. Characterized as representing the “revolutionary approach” to civil society analysis, wherein the focus is on the transformative potential of civil society in relation to the state. In particular, the book addresses the ways in which civil society has the capacity to challenge authoritarian regimes.

  • Locke, John. 1988. Locke: Two Treatises of Government. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511810268

    Originally published in 1689. Engaging with questions of governance and human ability to engage in the public sphere, Locke advocates for a theory of the individual that represents a critique of the notion of natural or divinely ordained inequalities. Instead, the crux of self-governance according to Locke lies in the notion that we are all “created equal.”

  • Marx, Karl. 1967 “On the Jewish Question.” In Writings of the young Marx on philosophy and society. Edited by Loyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat, 216–248. New York: Anchor.

    Originally published in 1843. In this essay, Marx articulates his sense of civil society as representing a battle of individual interests. Here, Marx identifies civil society as comprising the private realm where due to the estranging mechanisms of capitalism, humans are alienated from each other and from themselves and can therefore not realize true democracy.

  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1920. The Social Contract and Discourses. London: J. M. Dent.

    Originally published in 1762. Equates civil society with the state.

  • Smith, Adam. 2010. The theory of moral sentiments. New York: Penguin.

    Originally published in 1759, and followed by five additional volumes until 1790, Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments outlines his understanding of the profoundly moral yet individualistic character of human interaction in the public sphere.

  • Tocqueville, Alexis de. 2000. Democracy in America. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226924564.001.0001

    Tocqueville saw in the United States the immense possibilities of democratic governance. Significantly, though, he also identified the inherent contradictions in American individualism in that it presents the possibility of free association at the same time as it creates the potential of atomizing individuals.

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