Civil society | Sociology for CUET by Vikash Ranjan | Sociology Guru

Civil society

(Relevant for Sociology optional for UPSC CSE)
Paper-1 ,Unit-7 : Civil society

Civil society

Think about the country that you live in – what does it take to make that country operate smoothly? The government takes care of law and order and businesses offer goods and services in exchange for money, which both help to keep a society moving. But what about other groups, like temples, churches or the NGOs, how do they contribute to your society? These other groups actually play a very big part in how your country operates, and they fall into a category known as civil society.

  1. A civil society is comprised of groups or organizations working in the interest of the citizens but operating outside of the governmental and for-profit sectors. Organizations and institutions that make up civil society include labor unions, non-profit organizations, churches, and other service agencies that provide an important service to society but generally ask for very little in return.
  2. Civil society is sometimes referred to as the civil sector, a term that is used to differentiate it from other sectors that comprise a functioning society. For example, the United States is made up of three sectors: the public sector, which is the government and its branches; the private sector, which includes businesses and corporations; and the civil sector, which includes the organizations that act in the public’s interest but are not motivated by profit or government.
  3. According to definition of civil society developed by a number of leading research centers: “the term civil society to refer to the wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) therefore refer to a wide of array of organizations: community groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations”.

Historical perspective:

  1. The term ‘civil society’ can be traced through the works of Cicero and other Romans to the ancient Greek philosophers. In its classical usage civil society was largely equated with the state. The modern idea of civil society found expression in the Scottish and Continental Enlightenment of the late 18th century.
  2. A range of political philosopher, from Thomas Paine to George Hegel, developed the notion of civil society as a domain parallel to but separate from the state where citizens associate according to their own interests and wishes.
  3. Hegel’s nineteenth-century notion of civil society included the market in contrast to contemporary concepts of civil society as a non- profit sector. This new definition reflected changing economic realities: the rise of private property, market competition and the bourgeoisie. It also resulted in the mounting popular demand for liberty, as manifested in the American English and French Revolutions.
  4. The terms, however, lost its concurrence in the mid-19th century as political philosopher and sociologists turned their attention to the social and political consequences of the industrial revolution. It bounced back into fashion after World War II through the writings of the Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci who revived the term to portray civil society as a special nucleus of independent political activity, a crucial sphere of struggle against tyranny. Although Gramsci was concerned about dictatorships of the right, his books were influential in the 1970s and 1980s amongst persons fighting against dictatorships of all political stripes in Eastern Europe and Latin America. Czech, Hungarian, and Polish activists also wrapped themselves in the banner of civil society, endowing it with a heroic quality when the Berlin wall fell.
  5. In contemporary society, The rise in popularity of civil society was largely due to the struggles against tyranny waged by resistance groups in Latin America, Africa and the former communist world. The period of 1980s and 1990s witnessed the advent of a global democratic revolution of unprecedented proportions, unions, women’s organisations, student groups and other forms of popular activism provided the resurgent and often rebellious civil societies in triggering the demise of many forms of dictatorship. There developments encouraged the rise of the complex notion that if an invigorated civil society could force a democratic transition, it could consolidate democracy as well.
  6. Recently David held tried to give shape to the concept of civil society through a sociological definition. In his words, “Civil society retains a distinctive character to the extent that it is made up of areas of social life- the domestic world, the economic sphere, cultural activities and political interaction – which are organisation by private or voluntary arrangements between individuals and groups outside the direct control of the state”In the 1990s, civil society became a mantra for everyone from politicians to political scientists. The global trend toward democracy opened up space for civil society in formerly dictatorial countries around the world. In the United States and Western Europe, public fatigue with tired party systems sparked interest in civil society as a means of social renewal.
  7. Especially in the developing world In Contemporary Society, privatization and other market reforms offered civil society the chance to step in as governments retracted their reach. And the information revolution provided new tools for forging connections and empowering citizens. Civil society became a key element of the post- cold-war society.

The scope of civil society:

  1. The much of the current enthusiasm about civil society is its fascination with non- governmental organisations, especially advocacy groups devoted to public interest and causes and its concern for environment human rights, women’s issues, rights of the disabled, election monitoring, anticorruption, etc.
  2. Whereas civil society is a much broader concept, encompassing political parties and the market oriented organisation it includes the plethora of organisations that apart from NGOs labour unions professional associations such as those of doctors and lawyers, chambers of commerce ethnic associations and others. The list is all comprehensive.
  3. It also incorporates many other associations that exist for purposes other than advancing specific social or political agendas, such as religious organizations, student groups, cultural organizations sports clubs and informal community groups.
  4. Non-governmental organisations do play important role in developed and developing countries. They help in formulating policy by exerting pressure on governments and by furnishing technical expertise to policy makers. They induce citizen participation and civic education. They provide leadership training to young people who want to engage in civic life but are apathetic towards political parties. In theocratic and dictatorial Religious organisation, cultural organisations and other groups often have a mass base in the populations and secure domestic sources of funding. Here, advocacy groups usually lack domestic funding.
  5. The burgeoning NGO sectors in such countries are often dominated by elite run groups that have only weak ties with the citizens and for their functioning they largely depend on international funders for budgets they cannot nourish from domestic source.
  6. Apart from these positive contours of civil society formation, it is worth pointing out that the mafia and militia groups are also as much as part of the civil society as the other humane organisations are. Some civil society enthusiasts have propagated the one sided notion that civil society consists only of noble causes and welfare action oriented programmes. Yet civil society everywhere is a mixture of the good, the bad, and the outright bizarre. If one limits civil society to those actors who pursue higher humane aims, the concept becomes a theological notion, not a political or sociological one which could inure the notion of society itself.

Functions of civil society in a democratic order:

Larry diamond in his article, ‘Rethinking Civil society, says“Civil society plays a significant role in building and consolidating democracy. In Diamond’s view, civil society performs following important functions:

  1. To limit state power – By checking its political abuses and violations of the law and subjecting them to public scrutiny. Diamond maintains, “A vibrant civil society is probably more essential for consolidating and maintaining democracy than initiating it.”
  2. To empower citizens by “increasing the political efficacy and skill of the democratic citizen and promoting an appreciation of the obligations as well as rights of democratic citizenship”.
  3. To inculcate and promote an arena for the development of democratic attributes amongst the citizens such as tolerance, moderation, willingness to compromise and respect for opposing viewpoints. According to Diamond, this is an important function as it allows “traditionally excluded groups – such as women and racial or ethnic minorities –access to power that has been denied them in the upper echelons of formal politics.
  4. To provide avenues for political parties and other organisations allowing them of articulate, aggregate, and represent their interest. This enhances the quality of democracy as “it generates opportunities for participation and influence at all levels of governance, not the least the local government.
  5. To function as a recruiting, informational and leadership generating agency especially in economically developed societies– where, Economic reform is sometimes necessary, but often difficult to bring about if it threatens vested economic interests. The massive economic collapse in Indonesia unleashed mass discontent and made President Suharto suddenly vulnerable. This transformed the environment to allow civil society groups and opposition parties to mobilize citizens in an unprecedented fashion.
  6. A well founded civil society could act as a shock observing institution, where wide ranges of interest that may cross- cut and mitigate the principal polarities of political conflict.
  7. To generate public and political support for successful economic and political reforms which require the support of coalitions in society and the legislature.
  8. A well rooted civil society also helps in identifying and train new political leaders as such; it can “play a crucial role in revitalizing the narrow and stagnant party dominated leadership recruitment patterns.
  9. Election monitoring – Many non- partisan organisations engage in election monitoring at home and abroad. Such efforts, sys Diamond, “have been critical in detecting fraud, enhancing voter confidence, affirming the legitimacy of the result, or demonstrating an opposition victory despite, government fraud. The Philippines in the mid 1980s and Panama in 1989s are cited as examples.
  10. Strengthening citizen attitudes toward the state- civil society enhances “the accountability, responsiveness, inclusiveness, effectiveness, and hence legitimacy of the political system”. In so doing it gives citizens respect, for the state and positive involvement in it. Here civil society is crucial to the development and maintenance of stable, quality sensitive democracy.

In an article, ‘Civil society and Democracy in Global Governance’, DR. JAN AART SCHOLTE makes a comprehensive analysis of the concepts. She Scholte identifies six areas where civil society could advance democracy:

  1. Public education – Awareness is key to any democratic system. The civil society might enhance democracy through educating the public. An informed citizenry could sustain effective democracy; civic associations can contribute a lot by raising public awareness and understanding of world wide existing laws and regulatory institutions. To accomplish this goal civil, society groups can prepare handbooks and information kits, produce audio visual presentations, organize workshops, circulate newsletters, supply information to and attract the attention of the mass media, maintain websites of the internet and develop curricular materials for schools and institutions of higher education.
  2. Voice to stakeholders – Civil society could promote democratic governance by giving voice to stakeholders. Civic associations can opportune the concerned parties to relay information, testimonial, and analysis to governance agencies about their needs and demands. Civil society organisation can give voice to neglected social circles like the poor, women and persons with disability who tend to get a limited hearing through other channels including their elected representatives in executive and legislative bodies. In this way civic activism could empower stakeholders and mould politics toward greater participatory democracy.
  3. Policy inputs – Government Policy formulation is considerably influenced from the inputs given by the civil society not only at home but also in sparking debate about the so- called ‘Washington Consensus. They have qualitative assessments of poverty, and pressurized for the schemes of debt reduction in the South.
  4. Transparency of governance– Vigilant civic mobilization can cause public transparency in governance. Constant pressure from civil society can help in bringing regulatory frameworks and operation into the open, where they could be accessed for public scrutiny. Generally citizens do not have the awareness about what decisions are taken by the government, by whom, from what options, on what grounds, with what expected results, and with what resources to support implementation. Civic groups through their well lit networks can question the currently popular official rhetoric of ‘transparency’ by asking critical questions about what is made transparent, at what time, in what forms, through what channels, on whose decision, for what purpose, and in whose interest.
  5. Public accountability – Civil society can hold various concerned agencies accountable to public. Civic groups can keep an eye on he implementation and effects of policies regarding people and press for corrective measures when the consequences are adverse. For example independent civic agencies have impartial policy evaluation mechanisms for the World Bank and the IMF. Whereby, they have more often criticized their policies towards the less Developed countries. The Western countries, which claim to be democratic in the behaviour, often while as a part of global player some times become far more dictatorial than those whom they criticize and put sanctions against them. Here, the civic agencies through an accountability function can push authorities in global governance to take greater responsibility for their actions and policies.
  6. Legitimacy– The sum total of the preceding actions by the civil society could lead to a legitimate democratic rule. Legitimate rule prevails when people concede that an authority has a right to govern and that they have a duty to obey its directives. As a result of such consent, legitimate governance tends to be more easily, productively and nonviolently executed than illegitimate and dictatorial authority.

Relationship between Civil Society and Democracy:

The civil society should have a larger Agenda of democracy as a policy of global governanceThe civil society not only could promote democracy at home, their impact could be clearly seen in the democratization of global order. Apart from this, the international concerns for human rights, women rights, rights of the disabled and concerns for environment have great impact on the domestic policy formulation and its implementation too. For example, various development related NGOs and think – tanks, who lobby for global debt relief and socially sustainable structural adjustment, have gone on to scrutinize public finances in national and local governments. In addition to this, women’s movements have often used international laws and institutions in their favour to democratize the state on gender lines. The rights of the persons with disability also get impetus from international concerns for human rights. In all these matters civil society Civil society can offer a means for citizens to affirm that global governance arrangements.

  1. It is emphasized here that in certain conditions civil society can contribute to the democratization of authoritarian regimes and can help to sustain a democratic system of governance once it is established. For example in the Eastern European countries, South Africa, Serbia, Philippines, in Georgia, recently in Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon, citizens have used civil society organisations to wage struggle for political independence by learning about democracy and by mobilizing millions of their fellow citizens against repressive regimes.
  2. Democratic setup, civil society organisations provide basis for citizens to pursue common interests in political, social, or spiritual, domain, citizens learn about fundamental democratic values of participation and collective action and they further disseminate these values within their community civil society movements that represent citizen interests can considerably influence both government policy and social attitudes. Independent activities of the civil society can pause a counter weight to state power.

The democratic dangers of civil society:

Civil society’s contribution to democracy in domestic as well as global governance is well placed in context. But here it must be noted that civil society might in certain ways actually detract from democratic governance of international relations. Seven general negative possibilities can be identified.

  1. Civil society activities may not essentially pursue democratic purpose Though the term civil society at the outset seems to convey elements of civility and virtue, but in practice, elements of such organisations may themselves in subverting democracy for example, some civic organisations can work to promote their private petty interests and privileges. The destructive groups engaged in promoting racism, ultra- nationalism and religious fundamentalism work contrary to the democratic rights of others. Thos parts of the Islamic sector that are politically relevant, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, have not pushed for democracy in a comprehensive fashion.
  2. Civil society might draw away from democracy if its efforts are poorly planned and designed or executed – if the said activist function without understanding the institutional arrangement of governance, they could cause real harm to the very objectives of their organisation. Even academicians may fail to link their theoretical models of universal application of democracy to empirical evidence and political exigencies of that particular area.
  3. Ill- equipped government agencies can not handle civil soeity inputs Regulatory bodies may lack relevant staff expertise, adequate founds suitable procedures or the necessary receptive attitudes to take advantage of the benefits on offer fro civil society. Government officials my consult civic associations only in the later stages of policymaking when they key decision have already been taken. Instead of promoting democracy this could lead to friction in the society and cause turmoil.
  4. The state funding and benefits could corrupt the volunteers of the civic organisation – Instead of focusing on there aims and objectives they could run in short terms gains.
  5. In adequate representation could seriously undermine the very fabric of democracy- if civil society has to realize its promises fully, then all stratus of civil society should be duly allowed to access authorities and more over equality of opportunity in terms of participation otherwise civil privileges connected with class, gender, nationality, race, religion, urban versus rural location and so on.
  6. Civil society concern for global democracy could be insensitive towards the local cultural practice- Here, civil society may not respond to all of the contexts of local populations. In particular there is a danger that civil society in the South and the former communist ruled countries could come under the strong influence of westernstyled, western- funded NGOs led by the westernized. Such campaigners might criticize prevailing conditions of global governance; they have stronger cultural affinities with global mangers than with local communities. Thus NGOs and other professionalized civil society bodies may perhaps quite unintentionally marginalize grassroots circles that could give better voice to the diverse life –worlds that global governance affects.
  7. Civil society may lack internal democracy – Civil society groups – including those that specifically campaign for greater democracy, can fall short of democratic behaviour in their own functioning. A lack of internal democracy within civil society circles is not only objectionable in itself, but also contradicts its very goal of bringing democracy to society at large. It is an often realized situation, where civic associations offer their members little opportunity for participation beyond the payment of subscriptions. Civil society organisations may advocate on behalf of certain constituencies without adequately consulting them. The leadership of a civic organisation may suppress debate in the name of welfare. Civic groups may lack transparency as some times they do not publish financial statements or declarations of objectives of their organisation, let along full- scale reports of their activities.

Given these potential problems, one should not be swayed by much of the alluring fantasies with civil society. Much can go right but much can also go wrong. Civil society can be a means to good ends, but it is not the end itself. There are circumstances where civic involvement may detract from democracy or sabotage the very fabric of democracy. It should be the first demand of the society that civic associations should not merely assert but also demonstrate their democratic legitimacy.

Civil society: conclusive analysis:

There is so much of academic assertion on this point that some anthropologists even question whether the concept of civil society even applies outside the West. In a comparative study of China and Taiwan, for example, Robert P Weller writes, “I have studiously avoided the term civil society while writing about many of its core issues. The term ‘civil society’ while writing problematic theoretical assumptions and historical connotations, which have strong roots in a particular European philosophical tradition. “With the arrival of European colonialism, the state becomes and undeniable, unavoidable part of the business of social living; and the institutional organisation of the modern state invites a discourse in terms of state/ civil society distinction.”.

To further evaluate the subject in more theoretical context, the following points could be of use for understanding the existing complexities in the subject.

  1. Firstly, advocates often depict civil society as wholly positive, even flawless. For example, in a article, ‘Civil Society and Building Democracy: Lessons from International Donor Experience’ Harry Blair says that civil society organisations increase citizens’ participation in the policymaking process, enhance the state’s accountability to its citizenry, and provide civic education in democratic politics. This describes an ideal- an ideal that since 1989 has helped motivate hundreds of millions of dollars in international grants to civil society organisations in lessdeveloped countries, with mixed result.
  2. Secondly, those who idealize civil society often talk about citizen engagement without mentioning citizen conflict. Yet conflict over resources, laws, policies, influence is central and inherent to the plurality of interests is at the heart of civil society. For this reason, fundamentalist societies that believe in a single source of truth, such as the Soviet Union under Stalin and other communist countries in the letter part of 20th century or Iran under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, are much less tolerant of civil society than societies that welcomes plural points of view.
  3. Third, from Tocqueville onward, Westerners have generally place individualisms at the heart of civil society. Ernest Gellner, for example describes the building block of civil society as modular man, an individual who is autonomous yet willing and able to associate. In much of the world, however, individuals do not consider themselves modular. They regard their identities as members of particular communities (determined by family, religion, ethnicity, caste, race, or something else) as fundamental, not choices easily made and unmade. For example, in Saekete Center, Muslims, Christian, and worshippers of local gods live together and Muslims and Christians often sacrifice to local gods when facing particularly vexing problems. Yet this openness to different practices does not mean that individuals are modular and can easily exchange one faith for another. Religion, like family and ethnicity, embeds the individual in a web of social connections and cultural meanings that can be severed only at significant cost. The basic thesis of civil society rests with the presumption that man being social is challenged. If individuals are considered modular, how do we fashion a definition of civil society that works trans- nationally?
  4. Fourthly, concept of civil society is placed with too broad parameters. Some have argued that civil society consists of all forms of non-state organisation other than the family which is unacceptable proposition because it includes within civil society many social forms that are essentially private, and thereby fails to distinguish civil society from society at large. To make the concept more useful for the purpose, civil aspect of civil society must limit the category to those networks, movements and organisations the have a public dimension.
  5. Fifthly, here it is stressed that civil society is essentially two-fold in nature: private in origins but public in focus. Civil society groups represent private interests by employing more often nonviolent public means, such as association, education and demonstration to influence policy and polity, whether at the neighborhood, city regional, state, or national level. The interests pursued can be individualistic, or they can be oriented toward religion, race, or other social groupings. In a way that might generate pressure on government.

To conclude our discussion on civil society with positive academic note the essential idea that has been put into practice is that democracy requires a healthy and active civil society. The international community, by providing resources and training to different civic groups, can help to build up domestic civil society in democratizing countries. However, at the same time caution should be duly taken in imposing one’s ideas and culture in the name of civil society or as matter of fact democracy. Though democracy is one of the healthiest systems of governance both in domestic and international arena yet there is no final world in social sciences. There are so many ancient cultural systems and practices in the East which are far better than the existing western way of life. They should not be discarded merely because we have fantasies and fondness for the West. More importantly, the debate and enthusiasm for promoting better life style should continue in order to benefit the people who are living in authoritarian societies with abysmal poverty and sufferings.

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