Civil Society Defined

What is a society?
An organized group of persons associated together for religious, benevolent, cultural, scientific, political, patriotic, or other purposes. (Dictionary.com)

What are the component parts of society?
Michael Edwards, director of the Governance and Civil Society Program at the Ford Foundation, claims society is divided into three parts—state (government), markets (economy) and associations (nongovernment and nonprofit).

How does a society grow strong and civil?
Perhaps the most famous answer to this question came from the Frenchmen, Alexis de Tocqueville. In the early 1830s, de Tocqueville, in the employ of the French government, toured the United States to examine “the prisons and penitentiaries” of a democratic society. For two years this astute observer traveled throughout the forty-year old country and recorded the fundamental characteristics of American life. When he returned to France, he published his observations in a two-volume work, Democracy in America, which has become a seminal work in economics.

Tocqueville believed that the there was a tendency of modern states to head toward despotism, not democracy. Political freedom is difficult to achieve, Tocqueville observed, and it requires diligent leadership and the right mix of institutions. During his visit to America, De Tocqueville concluded that a major component of Americans' collective resistance to less liberal forms of governance has been the creation of free institutions. These institutions or civic associations, Tocqueville argues, draw citizens outside of themselves and allow for self-governance on a small scale. But, perhaps more important, when opportunities for self-governance are combined with the pursuit of common interests and values, civic associations can transform themselves into political organizations--groups aimed at actively shaping political outcomes.

How do associations influence society?
An important function of civic associations is to educate individuals about being citizens in a free society. Such groups may also form alliances with like-minded organizations in order to lobby the government or coordinate their advocacy messages to the market or other associations within society. These shared interests among civic groups, sometimes but not always lead to the development of political associations. Regardless of their goals, the combined activities of all associations in a society are called the civil society.

A CIVIL SOCIETY—two definitions
Defined by Michael Edwards of the Ford Foundation:
“Commonly referred to as the third or nonprofit sector, civil society contains all associations and networks between family and the state (government) in which membership and activities are voluntary.”

Defined by Michael Walzer, a political philosopher who has published 27 books on society and political theory.

“A civil society is the place of ‘un-coerced human association’ where individuals interact on a consensual basis to achieve a common interest which may include non-partisan political activity. A civil society is composed of the relational networks—formed for the sake of family, faith, interest and ideology.”

Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), some examples community groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations