The Concept of Civil Society

Article excerpt

"Civil society" is a concept which has been elaborated in the framework of modern Western philosophy, political science and sociology. In diversified, pluralistic, differentiated modern societies, the process of socialization is carried on by institutions or groups (organizations, organisms, voluntary associations) which are called secondary, as distinguished from the family group, considered as primary by social scientists. In what social scientists call "traditional societies", social relationships are developed around the family group. Structures of parenthood are the normative reference for social organization.(1) In "modern societies", on the other hand, people relate themselves within circles other than the family.

In modern Western societies and in other societies which have been deeply influenced by this pattern, the organization of society based on the family has been followed by another type of social relationship in which the state has played a major role; and in recent decades, the market has come to be seen as the most important reference for social organization.

The civil society is obviously related to both the state and the market, but it should not be confused with either. Civil society may be seen as that sector of social reality in which human interests that are not rooted in the family or in economic power or in state administration seek to affirm themselves and defend their rights and prerogatives. The social dynamism of this sector is manifested by people's associations(2) or "public non-governmental organisms".

However, we must acknowledge at the outset the diversity that has emerged as the social sciences have developed over the last two centuries:(3)

* For Durkheim, social facts are to be considered as things (choses), and the fundamental rule of sociological method is that sociology must respect "the nature of things".(4) Here appears with full clarity the trend for objectivization or reification which is so characteristic of modern thought.(5)

* For Max Weber, what counts for social sciences above all is the finality of social actions undertaken by social subjects. Society is like a tissue of inter-subjective initiatives or ventures to which social subjects commit themselves. This fabric is organized, and power is a very important element for the understanding of social organization as a whole. The social process is driven by those who have a "legitimate" authority.

* For Marx what was most important is to understand the social process, which appears as split -- with the economic sector differing from and dominating the social sector -- and full of contradictions. The latter provide the dynanism of the social process. But the economic process cannot be dissociated from social processes and social relationships, which are indicative of conflicting forces in society.(6)

That the three main trends which orient the development of social sciences do not agree on the interpretation of social reality has consequences for our enquiry. We cannot give a satisfactory account of the concept of civil society if we remain within the well-established framework of the main schools of social thought. Civil society is a polemical concept. We must plunge into a field of contradictions if we are to bring some clarity to it.

Looking into the problem

Before talking about the different meanings of civil society, we must recognize that the polemic about this part of social reality is one of the most dynamic in social thought today. We are living in a time when the civil society has manifested great vitality (as in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe or in the erosion of the national security state in many Latin American countries), and when interest in managing and controlling civil society is explicit on the part of great political powers(7) and international monetary institutions (especially the World Bank).

There are three points to be noted here:

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