The contemporaneous meaning of the concept of civil society started to develop after the French Revolution of 1789. In the 18th and 19th centuries the term was closely associated with the city and government. Among the definitions of the word civil are — not wild, not in anarchy, not without rule or government, not natural, not criminal, not military, civilized, not barbarous, not rude, not coarse, not brutal. In the Dictionnaire Universel of 1771, civil society was defined by contrasting it to man's etat naturel or state of nature, which was seen also as a social state, but without the binding force of laws. In the 18th century, to talk about civil society was to differentiate it from other terms. Its meaning was defined mainly by contrasting it with a pre-political state of nature and also by contrasting it with three other forms of association — the household or domestic society, the church or the ecclesiastical society and the rude society, inhabited by people living outside the law. A civil society, thus, was a society ruled by a system of laws, which had left the state of nature and was different from domestic and religious societies and had developed beyond the state of "savagery" in which the ‘rude peoples' lived.
Modern interpretations of the term describe it as an unforced collective action with shared interest, values and goals. The interests of a diversity of groups, varying in their formality, autonomy and power, are also present. Today, different types of organizations move forward the civil societies, including registered charities, non-governmental organizations, women's organizations, community groups, religious organizations, professional associations, self-help groups, trade unions and advocacy groups. In the theory of the social contract, the entry into civil society is seen as a departure from a state of nature. Certain needs, requirements and dispositions which exist in the state of nature give its residents the motivation to leave it. The social contract lays out the terms of the bargain individuals need to accept in order to enter the new society.
G.W.F. Hegel's work completely changed the meaning of civil society and gave rise to a modern liberal understanding of the term. It was seen as a form of market society in contrast to the institutions of the modern nation state. For Hegel, civil society was a civilian society, a sphere regulated by a civil code. On the other hand, Hegel saw the state as the highest form of ethical life and the nation state had the capacity and powers to correct the defects of civil society. For Alexis de Tocqueville, in turn, the system of civilian and political associations was a counterbalance to both liberal individualism and the centralization of the state. He differentiated political society (seen as relations between governments) from civil society (seen as relations of the citizens among themselves). Religious society was a third term in de Tocqueville's work and it was seen as relations between God and the members of society. Hence, civil society was the domain in which individuals joined together, free from the control of either the state or the church.
In the 20th century, Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba developed a theory on the relations of civil society and democratic political society. For them, the role of political culture in a democratic order was crucial. In the words of the two theorists, the political element of many organizations results in stronger awareness and leads to more informed citizens, who make better voting choices, participate in politics and hold government more accountable. More contemporary authors, in turn, consider that the non-political nature of the organizations in civil society is vital for democracy. Those organizations create shared values, trust and social capital, transfer them into the political arena and thus need to stay politically impartial.
Finding a way through the civil society puzzle could be a difficult task. The problems with the term are mainly related to the confusion that everyone understands it in a different way. Politicians could be tempted to use it as a political slogan or even as ideology or dogma. Some scholars understand it as associational life, others as the good society. A third theory sees civil society as the public sphere. Globalization is another phenomenon which has an impact on the modern civil societies and makes them change. Civil society goes beyond boundaries and territories, moved by the fast development of the wider world. Globalization inevitably leads to a larger and greater role for civil society and in many cases against politically derived state institutions.