Re-conceptualizing Civil Society: Towards a Radical Understanding

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Abstract

The article examines problematic aspects of contemporary theoretical thinking about civil society within a Western liberal democratic context. The impact of neo-liberalism upon narratives of civil society, the assumption that civility resides more conspicuously within the world of associational life, and the tendency to conflate ‘civil society’ with the ‘third sector’ are areas critically discussed. Such conceptual incongruities, it is argued, help to consolidate neo-liberal consensus-based notions of social and political change, embodied in concepts such as ‘partnership’, ‘social capital’ and the ‘Big Society’, obscuring the path to a more radical theoretical understanding of civil society. In the second part of the article an alternative model of civil society is proposed. Supporting Evers premise that “every attempt to narrow down civil society to the third sector seriously impoverishes the very concept of civil society” (Evers, Voluntary Sector Review, 1:116, 2010), it is argued that civil society is best understood as a normative political concept, as being contingent in nature and distinct from the third sector.
Original languageEnglish
JournalVOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 12 Feb 2013

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civil society
political change
neoliberalism
social capital
social change
narrative

Keywords

  • Civil society Neo-liberalism Civility Public sphere Third Sector

Cite this

@article{4a99b4205a864e56af9c4c8b313a0d02,
title = "Re-conceptualizing Civil Society: Towards a Radical Understanding",
abstract = "The article examines problematic aspects of contemporary theoretical thinking about civil society within a Western liberal democratic context. The impact of neo-liberalism upon narratives of civil society, the assumption that civility resides more conspicuously within the world of associational life, and the tendency to conflate ‘civil society’ with the ‘third sector’ are areas critically discussed. Such conceptual incongruities, it is argued, help to consolidate neo-liberal consensus-based notions of social and political change, embodied in concepts such as ‘partnership’, ‘social capital’ and the ‘Big Society’, obscuring the path to a more radical theoretical understanding of civil society. In the second part of the article an alternative model of civil society is proposed. Supporting Evers premise that “every attempt to narrow down civil society to the third sector seriously impoverishes the very concept of civil society” (Evers, Voluntary Sector Review, 1:116, 2010), it is argued that civil society is best understood as a normative political concept, as being contingent in nature and distinct from the third sector.",
keywords = "Civil society Neo-liberalism Civility Public sphere Third Sector",
author = "Paul Bunyan",
note = "Alcock, P. (2010) A strategic unity: defining the third sector in the UK, Voluntary Sector Review, Vol. 1: 5-24, The Policy Press: Bristol. Alexander, J.C. (2006) The Civil Sphere, Oxford University Press: Oxford. Bunyan, P. (2013) Partnership, the Big Society and community organizing: between romanticizing, problematizing and politicizing community, Community Development Journal, Vol 48 (1) 119-133, Oxford University Press and Community Development Journal: Oxford Chambers, E. (2003) Roots for Radicals, The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd: New York. DeFilippis, J., Fisher, R. and Shragge, E. (2010) Contesting Community: The Limits and Potential of Local Organizing, Rutgers University Press: New York. Edwards, M. (2010) Civil Society (second edition), Polity Press: Cambridge Evers (2010) Observations on incivility: blind spots in third sector research and policy, Voluntary Sector Review, 2010, Vol. 1: 113-17. Femia, J. (2001) Civil society and the Marxist tradition, chapter in Kaviraj, S. & Khilnani, S. (2001) Civil Society: History and Possibilities, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. Garrett, P. M. (2009) Transforming Children’s Services? Social Work, Neo-liberalism and the ‘Modern’ World, Open University Press/McGraw Hill Education, Maidenhead, UK. Glasman M. (2010) ‘Society not State: the challenge of the Big Society’, Public Policy Research, June-August, 59. Gramsci, A. (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. by Hoare, Q. & Nowell Smith, G., Lawrence and Wishart: London Habermas, J. (1984) The Theory of Communicative Action. translated by Thomas McCarthy, Cambridge: Polity Hadl, G. (2004) Civil Society Media Theory: Tools for Decolonizing the Lifeworld, Ritsumeikan Social Sciences Review 2004, Vol. 40: 12, p. 77-96, Tokyo: Iwanami. Harvey, D. (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford University Press: Oxford. Kaldor, M. (2003) Global Civil Society: An Answer to War, Policy Press: Cambridge. Khilnani, S. (2001) ‘The Development of Civil Society’, chapter in Kaviraj, S. & Khilnani, S. (2001) Civil Society: History and Possibilities, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. King, M. L. Jr. (1963) Letter from Birmingham City Jail, in J.M. Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope – The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., Harper Collins: San Francisco. Mouffe, C. (2002) Politics and passions: the stakes of democracy, Centre for the Study of Democracy: London. Navarro, V. (2002) A Critique of Social Capital, International Journal of Health Services, 2002, Volume 32, Number 3: 423 432. Powell, F. (2007) The Politics of Civil Society: Neoliberalism or Social Left, The Policy Press: Bristol. Putnam, Robert D. (1995) ‘Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital’, Journal of Democracy 6 (1): 65–78. Putnam, Robert D. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon & Schuster: New York. Sennett, R. (1998) The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the new Capitalism, W.W.Norton & Company: London Shinohara, Hajime (2004) Shiminno seijigaku- tougi demokurashi to wa nani ka (Citizens’ Political Science - What is Deliberative Democracy). Tokyo: Iwanami Walzer, M. (1984) Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, Basic Books: New York. Warren, M. (2001) Democracy and Association, Princeton University Press: New Jersey",
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N1 - Alcock, P. (2010) A strategic unity: defining the third sector in the UK, Voluntary Sector Review, Vol. 1: 5-24, The Policy Press: Bristol. Alexander, J.C. (2006) The Civil Sphere, Oxford University Press: Oxford. Bunyan, P. (2013) Partnership, the Big Society and community organizing: between romanticizing, problematizing and politicizing community, Community Development Journal, Vol 48 (1) 119-133, Oxford University Press and Community Development Journal: Oxford Chambers, E. (2003) Roots for Radicals, The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd: New York. DeFilippis, J., Fisher, R. and Shragge, E. (2010) Contesting Community: The Limits and Potential of Local Organizing, Rutgers University Press: New York. Edwards, M. (2010) Civil Society (second edition), Polity Press: Cambridge Evers (2010) Observations on incivility: blind spots in third sector research and policy, Voluntary Sector Review, 2010, Vol. 1: 113-17. Femia, J. (2001) Civil society and the Marxist tradition, chapter in Kaviraj, S. & Khilnani, S. (2001) Civil Society: History and Possibilities, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. Garrett, P. M. (2009) Transforming Children’s Services? Social Work, Neo-liberalism and the ‘Modern’ World, Open University Press/McGraw Hill Education, Maidenhead, UK. Glasman M. (2010) ‘Society not State: the challenge of the Big Society’, Public Policy Research, June-August, 59. Gramsci, A. (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. by Hoare, Q. & Nowell Smith, G., Lawrence and Wishart: London Habermas, J. (1984) The Theory of Communicative Action. translated by Thomas McCarthy, Cambridge: Polity Hadl, G. (2004) Civil Society Media Theory: Tools for Decolonizing the Lifeworld, Ritsumeikan Social Sciences Review 2004, Vol. 40: 12, p. 77-96, Tokyo: Iwanami. Harvey, D. (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford University Press: Oxford. Kaldor, M. (2003) Global Civil Society: An Answer to War, Policy Press: Cambridge. Khilnani, S. (2001) ‘The Development of Civil Society’, chapter in Kaviraj, S. & Khilnani, S. (2001) Civil Society: History and Possibilities, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. King, M. L. Jr. (1963) Letter from Birmingham City Jail, in J.M. Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope – The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., Harper Collins: San Francisco. Mouffe, C. (2002) Politics and passions: the stakes of democracy, Centre for the Study of Democracy: London. Navarro, V. (2002) A Critique of Social Capital, International Journal of Health Services, 2002, Volume 32, Number 3: 423 432. Powell, F. (2007) The Politics of Civil Society: Neoliberalism or Social Left, The Policy Press: Bristol. Putnam, Robert D. (1995) ‘Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital’, Journal of Democracy 6 (1): 65–78. Putnam, Robert D. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon & Schuster: New York. Sennett, R. (1998) The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the new Capitalism, W.W.Norton & Company: London Shinohara, Hajime (2004) Shiminno seijigaku- tougi demokurashi to wa nani ka (Citizens’ Political Science - What is Deliberative Democracy). Tokyo: Iwanami Walzer, M. (1984) Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, Basic Books: New York. Warren, M. (2001) Democracy and Association, Princeton University Press: New Jersey

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N2 - The article examines problematic aspects of contemporary theoretical thinking about civil society within a Western liberal democratic context. The impact of neo-liberalism upon narratives of civil society, the assumption that civility resides more conspicuously within the world of associational life, and the tendency to conflate ‘civil society’ with the ‘third sector’ are areas critically discussed. Such conceptual incongruities, it is argued, help to consolidate neo-liberal consensus-based notions of social and political change, embodied in concepts such as ‘partnership’, ‘social capital’ and the ‘Big Society’, obscuring the path to a more radical theoretical understanding of civil society. In the second part of the article an alternative model of civil society is proposed. Supporting Evers premise that “every attempt to narrow down civil society to the third sector seriously impoverishes the very concept of civil society” (Evers, Voluntary Sector Review, 1:116, 2010), it is argued that civil society is best understood as a normative political concept, as being contingent in nature and distinct from the third sector.

AB - The article examines problematic aspects of contemporary theoretical thinking about civil society within a Western liberal democratic context. The impact of neo-liberalism upon narratives of civil society, the assumption that civility resides more conspicuously within the world of associational life, and the tendency to conflate ‘civil society’ with the ‘third sector’ are areas critically discussed. Such conceptual incongruities, it is argued, help to consolidate neo-liberal consensus-based notions of social and political change, embodied in concepts such as ‘partnership’, ‘social capital’ and the ‘Big Society’, obscuring the path to a more radical theoretical understanding of civil society. In the second part of the article an alternative model of civil society is proposed. Supporting Evers premise that “every attempt to narrow down civil society to the third sector seriously impoverishes the very concept of civil society” (Evers, Voluntary Sector Review, 1:116, 2010), it is argued that civil society is best understood as a normative political concept, as being contingent in nature and distinct from the third sector.

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