Civil society

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The word civil society ( Latin societas civilis , French société civile , English civil society ) is used with different meanings.


The meaning of the term civil society is accentuated and oriented differently in the individual academic disciplines such as history , social and administrative science . A related term used synonymously , depending on the underlying concept, is “civil society”. Today the term civil society no longer has a negative connotation and is used as a synonym for civil society. Among other things, the Enquete Commission contributed to this with its report "The Future of Civic Engagement".

The term was originally developed by the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), among others. He understood it to mean the entirety of all non-governmental organizations that have an influence on "everyday understanding and public opinion".

Today the term describes an area within society that is located between the state, the economic and the private sector. Civil society encompasses the entirety of the commitment of the citizens of a country - for example in clubs, associations and various forms of initiatives and social movements. This includes all activities that are not for profit and not dependent on party political interests.

Various political scientists describe civil society as a component that is necessary alongside the state and market forces in order to create an ideal pluralistic society of committed citizens.

Concept formation and historical semantics

The term civil society was introduced into the German language at the end of the 1980s. It was first used by Wolfgang Fritz Haug to describe Antonio Gramsci's società civile on the one hand and the u. a. used by Mikhail Sergejewitsch Gorbatschow to translate Russian grazhdanskoye obshchestvo (гражданское общество) into German. Since bourgeois society had firmly established itself in German as the equivalent of Marx's société bourgeoise , the German Gramsci translation had to use an alternative term in order to distinguish Gramsci's società civile from the latter. In 1988 Wolfgang Fritz Haug suggested translating the term "teaching the language something new [...] as a civil society". In 1989, Haug's group committed itself to civil society. In 1992 Jürgen Habermas reinterpreted the term. In factuality and validity , civil society marks a sub-area of ​​Habermass's concept of publicity - that of voluntary associations, non-violent protest and civil disobedience, which Habermas also describes as the non-bequeathed or autochthonous public . Habermas contrasted this with the bequeathed public, which was dominated by the political center , professional media and lobbyism . Habermas makes high normative demands on the actors of civil society, namely that they only act “problem-solving” and practice “self-limitation”, i.e. not just represent their interests and forego power. During the 1990s, the term civil society became mostly neo-Tocquevillian, i. H. logically used as a delimitation term to the areas of family, market and state or normatively as an appeal to citizens; on the one hand as a call for criticism of governments and companies, often with reference to Antonio Gramsci or Jürgen Habermas, on the other hand as a call for voluntary engagement in associations and churches, often referring to Ralf Dahrendorf or Robert Putnam .

The different dimensions of civil society

Civil society can be viewed from three different dimensions. From a normative perspective, civil society is equated with a democratic community and a just society. The habitual perspective relates to a certain type of social action. The actor-centered perspective places the focus on specifically acting people and organizations that are self-organized.

Historical review

The thinking on which the concept of civil society is based can look back on a long tradition. In classical antiquity , societas civilis was synonymous with the ideal way of life for free citizens. Alexis de Tocqueville , a French nobleman who toured the United States at the beginning of the 19th century, was fascinated by the dynamism of American civil society, with its variety of voluntary associations (associations, clubs) and their importance for peaceful coexistence, problem solving, democracy and Self-organisation. Tocqueville's description of the then society in the USA offers the blueprint for the concept of a “civil society” in which social self-organization is based on the commitment of citizens, which is neither based on the calculations of the market nor on the sovereignty claims of the state without contradiction bends. Since then, a close connection has been seen between the ability of a society to organize itself and the robustness of its democratic constitution.

Civil society was also coined as a term by Antonio Gramsci . He saw in it the entirety of all non-governmental organizations that have an influence on everyday understanding and public opinion. This is where the conflicts about cultural hegemony take place, which are necessary for the survival of the hegemony of capitalism.

The normative implications of civil society

Forming opinions in discourse and exchanging opposing viewpoints are central components of the concept of civil society. The concept has had a normative dimension since its early beginnings (Kneer 1997). Civil society functions as a model for good and fair coexistence in a democracy and, as such, always has a critical function towards the ruling decision-making bodies in politics, business and public administration. This explains the proximity of the concept to social movements such as the women's, environmental or anti-nuclear movement (Roth / Rucht 2007; cf. Klein 2001). Even more, there is a close relationship between civil society and opponents of the regime in authoritarian or autocratic countries. The Nobel Peace Prize laureates Aung San Suu Kyi (1991) from Myanmar and Liu Xiaobo (2010) from China are important representatives of civil society due to their commitment to the non-violent introduction of democracy and the rule of law in their countries.

Non-violence , ie the “civil” way of dealing with one another, is another central component of the “civil society” concept. Controversial topics or plans should be discussed in a non-violent manner with the mutual respect of those involved and a compromise should be reached. In this respect, civil society activities can also be effective as a “school of democracy”, in which the process of exchanging opinions and the procedure of compromising and understanding can be learned. Civil society thus stands for a society that is characterized by civility in the sense of democracy, tolerance , responsibility and trust .

Civil society actors and their motives

Civil society is an area in which voluntary associations (associations), foundations, initiatives, non-governmental organizations or non-governmental organizations (NGOs), non-profit organizations (NPOs) are active. The transition to social movements is fluid, as movements include civil society organizations but are not organizations as such. The goals and purposes of civil society actors can address general societal problems as well as the concerns and needs of special groups and be local, regional or international in nature. Civil society forms the framework within which civic engagement can develop. This involves the creation or provision of goods and services aimed at the common good (e.g. tables for the needy, hospice movement), as well as influencing public opinion through participation in debates, protests and other high-profile actions (letters to the editor, party, Union or civic engagement).

With this in mind, non-profit institutions ( foundations , cooperatives , limited liability companies ) as well as clubs, associations and initiatives as voluntary associations take on tasks in a wide range of activities: They provide information about human rights violations or environmental damage, help victims of natural disasters, organize poor kitchens, run hospitals and kindergartens, mark hiking trails or allow you to do sports from aerobics to football. The concrete commitment of citizens thus relates to a wide range of social problems and needs, it serves charitable or political issues as well as the enrichment of leisure time. And it takes place in traditional organizations as well as in sometimes only temporary social movements.

The Enquete Commission of the German Bundestag

The Enquete Commission of the German Bundestag Future of Civic Engagement used the terms "civil society" and "civil society" synonymously (cf. Enquete Commission 2002: p. 59) although civil society and especially civil society in this country had a negative image for a long time. The commission carried out a comprehensive inventory of the state of research on civil society and based this on a broad definition of the concept of civic or civil society engagement. Accordingly, this includes political and social commitment, activities in clubs, associations and churches as well as taking on public functions (e.g. lay judges ), forms of reciprocity (e.g. neighborhood help), self-help and involvement in and by companies (corporate citizenship and Corporate Social Responsibility) (Enquete Commission 2002: p. 65 f.).

It is a very comprehensive understanding of civic engagement, which was taken as a basis here, whereby the Enquete Commission also linked the vision of a fairer and more democratic society that is essentially based on participation with the model of civil society . Specifically, the report of the commission names the goals, content and procedures of civil society: "Civil society is about the quality of social, political and cultural coexistence, about social cohesion and ecological sustainability. Understood in this way, civic engagement in the Federal Republic a central cornerstone in a vision in which the democratic and social structures are filled with life, changed and tailored to future social needs by the actively acting citizens who participate in the community tasks. Civil society operates a social way of life in which both the civic committed as well as their diverse forms and associations are given more space for self-determination and self-organization. " (Enquete Commission 2002: 59)

The different perspectives on civil society

Civil society can be viewed from a normative, a habitual or action-oriented and an actor-centered perspective.

Normative perspective
From a normative perspective, civil society is equated with the positive forward-looking project of a democratic community and a just society. This point of view was represented in particular by the dissident movements in Eastern Europe as well as by oppositional forces against the military dictatorships in Latin America: civil society as a democratic counter-draft to the existing authoritarian or dictatorial social and political status quo (Klein 2001). This perspective is always adopted when reference is made to civil society as an alternative and critical potential, as is very often the case in the media with reports on authoritarian or anti-democratic regimes in Africa, Asia, Latin America. In contrast, in established democracies, civil society is not viewed as an alternative to the status quo, but primarily associated with reform projects of social movements with the direct participation of citizens.
Habitual or action-oriented perspective
The habitual or action-oriented perspective of civil society relates to a certain type of social action, namely to civilian interaction with one another, non-violent and compromise-oriented: a society that is characterized by civility.
The fact that its members treat each other in a civil manner is supported by political framework conditions that are also shaped by civility . These include the constitutionally guaranteed human and fundamental rights as well as equality before the law and enabling decent living conditions, for example in the sense of securing a subsistence level (Rucht 2010a: 88). In this respect, civil society is an expression of a political culture that is characterized by non-violence, tolerance and a willingness to compromise.
Actor-centered perspective
The third perspective on civil society is actor-centered. This means that the focus here is on specifically acting people and organizations that are self-organized. This does not happen in traditional family structures, nor in the context of private companies or state authorities, but primarily in a social area beyond the market, state and private sphere and thus in the context of clubs, associations, foundations, networks , informal circles, social relationships and movements and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).


Brief definitions
Overall presentations and conceptual history
National representations
  • Ahad Rahmanzadeh et al .: IRAN - civil society and non-governmental organizations in an Islamic country. BFTE, Bonn 2008, ISBN 978-3-00-021915-3 .
  • Sabine Reimer: The strengths of civil society in Germany. An analysis in the context of the CIVICUS Civil Society Index Project / The Strength of Civil Society in Germany: An Analysis in the Context of the CIVICUS Civil Society Index Project. Maecenata Institute for Philanthropy and Civil Society. Maecenata Verlag, Berlin 2006, ISBN 3-935975-45-7 .
  • Richard Traunmüller, Isabelle Stadelmann-Steffen, Kathrin Ackermann, Markus Freitag: Civil Society in Switzerland. Analysis of club engagement at local level. Seismo Verlag, Social Sciences and Social Issues, Zurich 2012, ISBN 978-3-03777-113-6 .
International representations
  • Helmut K. Anheier , Stefan Toepler: International Encyclopedia of Civil Society. 1st edition. Springer-Verlag New York Inc., New York 2010, ISBN 978-0-387-93996-4 .
  • Lester M. Salamon, Helmut K. Anheier, Regina List, Stefan Toepler, S. Wojciech Sokolowski: Global Civil Society. Dimensions of the Nonprofit Sector. The Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project. The Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, Baltimore 1999, ISBN 1-886333-42-4 .
  • Michèle Knodt , Barbara Finke (Ed.): European civil society. Concepts, actors, strategies. Civil society and democracy. Volume 18, VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden 2005, ISBN 3-8100-4205-6 .
Individual aspects
Criticism of concepts of civil society
  • Frane Adam et al. Borut Roncevic: Social Capital. Recent Debates and Research Trends. In: Social Science Information Vol. 42, 2003, ISSN  0539-0184 .
  • Jan W. van Deth et al. Sonja Zmerli: Introduction. Civicness, Equality, and Democracy - A "Dark Side" of Social Capital? In: American Behavioral Scientist Vol. 53, 2010, pp. 631-639, ISSN  0002-7642 .
  • Robert Heise, Daniel Watermann, Association Research in Expansion: Historical and Social Science Perspectives. In: Geschichte und Gesellschaft vol. 43, 2017, pp. 5–31, ISSN  0340-613X .
  • Roland Roth : The dark side of civil society. Limits of a civil society foundation of democracy, in: Ansgar Klein u. a. (Ed.): Civil society and social capital. Challenges of political and social integration, Wiesbaden 2004, pp. 41–64, ISBN 978-3-322-80963-6 .
  • Sheri Berman: Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic. In: World Politics Vol. 49, 1997, pp. 401-429, ISSN  0198-0300 .

Web links


Special aspects

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development BMZ: Civil Society. Retrieved September 20, 2019 .
  2. ^ Freise, Matthias / Zimmer, Annette (ed.): Civil society and welfare state in transition. Actors, strategies and policy areas .
  3. ↑ The future of civic engagement. Retrieved September 20, 2019 .
  4. ^ Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development BMZ: Civil Society. Retrieved September 20, 2019 .
  5. a b Daniel Kremers, Shunsuke Izuta: Change in the meaning of civil society or the misery of the history of ideas: An annotated translation of Hirata Kiyoaki's essay on the term shimin shakai by Antonio Gramsci (part 1) . In: Asian Studies - Etudes Asiatiques . tape 71 , no. 2 . De Gruyter, Boston, Berlin 2017, p. 717 , doi : 10.1515 / asia-2017-0044 ( ).
  6. a b Daniel Kremers, Shunsuke Izuta: Change in the meaning of civil society or the misery of the history of ideas: An annotated translation of Hirata Kiyoaki's essay on the term shimin shakai by Antonio Gramsci (part 1) . In: Asian Studies - Etudes Asiatiques . tape 71 , no. 2 . De Gruyter, Boston, Berlin 2017, p. 720 , doi : 10.1515 / asia-2017-0044 ( ).
  7. ^ Pawel Zaleski: Tocqueville on Civilian Society: A Romantic Vision of the Dichotomic Structure of Social Reality . In: Archive for the history of concepts . tape 50 . Felix Meiner Verlag GmbH, Hamburg 2008, JSTOR : 24360940 (English).
  8. Annette Zimmer: The different dimensions of civil society. In: Federal Agency for Civic Education (, May 31, 2012.
  9. Annette Zimmer 2012.
  10. Annette Zimmer 2012.
  11. Federal Agency for Civic Education , Zimmer, Annette, 2012
  12. Federal Agency for Civic Education , Zimmer, Annette, 2012
  13. Federal Agency for Civic Education , Zimmer, Annette, 2012