Civil Society: Definition and Theory

Rotary Club member administers the oral polio vaccine to children from a slum in Dhaka April 23, 2000, during the Polio National Immunization Day in Bangladesh.
Rotary Club member administers the oral polio vaccine to children from a slum in Dhaka April 23, 2000, during the Polio National Immunization Day in Bangladesh.

Jean-Marc Giboux/Getty Images

Civil society refers to a wide variety of communities and groups such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations that function outside of government to provide support and advocacy for certain people or issues in society. 

Sometimes called the “third sector” to differentiate it from the public sector—which includes the government and its branches—and the private sector—which includes businesses and corporations—social society has the power to influence the actions of elected policymakers and businesses.


While the concept of civil society in the context of political thought continues to evolve today, its roots date at least as far back as Ancient Rome. To Roman statesman Cicero (106 BCE to 42 BCE), the term “societas civilis” referred to a political community encompassing more than one city that was governed by the rule of law and typified by a degree of urban sophistication. This kind of community was understood in contrast to uncivilized or barbarian tribal settlements.

During the 17th century Enlightenment era, English writers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke added social and moral sources of the legitimacy of the state or government in relation to the idea of civil society. In contrast to the widely held thought in ancient Greece that societies could be characterized according to the character of their political constitution and institutions, Hobbes and Locke contended that as an extension of their “social contract,” society was conceived before the establishment of political authority.

Between these two perspectives, 18th-century Scottish economist Adam Smith put forward the concept that civil society emerged from the development of an independent commercial order. Within this order, Smith contended, a chain of interdependence between predominantly self-seeking individuals proliferated, and an independent “public sphere,” where the common interests of society as a whole could be pursued. From Smith’s writings, the idea that the public possessed its own opinions on matters of common concern and that such “public opinion” as shared in visible forums like newspapers, coffeehouses, and political assemblies could influence elected policymakers.

Considered the main representative of 19th-century German Idealism, philosopher G. W. F. Hegel developed an understanding of civil society as a non-political society. As opposed to classical republicanism civil society, which was generally synonymous with political society, Hegel, as had Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic book Democracy in America, Tocqueville saw separate roles for civil and political societies and associations. As had Tocqueville, Hegel argued that the direct role these associations played in solving problems meant that they could be solved without having to involve the federal or state government. Hegel considered civil society to be a separate realm, a “system of needs,” representing the “difference which intervenes between the family and the state.”

By the 1980s, the importance of the social society as originally envisioned by Adam Smith became popular in political and economic discussions as it became identified with non-state movements that were defying authoritarian regimes, especially in central and Eastern Europe and Latin America.

The English and German versions of civil society have been particularly influential in shaping the thinking of Western theorists since the late 20th century. After rarely being discussed during the 1920s to 1960s, civil society had become common in political thought by the 1980s.

Various modern neoliberal theorists and ideologues have strongly adopted the English version as synonymous with the idea of the free market accompanied by a powerful but constitutionally limited government. This idea played a key role in the idealization of civil society that arose in eastern European intellectual circles following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In these settings, civil society signified either the growth of a web of free autonomous associations that were independent of the state and that bound citizens together in matters of common concern or a necessary means of achieving the economic prosperity and civil liberties of Western democracy.

At the same time, the German interpretation’s concern with the sources and importance of the ethical ends learned through participation in the corporations of civil society reemerged in the work of a body of American political scientists and theorists who came to view civil society organizations as sources of the stocks of human capital and mutual public-private cooperation required by a successful democracy.

During the 1990s, many authors, politicians, and public authorities came to view civil society as a sort of “Swiss Army knife” for fixing the many problems facing developing countries. Relatedly, civil society emerged as a mainstay of academic thinking about democratic transitions and a familiar part of the discourse of global institutions, leading nongovernmental organizations, and Western governments.

During the 1990s, in particular, many authors, politicians, and public authorities keen to find solutions to some of the different kinds of problems facing developing countries seized upon civil society as a kind of panacea. Relatedly, this term became a conceptual mainstay of academic thinking about democratic transitions and a familiar part of the discourse of global institutions, leading nongovernmental organizations, and Western governments. The ideological character and political implications of such ideas have become increasingly clear over time. Such thinking helped sustain various attempts to kick-start civil societies from “above” in different African countries, for example, and simultaneously served to legitimize Western ideas about the kinds of political structure and economic order appropriate for developing states. In philosophical terms, applying civil society in this kind of way raises the profound question of whether it can be removed from its status within the Western political imagination and applied in ways that are appropriate for the indigenous developmental trajectories and political cultures of some of the poorest countries in the world.

By the end of the 1990s civil society was seen less as a cure-all amid the growth of the anti-globalization movement and the transition of many countries to democracy and more as a means of justifying its legitimacy and democratic credentials. As non-governmental organizations and the new social movements emerged on a global scale during the 1990s, civil society as a distinct third sector became treated as more of a means of establishing an alternative social order. Civil society theory has now assumed a rather neutral stance with marked differences between its nature of implementation in richer societies and in developing states.

Definitions and Related Concepts 

While “civil society” has become a central theme in the modern discussion of philanthropy and civic activity, it remains hard to define, deeply complex, and resistant to being specifically categorized or interpreted. In general, the term is used to suggest how public life should function within and between societies. It also describes the social action that occurs within the context of voluntary associations.

Civil society is made up largely of organizations that are not associated with the government, such as schools and universities, interest groups, professional associations, churches, cultural institutions, and—sometimes—businesses. Now considered essential to a healthy democracy, these elements of social society are an important source of information for both citizens and the government. They monitor government policies and actions and hold government leaders accountable. They engage in advocacy and offer alternative policies for the government, the private sector, and other institutions. They deliver services, especially to the poor and underserved. They defend individual rights and work to change and uphold accepted social norms and behaviors.

Like other groups and institutions in modern societies, nonprofit organizations like those making up civil society operate within and are conditioned by economic, political, and social systems. In turn, the nonprofits themselves, allow their group members to exercise three fundamental civic principles: participatory engagement, constitutional authority, and moral responsibility. The presence of a strong civil society is essential to securing democracy for peace, security, and development.

In his 1995 book Bowling Alone, American political scientist Robert D. Putnam argued that even non-political organizations—such as bowling leagues—in civil society are vital for democracy because they build cultural capital, trust, and shared values, which can influence the political sector and help to hold the society together.

However, the importance of civil society to a robust democracy has been questioned. Some political and social scientists have noted that many civil society groups, such as environmental protection groups, have now obtained a remarkable amount of political influence without having been directly elected or appointed. 

For example, in his 2013 paper “Bowling for Fascism” NYU professor of politics Shanker Satyanath argues that popular support from civil society aided Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party in coming to power in Germany during the 1930s. The argument that civil society is biased towards the global north has also been made. Indian political scientist and anthropologist Partha Chatterjee has argued that, in most of the world, “civil society is demographically limited” to those who are allowed and afford to participate in it. Finally, other scholars have argued that, since the concept of civil society is closely related to democracy and representation, it should in turn be linked with ideas of nationality and the potential harms of extreme nationalism such as totalitarianism.

Civic Organizations 

Central to the concept of social society, civic organizations can be defined as nonprofit community-based companies, clubs, committees, associations, corporations, or authorized representatives of a governmental entity composed of volunteers and which are established mainly to further educational, charitable, religious, cultural, or local economic development purposes. 

Examples of civil society organizations include:

  • Churches and other faith-based organizations
  • Online groups and social media communities
  • Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other nonprofits
  • Unions and other collective-bargaining groups
  • Innovators, entrepreneurs, and activists
  • Cooperatives and collectives
  • Grassroots organizations

More specifically targeted examples of civic organizations include community gardens, food banks, parent-teacher associations, Rotary, and Toastmasters. Other non-governmental civic organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity, operate on a regional to nationwide scale to combat local problems like homelessness. Some civic organizations such as AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps may also be directly associated with and sponsored by the government. 

'Habitat for Humanity' is a volunteer project which seeks to provide homes for needy families.
'Habitat for Humanity' is a volunteer project which seeks to provide homes for needy families.

Billy Hustace/Getty Images

While most civic organizations like Elks Lodges and Kiwanis International are either nonpolitical or apolitical and rarely publicly support political candidates or causes. Other civic organizations are considered openly political. For example, the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) aggressively advocate for candidates and policies dedicated to advancing the rights of women and seniors. Similarly, environmental groups Greenpeace and the Sierra Club support candidates sympathetic to all aspects of ecological and environmental protection and preservation. 

A volunteer with the American Red Cross, unloads bags of ice for people in need after Hurricane Katrina September 14, 2005 in Biloxi, Mississippi.
A volunteer with the American Red Cross, unloads bags of ice for people in need after Hurricane Katrina September 14, 2005 in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In many cases, it can be hard to tell political from nonpolitical civic organizations because many of these groups tend to work in collaboration with one another to serve the public.

On a worldwide scale, larger, well-established civic organizations play an incredibly important role. For example, in the aftermath of a natural disaster, such as Hurricane Katrina or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, groups like the American Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity were instrumental in helping the victims recover. Considered Non-Governmental Aid Organizations (NGOs), groups like these assist people for little or no fee. NGOs fall into the category of civil society because they are not operated by the government, are very often reliant on donations, and tend to be comprised of volunteers.

Another example of civil society at work comes in the form of civic groups, such as the Rotary Club or Kiwanis. In the United States, these are groups that are made up of people from the community who volunteer their time to raise money for community projects or needs. Though these groups tend to be smaller than NGOs, they are important because they represent the ordinary citizen contributing to the overall well-being of their community.

At various points throughout history, civil society in its many forms has taken on the role of leading great movements of change, including civil rights, gender equality, and other parity movements. Civil society functions best when people at all levels of society adopt an idea. Eventually, this brings about changes in power structures and infuses the new prevailing wisdom into family, society, government, the justice system, and businesses. Civic organizations give voice to the voiceless segments of society. They raise awareness of social issues and advocate for change, empowering local communities to develop new programs to meet their own needs. In recent years, civic organizations, have been playing an increasing role in the provision of social services in response to fiscal distress, government inefficiency, and an ideological environment favoring non-state action.

Nonprofit civic organizations enjoy a significant advantage in the area of political engagement. They can operate in the public arena in ways that advance general ideas and ideals, and in so doing, hold both political parties accountable. They also help to contribute to healthy political socialization by providing individuals access to resources, civic skills, interpersonal networks, and opportunities for political recruitment.

While the global size and economic impact of the social sector are hard to quantify, one study shows that NGOs across 40 countries represent $2.2 trillion in operating expenditures—a figure that is larger than the gross domestic product of all but six countries. In comparing the economic scale of the social sector with nations, it has been described as "Volunteerland” by academics. This “land” also employs around 54 million full-time equivalent workers and has a global volunteer workforce of over 350 million people.


  • Edwards, Michael. “Civil Society.” Polity; 4th edition, December 4, 2019, ISBN-10: 1509537341.
  • Edwards, Michael. “The Oxford Handbook of Civil Society.” Oxford University Press, July 1, 2013, ISBN-10: ‎019933014X.
  • Ehrenberg, John. “Civil Society: The Critical History of an Idea.” New York University Press, 1999, ISBN-10: ‎0814722075.
  • Putnam, Robert D. “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” Touchstone Books by Simon & Schuster, August 7, 2001, ISBN-10: ‎0743203046.
  • Satyanath, Shanker. “Bowling for Fascism: Social Capital and the Rise of the Nazi Party.” National Bureau of Economic Research, July 2013,
  • Williams, Colin C. (editor). “Routledge Handbook of Entrepreneurship in Developing Economies.” Routledge, September 30, 2020, ISBN-10: 0367660083.
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Longley, Robert. "Civil Society: Definition and Theory." ThoughtCo, May. 26, 2022, Longley, Robert. (2022, May 26). Civil Society: Definition and Theory. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Civil Society: Definition and Theory." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).