Civil society (Anthropology)

Derived from the Latin societas civilis, this concept dates back to the Renaissance and was developed in the work of philosophers such as Ferguson in the eighteenth century and Hegel and Marx in the nineteenth. However, these older usages, not prominent in Enlightenment anthropology, have almost disappeared in the modern discipline (an interesting exception is Lawrence Krader’s discussion of the emergence of civil society with reference to Marxist modes of production theory; see Krader 1976).

It is curious that, just when many were pronouncing the general concept of society to be obsolete, the more specific variant of civil society, laden with all the accumulated freight of centuries of European intellectual debate, suddenly seemed relevant to sociocultural anthropology. The rediscovery of this term had a lot to do with its skilful deployment by dissidents in Eastern Europe in the last years of the Soviet bloc, but also with the failures of development in the postcolonial states of the Third World and the increasing significance of the ‘third’ or ‘voluntary sector’ in the world’s richest countries. In each of these contexts civil society has come to be defined primarily in opposition to the state (a dichotomy introduced by "Hegel, who used the term biirgerliche Gesellschaft).

Standard definitions refer to all human social organization between the state and the family or household, while narrower definitions exclude markets and commercial life (Layton 2006).

Like sociologists and political scientists, anthropologists have been attracted by the emancipatory allure of this idea, as theorized by "Gramsci (most famously in his Prison Notebooks), by "Karl Polanyi (who preferred the concept of ‘active society’ in developing his theory of the ‘double movement’) and by "Habermas (who later used the anglicized variant Zpilgesellschaft in developing his work on the modern public sphere). Anthropologists have contributed little to the general theoretical debates. A few merely took up the term as a label, while continuing to do what they had always been doing. But others have pursued innovative explorations of how an idea originating in pre-Enlightenment Europe could spread to places such as postcolonial Africa. On the one hand they documented new imaginaries and showed how the rhetoric of civil society was being invoked in relation to other modern terms, such as citizenship; on the other they investigated whether particular local institutions might function as the non-Western equivalents of a free, tolerant civil society (Comaroff and Comaroff 1999).

The normative loading was always considerable. Around the turn of the century there was increasing enthusiasm for the idea of a global or ‘world civil society’. At the same time almost all commentators, including some of those who recommend it most fervently such as "Ernest Gellner (1994), agree that civil society has never been a very coherent notion. The easiest way to achieve a modicum of precision is to limit the concept to the study of formal non-governmental organizations. Numerous ethnographic studies have shown that these new forms of civil society often turn out to be artificial, inefficient and the very opposite of civil. Authoritarian regimes found their own pseudo-NGOs in order to qualify for international aid. The benefits accrue mainly to the organizations’ English-speaking elite, who become increasingly alienated from their community. The few NGOs which last more than a few years tend to be co-opted into corrupt state bureaucracies. It is now widely recognized that in regions such as the Balkans and Central Asia the mandatory channelling of funding through NGOs has had pernicious effects, weakening fragile states and generating new forms of stratification (Mandel 2002; Elyachar 2005).

But to focus on formal organizations is arguably to take an impoverished view of civil society. The deeper question is whether a concept so closely tied to Western models of association and individual membership can be generalized to other parts of the world. Whereas Gellner was adamant in advocating an unadulterated Western notion, which he thought incompatible with the institutions of Islam, others have argued that NGOs cannot fulfil their role unless they are able to integrate older, locally rooted forms of association and norms of responsibility and social accountability that are often imbued with religion. But such alternative forms often deviate radically from the secular, rational institutions envisaged by states and international donors (e.g. they might exclude women from ‘civic participation’; for explorations of such dilemmas see Hann and Dunn 1996; Glasius et al. 2004).

After the demise of socialism, the rhetoric of ‘vibrant civil society’ soon lost its appeal to most Eastern Europeans. On the other hand it remains inspirational to critical intellectuals in single-party polities such as China. In the present era of ‘neoliberalism’ it also retains its attraction to the powerful in the West, closely aligned with terms such as democracy and human rights. Some political scientists still appear to think that one can measure the health and strength of a civil society by counting the number of its NGOs. It is puzzling that some anthropologists should buy into this; it is especially worrying when fieldworkers restrict themselves to the formal organizations and fail to pay sufficient attention to their impact on the wider society.

It will be interesting to see whether civil society was just a millennial fad, or whether its recent popularity will persist and be judged sufficient to warrant the retention of this term in the next edition of this reference work.

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