HOME 主页 | VITA 简历 | RESEARCH 研究 | TEACHING 教学 | RESOURCES 资源 | WUHAN 武汉 | 历史 地图

Creative Commons [版权许可]

Definitions, Causes, and Functions

GUO Gang
Department of Political Science
University of Rochester
May 1998


Recent years has seen a proliferation of the literature about civil society. One way to look at it is as a revitalization of the concept of civil society. In the long tradition of thoughts since the Enlightenment political philosophers (especially Montesquieu), Hegel, and Tocqueville, this concept has been kept alive for centuries. After World War II, in retrospection of this greatest bloodbath the world has ever known, scholars employed this concept in the investigation into the reasons why some democracies survived the Great Depression while others crumbled and gave way to Fascism. Almond and Verba抯 The Civic Culture is one of the major examples in the 1960's. The revitalization of the concept of civil society in the past two decades can be at least partially attributed to the inspiration aroused by the resistance of the autonomous civil societies against the post-totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The dramatic democratic transitions in these areas and in other Third World countries during these two decades, the so-called "third wave", provided new opportunities and challenges to the study of civil society.

In this paper I try to outline this tradition and revitalization of the concept of civil society. Inevitably there are both continuity and change between them. So my approach will be from three parallel perspectives, i.e., the definition, causes, and functions of civil society.

In Section II, I will analyze the dichotomization in the definitions of civil society: one is from the "civic culture" point of view, defined principally in terms of the relationship between the state and the society; the other is from the perspective of voluntary associational life. Regarding the latter mainly as the institutionalization of the former, I will proceed in this paper with special emphasis on the organized social life. Also in Section II, I will address another important question in the definitions of civil society, that is, should we include political organizations and economic organizations in the sphere of civil societies?

In Section III, I will go over the explorations that have been made about the causes of civil society. I can discern from the literature three different accounts of the causal mechanisms that generate civil society: some scholars seem to take civil society as mostly self-generating; others find the causes of civil society in economic development and material improvement; and still others think that the independent interests are the underlying driving force.

In Section IV, I will examine the most complicated and also the most controversial point about civil society: its functions. This section will be divided into three parts, dealing respectively with three of the major fields of controversy about the functions of civil society, i.e., the economic function, the society-stabilizing function, and the democratic function. The third part will also focus on the role of civil society in the "third wave" of global shift toward democracy. Last, Section V concludes with some suggestions for future avenues of research on civil society.


Early European political philosophers mainly defined civil society in the context of the relationship between the state and the society. For Hobbes and even more clearly for Locke, the state originates in, is ultimately answerable to, and is therefore identified with (but not identical to) civil society. For later philosophers, such as Montesquieu and Tocqueville, civil society stands at least partially in opposition to the state. Marxists such as Gramsci identifies civil society with realms outside the power of the state. These definitions of civil society in relational terms are also reflected in recent literatures. Fukuyama defined civil society as the realm of spontaneously created social structures separate from the state that underlie democratic political institutions (Fukuyama 1995:8). To Dunn, "[c]ivil society is broadly regarded as the domain of relationships which falls between the private realm of the family on the one hand and the state on the other"(Dunn 1996:27).

Another way to define civil society is to restrict to the associational life of it. Charles Taylor defined civil society as "a web of autonomous associations independent of the state, which bind citizens together in matters of common concern, and by their existence or actions could have an effect on public policy"(Kligman 1990:420). Schmitter defined civil society as "[a] set or system of self-organized intermediary groups"(Schmitter 1995:1). Similarly, The Concise Oxford dictionary of Politics defined civil society as "the set of intermediate associations which are neither the state nor the (extended) family; civil society therefore includes voluntary associations and firms and other corporate bodies." One of the advantages of this kind of definition is that civil society can thus be operationalized and be empirically tested on.

The latter kind of definitions is closely related with the former one. As Tester sees it, civil society is "the social relationships which involve the voluntary association and participation of individuals acting in their private capacities. In a simple and simplistic formula, civil society can be said to equal the milieu of private contractual relationships"(Tester 1992:8). We can regard the voluntary organizations as the institutionalization of the social relationships as defined by the former scholars. So for the rest of this paper I will use the term "civil society" mainly as the latter kind defines it.

However, even in this restricted form, problems remain. First, should political organizations be included as civil society? Tocqueville certainly did not think so. He offers a narrower specification of "political society", by which he means the activities of the population as it engages actively with matters of government and power. In this approach, political society is distinct from civil society, the private relationships between citizens and their myriad non-political associations(Hann 1996:5). Antonio Gramsci also made this distinction between political society and civil society(Foley and Edwards 1996:38). However, the question whether to include political associations remains mostly unanswered, which will reappear in Section IV, when I go over the functions of civil society.

Second, should we include business organizations in our discussion of civil society? In this respect, Marx follows Adam Smith in identifying civil society primarily with economic interaction through the market(Hann 1996:4), but in recent literature, Cohen and Arato distinguished civil society equally from the market and from the state(Cohen and Arato 1992:5). So the role of market in civil society is still a problem largely unresolved here. I will come back to this later in the next section.


The question, "how is civil society formed?", produces different answers. Some scholars, such as Larry Diamond, think that civil society is "self-generating"(Diamond 1994:4). This seems to scent of Rousseau, who, unlike Hobbes and Locke, addresses explicitly the course of forming civil society. Rousseau treats the formation of civil society as a process that is conscious and deliberate. Enigmatically, he relies upon a "Legislator" as a seemingly essential midwife in the birth of civil society, one who is apart from the people on whose behalf he acts and who remains outside of civil society once it is created(Harbeson et. al. 1994:17).

Some later scholars take other approaches. There is a Marxist version that emphasizes the effect of inevitable progress of material improvement on the civic culture(Almond and Verba 1980:8). Nie, Powell, and Prewitt also offered another explanation on the formation of civil society. They found that "economic development alters the social structure of a nation. As nations become more economically developed, three major changes occur: ... (3)the density and complexity of economic and secondary organizations increases"(Nie et. al. 1969:808). From their chart as shown below, it is clear that economic development leads to alterations in the stratification, urban, and group membership patterns.

A ------ ------> B ------ ------> C ------ -----> D

Economic Development

Alterations in the Stratification, Urban, and Group Membership Patterns

Changes in the Distribution of Attitudes and Cognitions

Increases in Political Participation

Figure I

There is still another kind of explanation about the causes of civil society. As Weigle and Butterfield conclude from their study of the democratic transitions in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, "social groups would form on the basis of independently articulated interests and goals"(Weigle and Butterfield 1992:3).

What can we say about the causes of civil society from the above? It seems to me that we can at least conclude that economic factors really play a role in the formation of civil society. Even if we regard independent interests as a necessary condition for the formation of civil society, this condition will still be largely shaped by the economic development. So in my opinion economic organizations should be included in our analysis of civil society, otherwise we would be missing one of the driving forces in the creation of civil society.


Now we come to the most difficult and most controversial question: what is the function of civil society? Different people see different benefits and harms in the functions of civil society. As Rousseau simply put it, civil society engenders both "the best and the worst ... both our virtues and our vices"(Fine 1997:16).

Part I: Economic Functions

There are both pessimistic and optimistic stories about the economic functions of civil society. One of the pessimists, Mancur Olson, building on his own logic of collective action, argues that small interest groups have no incentive to work toward the common good of society and every incentive to engage in costly and inefficient "rent-seeking"--lobbying for tax breaks, colluding to restrain competition, and so on(Putnam 1993:176). Rousseau also pointed out that "[m]an are forced to caress and destroy one another at the same time" in civil society(Fine 1997:17). Worse yet, as Olson holds, in the absence of invasion or revolutionary change, the thicket of special interest groups in any society grows ever denser, choking off innovation and dampening economic growth. More and stronger groups mean less growth(Putnam 1993:176). Another pessimist is Callaghy, who fears that the "wild passions" of civil society may undercut sound economic management and economic reform(Harbeson 1994:294).

Other scholars, however, hold that civil society has the function of provoking economic growth. Analyzing Italian regional-level data from the nineteenth century to the 1980's, Putnam found that levels of civic involvement around 1900 predicted subsequent levels of economic development even better than did economic variables. Historically, he argued that norms and networks of civic engagement have fostered economic growth, not inhibited it.

Inglehart tries to reconcile these two diametrically opposed theories about the economic functions of civil society. Analyzing data from 43 societies, he concludes that relatively dense networks of associational membership seem to be conducive to economic growth in the earlier stages of development, as Putnam has argued; but (as Olson has argued) these associations can become hypertrophied and excessively powerful in advanced industrial societies, distorting policy to defend well-organized interests at the expense of overall economic growth(Inglehart 1997:228).

Part II: Stabilizing Functions

Can civil society stabilize the state? Both Tocqueville and Putnam stress the importance of networks of voluntary associations in support of a culture of trust and cooperation, which were essential to the successful functioning of democratic institutions. However, the answers to the question from other empirical test and theoretical analysis seem to be "not necessarily". In Inglehart抯 multiple regression tests, although membership in voluntary associations is strongly correlated with stable democracy, this variable did not show a statistically significant impact when the effects of other variables are controlled for. Schmitter also argues that "[c]ivil society, ... can affect the consolidation and subsequent functioning of democracy in a number of negative ways". Among these he includes: "(5)most dangerously it may prove to be not one but several civil societies -- all occupying the same territory and polity, but organizing interests and passions into communities that are ethnically, linguistically or culturally distinct -- even exclusive" (Whitehead 1997:106). The analysis of the stabilizing functions reveals just the "paradox of civil society" proposed by Foley and Edwards: democracy and a strong state depend on the enforcing effects of its civil society, but such effects depend on the prior achievement of both democracy and a strong state(Foley and Edwards 1996:48).

Part III: Democratic Functions

The democratic functions of civil society seem long recognized. As Almond and Verba conclude from the examination of the survey data from five nations: the organizational member, political or not, compared with the nonmember, is likely to consider himself more competence as a citizen, to be a more active participant in politics. The member, in contrast with the nonmember, appears to approximate more closely what we have called the democratic citizen. He is competent, active, and open with his opinions(Almond and Verba 1963:320). The most striking finding is that any membership -- passive membership or membership in a nonpolitical organization -- has an impact on political competence, and thus on pluralism, one of the most important foundations of political democracy(Almond and Verba 1963:321).

Nie, Powell and Prewitt also investigate the democratic functions of civil society in terms of its effects on political participation. As shown in the Figure I above, as the density and complexity of economic and secondary organizations increases, greater proportions of the population find themselves in life situations that lead to increased political information, political awareness, sense of personal political efficacy, and other relevant attitudes. These attitude changes, in turn, lead to increases in political participation(Nie, Powell, and Prewitt 1969:808).

Civil society has yet another democratic function, that of facilitating democratic transitions. Montesquieu clearly believed from a theoretical perspective that civil society should function as a counterbalance to governments in order to inhibit their tyrannical tendencies; he also suggested that civil society actually did perform in this capacity (Harbeson 1994:26). This is enforced by the empirical finding by Inglehart that organizational membership does show a statistically significant linkage with changes in levels of democracy from 1990 to 1995(Inglehart 1997:193). Weigle and Butterfield抯 case studies of the democratic transitions in the Eastern European countries and in the former Soviet Union also show the important role played by the civil society.


This paper tries to explore the different opinions and perspectives in the definitions, causes, and functions of civil society. Civil society can be defined in both relational and associational terms, with the latter as the institutionalization of the former. So further research can be directed at the relationship between political, economic (market), and the (strictly) civil society. Tocqueville saw specifically political associations as the "great free schools" of democracy and in practice the mother of civil association(Foley and Edwards 1996:44). As regards the causes of civil society, we may try to further specify the causal mechanisms that form civil society. More empirical tests are also needed for the theories about the functions of civil society, such as the relationship between stability, economic growth, political participation and civil society.