Defining Civil Society

When people ask me about my research, I often tell them that I study civil society engagement in global food security governance.  A common response is… **blank face**.  Some people seem to think that this is not the sexiest or most exciting field of research, but I disagree and assume that if you are hanging out on this site, you likely agree with me.
So anyway, as part of my “fun” Sunday morning routine, I was reading some of the literature on civil society and came across a definition that I am quite fond of.
In 2002, in the Journal of Global Governance, Jan Aart Scholte published an article “Civil Society and Democracy in Global Governance”. Therein, he writes:

Civil society is a political space where voluntary associations deliberately seek to shape the rules that govern … aspect [s] of social life. “Rules” in this conception, encompasses specific policies, more general norms and deeper social structures. Thus, civil society actions may target formal directives (such as legislation), informal constructs (such as many gender roles), and /or the social order as a whole. The “aspects of social live” that concern us here is the governance of global realms (Scholte 2002: 283).

He also provides a brief but interesting review of the evolution of the term “civil society”. Briefly,  in 16th century English political thought, civil society referred to the state, whereas today it is understood in contrast to the state.
Hegel, writing in the 19th century, included the market in his definition of civil society where as today civil society tends to be associated with the not-for profit sector.
Gramsci, writing in the 1930s, saw civil society as an area where class hegemony forges consent. Yet today, civil society is more often associated with disruption and dissent.
As those who have been following this blog, and the participatory turn in global governance (by way of deliberative democracy), know, civil society is blending with state governance structures and the private and philanthropic sectors,  to form the architecture of global governance.
Thus, Gramsci’s construction of civil society becomes rather useful for starting to analyse and make sense of the relations that are at play in these global realms, to draw from Scholte’s language.
Perhaps more interesting (for me) is that in the reformed Committee on World Food Security, we can see a shift from pre-reform — where civil society space was made up of contesting and dissenting actors — to a new arrangement where civil society actors have been brought in (or have created the space for their engagement) and where non-state actors contest policies and push boundaries to reshape and reform and re-imagine hegemony.

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