Civil Society

Charles (Chip) Hauss

August 2003

Civil society is one of the "hottest" concepts in all of the social sciences that touch on political life. Because so many countries have established more democratic regimes in recent years, there has been renewed interest in popular engagement in political life and everything else that relates to the way that political cultures or basic values and beliefs affect the way a state is governed. More recently, there has also been growing interest in how strengthening civil society can contribute to conflict resolution.

What is Civil Society?

Terrence Lyons talks about the tension between maintaining stability and addressing past injustice in post-conflict reconstruction. He also talks about ways to increase post-conflict stability through gradual democratization and the fostering of civil society.

As with most popular academic concepts, there is no universally accepted definition of either civil society or the related notions of a civic culture and social capital. In one of the best brief attempts to sort through all the definitions, the British Library[1] included the following characteristics:

All observers agree that civil society refers to voluntary participation by average citizens and thus does not include behavior imposed or even coerced by the state.

  • For some observers, it only includes political activity engaged in through nonprofit organizations such as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). At the other end of the spectrum, some observers include all forms of voluntary participation, whether in the public or private sector, political or apolitical.
  • Civil society includes not just the individuals who participate, but the institutions they participate in--sometimes called "civil society organizations" or "CSOs." . Thus, civil society is strong to the degree that those CSOs are large and powerful.
  • A civic culture is one in which most people think their government is legitimate and that their institutions (if not the leaders at any particular moment) can be trusted.
  • Social capital is the human equivalent of economic capital. It is an intangible resource accumulated by civil society that can be expended when a society finds itself in crisis, as some argue occurred in the United States after September 11.

Why Is Civil Society Important?

Paul van Tongeren talks about organizing international conferences dedicated to discussing and disseminating lessons learned about the role of civil society in peacebuilding.

Not all observers agree that civil society is important at all. Marxists, in particular, argue that civil society and, especially, a civic culture tend to frustrate change and progress toward a more just and equitable society.

However, there is growing agreement that civil society, civic culture, and social capital are all important for strengthening democracy and enabling conflict resolution. To be fair, the first academic discussions of civil society were naive, all but suggesting that any expansion of civic engagement was good for democracy. Anyone who has explored the rapid expansion of political involvement in such countries as the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda knows that any simplistic link between participation and democracy -- let alone conflict resolution -- is absurd.

Here, Robert Putnam's path-breaking (if controversial) book Bowling Alone[2]  provided an important breakthrough in our thinking. Putnam recalled that when he went bowling as a child in the 1950s, people bowled in teams. In the late 1990s, people went bowling just as often as they did in Putnam's youth. However, they bowled with a couple of friends or family members, not in leagues. For Putnam, "bowling alone" is just one of dozens of indicators that Americans were less and less engaged in the rich social network of recreational and political organizations which his earlier research in Italy had suggested were vital for democracy.

Ray Shonholtz talks about the San Francisco Community Boards.

But Putnam did not fall into the naive trap of arguing that all social involvement helped democracy. Indeed, he distinguishes between "bonding" and "bridging" social capital, and only the latter unambiguously supports democratization.

Bonding social capital develops when we get involved with people like ourselves. In my case, that would mean spending time with liberal, Jewish, middle-aged academics who like sports. If Putnam and scholars who have examined extremist nationalists are correct, bonding social capital can serve to reinforce our preexisting beliefs including our prejudices. To cite the most tragic example, there is little doubt that the authorities fanned the anti-Tutsi hatred of the Hutu who flocked to the Interahamwe in Rwanda in the early 1990s and made them more and more likely to physically take their anger out on the Tutsi.

In bridging social capital, I become involved with people who are less like me. That may be as simple as getting involved in my neighborhood association. While only middle class families can afford to live in our neighborhood, I'm the only academic, the only Jew, and one of only a handful of liberals. Even more importantly, when I get involved in trying to organize interfaith dialogues on divisive political issues, I spend time with people on the religious right, ultra-orthodox Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and atheists. In that work, I discover not only the issues we disagree about, but also areas where we do agree and can work together. We develop trust and toleration. Our community's social life literally becomes more civil.

This is important both for the building of democracy and for resolving conflict, because such values as trust and tolerance are important for both. No one has put this better than former President William Clinton in his 1994 speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

A coalition for democracy -- it's good for America. Democracies, after all, are more likely to be stable, less likely to wage war. They strengthen civil society. They can provide people with the economic opportunities to build their own homes, not to flee their borders. Our efforts to help build democracies will make us all more secure, more prosperous, and more successful as we try to make this era of terrific change our friend and not our enemy.[3]

What Individuals Can Do

William Ury says the third side is like an immune system against violence.

Of all the topics covered in the Intractable Conflict Knowledge Base, helping develop civil society is one the areas in which individuals can have -- indeed must have -- a critical impact. As the 1960s civil rights leader, Eldridge Cleaver, used to put it, "if you aren't part of the solution, you are part of the problem." Academic systems theory also demonstrates that everyone's actions -- and their inactions -- affect everything and everyone else. Most importantly of all, civil society and bridging social capital cannot develop unless individuals get involved.

There are countless ways to do so which fall into two main categories which I will illustrate primarily with examples from the United States.

First, an individual can join an organization that promotes some aspect of civil society. One example of such an organization is Washington 's Operation Understand D.C.[4] It selects about a dozen African-American and Jewish high school students during the spring of their junior year. The students spend part of the spring learning about each other's culture, history, and values. During the summer, they go on trips to some of the landmarks in the U.S. civil rights movement, the Holocaust, and the Middle East. During the fall of their senior years, they do outreach work with other community groups. Most Operation Understand graduates continue with other projects on racial understanding once they get to college.

Second, individuals can act as individuals with no significant organizational commitment. Thus, one of the members of advisory board of the Lovettsville, Va., public library organized a showing of the films in the Search for Common Ground Film Festival followed by discussions over a six-week period in 2002. The organizer was concerned that little brought people in his rural community together, especially the people who send their children to public schools and the growing number of parents who home school. Thirty-five people came to all or most of the sessions, and through their discussions about Vietnam, the Middle East, South Africa, and Bosnia also built bonds that will strengthen community life in their small town.

Of course, not all projects trying to enhance civil society occur in the United States and not all are even explicitly political. The Mozaik preschool program brings Macedonian and Albanian children -- and their parents -- together. Oasis of Peace (Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salaam) does the same for Jewish and Arab teenagers in Israel. There have been drumming festivals, which brought Tutsi and Hutu together in Burundi, and other such bridging projects worldwide.

What States Can Do

On one level, it is hard for states to foster civil society. As most of the scholars have written on the subject point out, states by their nature are coercive bodies. Sometimes that coercion is relatively benign -- don't drive over the speed limit, don't drink alcohol before you turn 21, pay your taxes on time. Sometimes the coercion can be brutal as is the case in a totalitarian regime. But there always is a degree of force in the "state-society" relationship.

Still, some governments have tried to foster civil society and had some success in doing so. The British government, for instance, has created a variety of regional assemblies and "citizen juries" to try to bring more people into active participation in political life. The French government requires significant public input before any major new project that might affect the environment is approved. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission received evidence from over 20,000 people, most of whom had never been involved in a democratic political process before. The Clinton administration promoted national dialogues on questions of race. Similarly, the Bush administration's controversial Faith Based Initiative is designed to support organizations which build social capital, though many of them admittedly do so more in a bonding than in a bridging manner. Finally, most state-based development agencies now fund the development of civil society as well as more traditional projects aimed at stimulating economic growth.

What Third Parties Can Do

This is really the province of the NGO community that are currently approaching the development of civil society in new and novel ways. Very few NGOs were created for that purpose. Most were formed to resolve conflict, give development aid, or provide relief during complex emergencies.

Like the national development agencies, most NGOs have come to the realization that part of their work has to include civil society as well. If not, conflict resolution training or aid alone will not make much of a difference in the long term if the conflict breaks out again. To this end, the United Nations [5], as well, has worked to expand the ways it cooperates with NGOs and others to foster civil society.

[1] "Civil Society" - An Agreed Definition (2003) available from; Internet. (No longer available as of March 5th 2013)

[2] Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).

[3] William Clinton, "Remarks to the 49th General Assembly of the United Nations, 26 September 1994. In Joseph Nye, Understanding International Conflict, 4th ed. (New York: Longman, 2003), 48.

[4] Operation Understanding DC available from; Internet. 

[5] The United Nations: Partners in Civil Society (2003) available from; Internet.

Use the following to cite this article:
Hauss, Charles (Chip). "Civil Society." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: August 2003 <>.

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