Defining Characteristics of Civil Society

By Timothy J. Peterson and Jon Van Til

“Civil society” has become a central theme in contemporary thought about philanthropy and civic activity, yet it is difficult to define, inherently complex, and resistant to being categorized or interpreted through a singular theoretical lens. The term is increasingly used to suggest how public life should function within and between societies; at the same time, it provides a way of describing the social action that occurs within the context of voluntary associations or intermediary bodies (Riesman and Glazer, 1950; Van Til, 2000). Nonprofit organizations, like other groups and institutions in modern societies, operate within and are conditioned by three types of systems: economic, political, and social. Nonprofits themselves, in turn, give group members the opportunity to exercise three fundamental civic principles: participatory engagement, constitutional authority, and moral responsibility. Matrices (such as the one included in this article) are helpful tools for considering terms such as civil society that contain multiple facets of meaning, characteristics, and relationships. This particular matrix illustrates the unique and specific meaning contained within each characteristic--and the interrelationships that exist between characteristics--of this complex concept. These systems and principles produce a matrix of nine civil society characteristics that can be used to evaluate and guide the work of various agencies, groups, and organizations. A careful assessment of these characteristics can be useful to nonprofit organizations in identifying the presence of civil society and gauging its strength within a particular social context, and helpful in matching organizational goals to specific civic actions that will encourage positive social change. Widespread and legitimate citizen involvement in this civic context remains a foundation for nurturing and sustaining healthy and productive societies, especially in urban settings.

Systems of Civil Society

All societies, whether “civil” or otherwise, contain similar patterns of organized systems of collective human experience, including economic exchange, political governance, and social relationships. Systems of economic exchange that promote patterns of civil society depend on the sustainable availability and equitable use of natural and social resources necessary for constructing a satisfying and "satisficing" life by present and future generations. Sustainable economic development is necessary for the health and longevity of any society. It requires a mutually supportive, symbiotic relationship between the natural economy of ecosystems and human social economies, with a particular concern for the poor. The formation of civil society usually partners with an identifiable system of political governance, characterized by open, public decision-making for all community members through governmental structures that (1) permit legitimate access to and use of civic space and resources, and (2) maintain fairness within the existing political and judicial systems by promoting and protecting the welfare of the people, with particular concern for the disenfranchised. Social relationships within a civil society are characterized by strong, active, vibrant, diverse community-based groups and networks that (1) facilitate open, voluntary participation; (2) enable community stakeholders to hold economic and political actors accountable for outcomes of policy decisions; (3) provide a context for mutual benefit and exchange; and (4) seek to promote the “common good,” with a particular concern for inclusion of those currently marginalized.

Principles of Civil Society

The literature suggests that the three principles--participatory engagement, constitutional authority, and moral responsibility--are found in all civil societies regardless of cultural context.

Participatory engagement indicates that members of the society (1) enjoy access to and governance of resources used for the common good, (2) are free to be involved in civic action and social change, and (3) are free to participate in group affiliations that provide a sense of belonging on a community level.

Constitutional authority protects the rights and privileges of citizens in a civil society. Under the rule of law, citizens and social groups are constitutionally legitimized and empowered to hold economic and political actors accountable for their work as community servants and trustees. Local and national decision-makers, motivated by the common good rather than self-interest, are expected to design and implement public policies that strengthen the vitality and welfare of the community. Within this social context, all community members have moral responsibility to use their civil liberties in ways that do not violate the human rights of others. The practice of equity, justice, and reciprocity produces social order and stability.

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