The Power of Civil Society


Rucs Workshops



The power of civil society: ideologies and practices

Department of Sociology - University of Leicester – 10 June 2009

Ken Edwards 526  ~ –


The aim of this one-day workshop is to reflect on the role of civil society as an ideology and as a set of practices which have acquired prominence in recent decades.  The workshop will consist of three sections. The first will examine the uses and usefulness of the concept of civil society in the social sciences. The second section will examine relations between civil society and the state. The third section will examine the boundaries of the concept of civil society as an ideology, and its relations to other political ideologies.


Section 1. Civil Society, Civicness and the Public Sphere

An emphasis on civil society has emerged in the context of the demise or substantial weakening of a set of previous ideologies and has become akin to a new ideology. In the first presentation presentation, Barbara Misztal identifies two main narratives of civil society, the rhetoric of solidarity and the framework of social capital, tend to neglect real barriers to the development of civil society. Since civil society can flourish only under conditions of respect for (individual and group) autonomy, plurality, the rule of law, and civility, Misztal argues that we should also focus on a democratic state’s duties, and especially its duty to ‘defend the dignity of all its citizens’.  This duty involves the creation of conditions of respect for the dignity of each person and the commitment to promoting the ability of all social members to lead a meaningful life.

In the following presentation, Preben Kaarsholm examines the potentially beneficial outcomes of an involvement of civil society organizations in the policy process. He stresses the advantages of a vibrant civil society rooted in communities, and its ability to represent them in novel ways. However, he argues that this is only the case when the crucial value of its autonomy is preserved. With reference to the test case of South Africa, Kaarsholm documents the consequences that ensue when the distinction between state and civil society becomes blurred.

Section 2. Civil society and the state: autonomy, citizenship and rule of law

Organized civil society is increasingly connected to state institutions and provides information to the policy process and help with service delivery. Proposing a debate on the advantages and disadvantages of the institutionalisation of civil society, Trevor Stack also considers the relation of civil society to the state, but in broader terms. He asks how civil society relates to two other sets of ideologies and practices that are often linked to the state - citizenship and rule of law. Drawing on theoretical debates and ethnographic fieldwork in Mexico and California, he argues that civil society, citizenship and rule of law can work both to counter and reproduce marginalities – they can be liberating but can also make for further exploitation. Whether they liberate or not depends on what notions of each are deployed, in what relation to each other, and against which particular marginalities.

The following presentation by Efraim Nimni reflects on the recent crisis of the ideology of multiculturalism and in that context on the role of civil society  groups. Nimni argues that a new paradigm to frame ethnic relations in recent European societies is increasingly necessary and outlines its possible features.

Section 3.  – ‘Civil’ and ‘Uncivil’ Society

References to civil society are often positive, and its role is frequently idealised. In this final section, questioning this idealisation, the populist uses of the ethos of civil society are examined with reference to specific empirical contexts. The first presentation by Mark Gilbert describes the populist discourses of prominent 1968 public intellectuals. The presentation by Carlo Ruzza introduces the concept of civil society as an emerging but weak and underspecified ideology which has also been utilised by the political right for a variety of purposes, including the justification of some of its exclusionist policies.




The power of civil society: ideologies and practices

Ken Edwards 526 


9.10am-9:20 Coffee/tea

9:20– 9:30 Welcome and brief introduction to the workshop

            Carlo Ruzza and Barbara Misztal

9:30- 11:15 am. Section 1: Civil Society, Civicness and the Public Sphere

9:30-10         Decent Democracy

Barbara Misztal – University of Leicester

10:30-11      Civil Society and the Public Sphere  

Preben Kaarsholm - Roskilde University

            11-11:15      General discussion

11:15 -11:30 Coffee Break

11:30- 1:15pm  Section 2: Civil society and the state: autonomy, citizenship and rule of law


11:30-12      Liberating forces? Civil society, citizenship and rule of law

                                    Trevor Stack – University of Aberdeen

12: 1pm        Nationalism, Ethnicity and Self-Determination: A Paradigm Shift?

Ephraim Nimni - Queen’s University Belfast

1-1:15           General discussion

1.15pm – 2pm Lunch

2pm-3 pm Section 3 – ‘Civil’ and ‘Uncivil’ Society, and Populism


2-2:30pm     Can 1968 tell us anything about Populism and Civil Society?

Mark Gilbert – University of Trento 

2:30-3pm     Civil and Uncivil Society

Carlo Ruzza – University of Leicester


3pm – 3:15 pm Coffee break

3:15-3:45     General discussion

3:45-4.10     Researching civil society: lessons from past research and future agendas – The Cinefogo Project

Preben Kaarsholm and Carlo Ruzza

4:10-4:40     General discussion and conclusion