Contextuality of Civil Society Concept

Contextuality of Civil Society Concept. From Particular Meanings to Common Vector of Emancipation, Polish Sociological Review, 1 (165) / 2009, pp. 63-80

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Considerable diversity of the level and form of citizen activity can be seen in contemporary societies. This diversity is the result of a combination of at least two overlapping diversities, sequential and parallel. Sequential diversity results from the convergent nature of the development of democracy – there are certain universal patterns of society maturation within democracies. Parallel diversity is horizontal, so to say. Every ground on which democracy has been adapted offers a slightly different specific culture and history. Hence, rather than being strictly sequential, changes outline parallel paths. Let us now take a closer look at those path fragments  on which selected democratic countries were situated in the early twenty-first century (35 different countries will be analyzed and these countries can be viewed as a sample of about half of the democracies which are now in existence).

There are at least several typologies of the forms of civil activity (Verba 1967; Gliński & Palska 1997; Dalton 2002). In my analyses which purpose was to characterize civic cultures I adopted thirteen indicators, drawing upon these typologies. These indicators refer to various aspects of individual activity in the public sphere. When selecting them I was guided on the one hand by the need to provide an exhaustive account of the different types and on the other hand by the need to ensure that these types were sufficiently distinctive and substantively interpretable. The final list appears to fit these criteria well. The first indicator is level of participation in parliamentary elections (turnout), often viewed as the litmus paper of legitimization. Actually this belief is often incorrect if only because voting is compulsory in some countries (e.g., Austria and Italy) but also because electoral mobilization is the function of many different factors. The second indicator is conventional political activity (other than voting), that is such activities as attending political meetings or rallies, direct contact with politicians or other public persons, collecting or donating money for social or political causes, and a general interest in politics and regular discussions about politics. The third indicator is unconventional civic activity, mainly relating to protest (demonstrations, boycotts, signing petitions). The next one is attitude toward the state and its representatives in terms of both opinions concerning those in power and suspicion of the institution of state or evaluation of the fairness of elections and the level of corruption. In addition to opinions concerning society-state relations, I adopted four other indicators of attitude: declared willingness to demonstrate civil disobedience (another facet of unconventional participation), sense of influence on politics (knowledge and agency), social trust and tolerance. It is worth elaborating this last indicator a little further. Its components are the proportions of individuals who accept that (i) one of the basic functions of the democratic state is to protect minority rights, (ii) the right to assemble should be given even to those who incite others to overthrow the government and (iii) religious radicals. The last two components may seem controversial in the context of the reality of western democracies but they involve tolerance of exotic beliefs which may be an important difference in the degree of freedom of speech which is permissible in different countries, a difference attributable to different historical experiences. The reliability of this indicator (Cronbach alpha) is about 0.6 and is therefore sufficient enough to conclude that the indicator is consistent. The substantive importance of this indicator may be related, for example, with Giovanni Sartori’s (1998) position and recognition of minority rights and individual freedom as the most important  actual condition of democracy.

The list of indicators is supplemented with several variables concerning participation and activity in five types of organization: political parties, trade and branch unions, religious organizations, hobby-related organizations (sports, clubs) and all other organizations (NGOs in the narrow sense, i.e., charities, educational NGOs etc.). Patterns of participation in associations are a well-known sign of culturally specific civic sectors in various countries. For example, the continental and Anglo-Saxon models are known to differ considerably (Gliński 2005).


The structure of the dendrogram hints that several major demarcation lines can be drawn among the thirty-five analyzed democratic societies. The most general one divides these societies into four groups, two of which include developed democracies, one – societies which were dominated by a powerful state just a few decades ago, and one which encompasses the remaining countries which depart slightly from the main pattern. For the purpose of interpretation we shall call the civil societies in the different types of countries (a) stable, (b) active, (c) withdrawing and (d) young.


The existing level of inequality also has a certain effect on the pattern of behaviour of civil society. It may be argued that relatively low income differences (represented by the Gini index in Figure 2) enable inclusion of a larger number of social categories in public life. Countries with very high levels of material inequality do indeed have lower unconventional activity, i.e., most people’s behaviour is channelled by more basic needs. The pattern is more complex here, however, because even the most egalitarian societies demonstrate less interest in direct participation. The most active societies (the top right quadrant of Figure 2) have a moderate level of inequality. Political egalitarianism seems to be a much more significant factor. In the same part of the figure we find all those countries where women are relatively well represented in the legislative bodies (no fewer than 25 percent). In the remaining countries, politics are a very masculine domain. As we can see, developed civil societies draw consecutive, formerly marginalized groups and categories into public life. Actual, active empowerment is progressing although this is not an easy process. One of the main theoreticians of this process is Amartya Sen (2002). Sen has no doubt that there is one common emancipation vector. He argues that distinctiveness of the concepts of freedom and development is quasi-distinctiveness from the civic perspective. Development as he sees it means the widening of the range of individual agency and the opportunity for unrestricted self-realization. This range is limited by political freedoms on the one hand and material conditions of life on the other hand because lack of freedom may be due, to an equal extent, to normative restrictions and restricted practical possibilities of action. Hence, Sen argues, The greatest developmental challenge today is to “re-citizenize” weaker social and political categories in various ways, especially poor people, racial and ethnic minorities and women.