Civil Society

Civil society refers to the space for collective action around shared interests, purposes and values, generally distinct from government and commercial for-profit actors. Civil society includes charities, development NGOs, community groups, women's organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, trade unions, social movements, coalitions and advocacy groups. However civil society is not homogeneous and the boundaries between civil society and government or civil society and commercial actors can be blurred. There is certainly no one 'civil society' view, and civil society actors need to contend with similar issues of representativeness and legitimacy as those of other representatives and advocates. [1]

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Other Definitions of Civil Society

OECD [2]

The multitude of associations around which society voluntarily organizes itself and which represent a wide range of interests and ties. These can include community-based organizations, indigenous peoples‘ organizations and non-government organizations.

Brookings [3]

[Civil society are] Those forms of communal and associational life which are organized neither by the self-interest of the market nor by the coercive potential of the state.

Evers (2013) [4]

Civil society is often used as a point of reference in public and welfare policies. However, there are various notions of civil society. The most popular concept broadly equates it with the 'third sector'. A second concept sees the key to a more civil society mainly in the public domain with its ability for intermediation. Finally, there is a third notion, arguing that a more civil society takes shape through a struggle to strengthen civility and civicness throughout society.

European Foundation Centre [5]

The term “civil society” broadly refers to social relationships and organizations outside either state (government) functions, or market-based relations that define people simply as “consumers” rather than more collectively, for example as citizens, neighbors or colleagues. In a narrower context, civil society includes organized groups concerned with public interests. Civil society organizations constitute a broad grouping that incorporates nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and less formally organized groups that may be based in local communities, such as youth groups or women’s groups. For the purposes of this glossary organizations aimed at promoting private business interests are excluded from this category.

Bambra et al. (2007) [6]

Civil society is used to describe the institutions and organizations, which, while separate from formal government and the state, nonetheless exert authority and influence. Civil society consists of organizations and institutions including schools, hospitals, churches, political parties, trade unions, mass media, cultural and voluntary associations. Generally, the term does not include the institutions and apparatus that make up the state. However, whether civil society is separate from (or a part of) the state, is a contested matter.[7] The fashionable concept of social capital is centred on the hypothesis that public engagement with the agencies of civil society is beneficial for health and quality of life.[8]



[2] OECD. 2006. DAC Guidelines and Reference Series Applying Strategic Environmental Assessment: Good Practice Guidance for Development Co-operation. Paris, OECD.


[4] Evers, A. (2013). The concept of 'civil society': Different understandings and their implications for third sector policies. Voluntary Sector Review, 4(2), 149-164.

[5] European Foundation Centre. European Perspectives on Global Health: A Policy Glossary. p.51

[6] Bambra C, Fox D, Scott-Samuel A. A politics of health glossary. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. 2007 Jul 1;61(7):571-4.

[7] Althusser L. Lenin and philosophy and other essays. London: Monthly Review Press, 1971.

[8] Putnam R. Bowling alone: the collapse and revival of American community. London: Simon & Schuster, 2001.