Civil society as a contested field of meanings

Sandrine Roginsky, Sally Shortall

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose – During recent years, the concept of civil society, particularly global civil society, has come to the fore in both academia and policy circles. A key component of recent theoretical and policy research is the attempt to do international comparative research on the meaning of civil society. The purpose of this paper is to argue that the language and the terminology used to describe the agents of civil society are reflective of cultural and historical contexts of societies, have distinct meanings and cannot be used interchangeably.

Design/methodology/approach – In different national contexts, the key agents of civil society are referred to differently; nonprofit sector, voluntary and community sector, third sector and social economy. In comparative studies, scholars often list these concepts to indicate that they recognise that the agents of civil society are referred to differently in different societies. The article offers a socio-historical analysis of each concept. It is concluded that teasing out the differences, as well as the similarities, between the nonprofit sector, voluntary and community sector, third sector and social economy, is crucial to robust comparative research on civil society.

Findings – This paper exposes a number of limitations of each of the terminologies used to describe civil society. They all present a much more limiting notion of civil society than that proposed by the founding fathers. None seem to capture the range of civil associations in any society. Yet, assumptions are made that the terminologies used have similar meanings rather than attempting to clarify and define exactly what is being written or described. This is exacerbated by the interchangeable usage of nonprofit/third sector/community and voluntary sector/social economy. In order to progress beyond culturally specific understandings of civil society, it is necessary to examine the terminology used and how it emanates from a specific cultural and political context. Having a clear understanding of the language used and what it signifies is crucial to robust cross-national comparative research.

Originality/value – This paper examines context specific understandings of civil society and the terminology used to define it; a question not previously addressed. It is hoped that this article will generate much needed further debate on cross-national meanings of civil society.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)473-487
Number of pages15
JournalInternational Journal of Sociology and Social Policy
Issue number9/10
Publication statusPublished - 2009


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