Civil Society Organizations Explained

Cite this article as:"Civil Society Organizations Explained," in The Business Professor, updated March 16, 2019, last accessed December 4, 2020,


Civil Society Organizations Definition

Civil society is a sector of the society devoid of government and business interference. The term is also used to refer to non-governmental organizations that fight for the well-being of citizens. Other authors refer to civil society as groups of individuals and organizations operating without the interference of the government.

These organizations or groups of individuals fight for the rights of citizens such as freedom of speech.

A Little More on What are Civil Society Organizations (CSOs)

The term civil society can be traced back to Aristotle’s Politics. Here, he refers to political community to mean the Greek city-state which was characterized by shared set of ethos and norms. In that state, citizens lived freely under a common rule of law. The concept was also used by Roman writers and later Aristotle’s Politics was translated to different languages.

When people started seeing the distinction between public law and monarchial autonomy, the term gained more popularity and it was used to refer to public estates of elites who held land and not those who exercised power.

The term gained popularity and was revived in 1990s where it was used by Vaclav Havel to denote civic associations that were threatened by state dominated regimes in Communist Eastern Europe. Post-modern use of the term civil society is seen in the work of Aleksander Smolar in 1978 ‚Äď 79 where he denotes political opposition. It was also used in a global scale as used by communists in 1989 to legitimize neoliberal transformation.

The relation between CSOs and democracy can be traced back to liberal writings by G.W.F later adopted by Karl Marx, Ferdinand Tonnies and Alexis de Tocqueville. The role of CSOs was later developed by Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba.

These proponents argued that, that the political elements in political organizations are crucial in creating awareness to the citizens. This helps the citizens make better voting choices and to even participate in politics and to hold the government accountable for its activities.

Robert D. Putman argues that non-political organizations play a significant role in democracy. He shows that these organizations build capital, shared values and trust which are transferred to the political arena.

There are critics of the relation between civil societies and democracy; they wonder how democratic these civil societies are. These critics observe that some civil society actors are in power without someone ever electing them. They have continued to argue that since these organizations are related to democracy, they should also be related to nationality and nationalism.

Constitutional economics is involved with describing and analyzing interrelationships between the constitution and the economy. This term was first used by James M. Buchanan when describing the new budget planning and the transparency to the civil society. This concept was the primary guidance in implementing the rule of law. In the event of unfair government spending, constitutional economics can be used by civil societies.

Civil society has been applied in the field of social life by activists. They argue that social life needs protection from globalization. In most cases, civil society might be funded by business and organizations that cross boundaries and move to different territories. The fall of communist system has seen the rapid growth of civil society in a global scale. There are research papers that deal with unresolved conflicts in the use the term in relation to the impact and powers of the global aid system.

In other instances, globalization is seen as a social phenomenon that expands beyond the sphere of classical values and leads to a larger civil society role at the expense of political organizations. iCSO, Integrated Civil Society Organizations which was the brainchild of Department of Economic and Social Affairs, DESA, was created to enhance communications between civil society organizations and DESA. Today, civil societies have become part of environmental policy makers.

References for Civil Society Organizations

Academic Research on Civil Society Organizations (CSOs)

  • A people-oriented ASEAN: a door ajar or closed for civil society organizations?, Collins, A. (2008). Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs, 30(2), 313-331. This paper observes that in many occasions, ASEAN has hinted about being ‚Äėpeople-oriented.‚Äô The phrase ‚Äėpeople-oriented‚Äô has also appeared in ASEAN‚Äôs new charter. This phrase has brought ASEAN to the radar of CSOs but CSOs have not been satisfied by the terms of the charter. This paper analyzes the sections that make CSOs disappointed in ASEAN‚Äôs charter.
  • Assessing variation in civil society organizations: China’s homeowner associations in comparative perspective, Read, B. L. (2008). Comparative Political Studies, 41(9), 1240-1265. There are so many theories of civil societies most of which give a lot of hope to associations in the grassroots. However, there are many instances where these organizations do not live up to the promises of schooling students and other promises made. This article examines different factors that affect properties of grassroots groups clearly highlighting the conflicts between political and legal environment and challenges that occur in the way of shaping civil societies.
  • Role of civil society organizations in governance, Ghaus-Pasha, A. (2004, May). In 6th global forum on reinventing government towards participatory and transparent governance (pp. 24-27). This paper analyzes how civil societies affect the way a community is governed and the factors that contribute to better governance. It looks at the roles played by a number of civil societies and instances where there are conflicts between governing bodies and civil societies.
  • Civil Society in China: Concepts, Classification and Institutional Environment [J], Keping, Y. (2006). Social Sciences in China, 1, 109-122. This article seeks to elaborate more on civil societies and other bodies independent of the government. It compares and contrasts civil societies, third sector, CSOs, NGOs, institutional environment, Non-profit organizations, intermediate organizations, social and mass groups and people‚Äôs groups. It samples groups in China and offers a model for classification of these private organizations.
  • Civil society collaboration with business: Bringing empowerment back in, Ashman, D. (2001). World Development, 29(7), 1097-1113. ¬†This paper samples 10 cases where CSOs have collaborated with business in Brazil, South Africa and Asia. The study shows that collaboration in and developments impact institutions such as schools and the employment sector. The paper offer suggestions to guide more research on collaborations between these bodies and for better collaborative systems.
  • Rethinking civil society, Kopeck√Ĺ, P., & Mudde, C. (2003). Democratization, 10(3), 1-14. This paper observes that most of the studies done on civil societies are normative. It suggests a better way of researching on civil societies by including heuristic devices, separating between civil society and uncivil society, studying the nature of relationships between these societies with democracy and studying uncivil movements in the study of civil society.
  • Can civil society organizations solve the crisis of partisan representation in Latin America?, Hochstetler, K., & Friedman, E. J. (2008). Latin American Politics and Society, 50(2), 1-32. This paper looks at the role of civil societies in times of civil crisis. It shows that the degree of crisis will determine how much CSOs can represent partisans in the short term. It also shows that CSOs offer mechanisms through which citizens have the power to influence political outcomes.
  • Civil society and democratization in the Arab world, Yom, S. (2005). Middle East, 9(4), 15-32. This paper examines the role of civil society in democracy in the Arab world. It samples different societies and their roles in the democracy experienced or not experienced in the Arab world.
  • Managerialism and beyond: Discourses of civil society organization and their governance implications, Maier, F., & Meyer, M. (2011). Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 22(4), 731. This paper observes that there are different discourses experienced civil societies and they contribute to the kaleidoscope picture of governance. It seeks to explain the way these discourses manifold notions in CSOs.
  • How civil society organizations close the gap between transparency and accountability, van Zyl, A. (2014). Governance, 27(2), 347-356. This paper seeks to explain the role of CSOs in governance and specifically in enhancing that governments stay accountable and transparent. They help citizens keep track of government spending through tools such as constitutional economics.
  • Emergent patterns of civil society participation in global and European governance, Steffek, J., & Nanz, P. (2008). In Civil society participation in European and global governance(pp. 1-29). Palgrave Macmillan, London. This paper looks at the disciplines of International Relations and European studies and how these studies are normative in nature. It notes that there are questions of democratic legitimacy on most studies today and shows that most European studies suffer democratic deficit. Academicians are discussing options such as representative parliamentary institutions, new accountability systems, and enhance political deliberation.

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