Civil Society: Development, Characteristics & Significance

Introduction: One of the important characteristics of modern society is the differentiation of social life into different spheres, such as the family, the economy, civil society, and the state. Unlike this, pre-modern societies were less differentiated and the functions (social, economic, political, cultural) were all under the ambit of one head or a few institutions of the state. Around the 16th century, there arose groups who challenged the power of the state and church (reformation and renaissance), the outcome of which was the first separation of functions in the private moral lives of individuals and the public political functions of the state, and from then on, the functions of life were divided among different spheres of life.

Development of definition

Civil society is also one such sphere of social life and not the society itself. There is no one definition of civil society that has been used in history. It has evolved with the context and period in which it was defined. The earlier classical understanding of the term was that civil society is a political community that is governed under the authority of the law. John Locke said that civil society emerged against the state of nature- to maintain order and stability and reduce potential conflicts (as cited in Singh, 2016). In this regard, civil society was not separate from the political sphere of the state. 

Civil Society Examples

Later, during the period of Enlightenment, the idea of civil society as distinct from the state and primarily concerned with commerce and the economy emerged to limit the functions of the state in the market. So, people were free to pursue their self-interest and also benefit society. However, thinkers such as Marx and Hegel critiqued this notion of civil society as it was considered that individuals in civil society were focused only on their private interests and not on the general interests of the community as a whole, therefore giving rise to conflicts of interests as there exists no unity among them. 

The contemporary description of civil society is separated from the domain of the state, and it comprises a network of voluntary associations. One approach, which may be known as a liberal perspective, considers the functional powers of civil society to be founded primarily upon the economy including property rights and free trade in the markets. Another perspective is a radical stance, viewing civil society, independently of the economic sphere and the state, where public exchange of ideas, free-forming of unions and the display of interests are conducted (Khilnani, 2001).

The latter view is more widely used and civil society here can be defined as “a space for collective action around shared interests, purposes and values, generally distinct from the government and commercial for-profit actors” (WHO). In brief, civil society is a constitution of voluntary associations, groups, and movements that are products of free exchange of ideas in a democratic framework and that also seek to keep a permanent check on the powers of the state in the interest of citizens’ freedom (Cohen and Arato, as cited in Singh, 2016).

Characteristics of civil society

Civil society is regarded as an important part of society and, therefore, looking at its characteristics will help differentiate it from the state and understand its functions better. There are a total of nine characteristics of it (Peterson, 2004) which are based on social relationships and societal structure.

  • The Commons

The ability of civil society to produce, distribute, and trade commodities and resources, is reflected in the Commonwealth. ICNL reports citizens may develop and strengthen social ties and networks with each other as they participate in the open exchange of commonwealth resources.

  • Office

Citizens can fulfil their civic responsibility of self-governance by engaging in political systems with distributed authority and power, which indicates civil society has progressed. When members of the community have the chance to assume seats or “offices” of legislation and supervision, this is known as public-based civic participation in political policy-making actions.

  • Association

The term “association” refers to social gatherings when members get together to share ideas, provide assistance, and experience a feeling of belonging. When a variety of social groups and meetings are existent and accessible in the form of public exchange, community-based civic participation occurs.

  • Trusteeship

Citizens may promote civil society through exercising decision-making authority, working to build and enhance localized and provincial economies, and managing communal resources in a sustainable and fairly transparent manner for the “common good.” When citizens have the rightful power of resource trusteeship, societal civic responsibility activities take place in economic development systems.

  • Sovereignty

Civil society progresses if citizens possess the rights to participate in all facets of political administration, and the ability to make decisions and act across all stages of social life, without the concerns of certain individuals or groups capturing the structures of public life. The presence and validity of community civic authority via political leadership systems enhance citizens’ capacity to exercise sovereignty over policies and laws that could have a beneficial impact on people’s lives and on the standard of living in their localities.

  • Accountability

Citizens can utilise fundamental rights and liberties to hold politico-economic actors accountable for the consequences of policies, initiatives, and practices of resource allocation, as well as the exercise of political power when they act through societal groups and associations forming civil society.

  • Equity

When each person is provided equitable access to use the resources needed to build a life of satisfaction and comfort, civil society progresses. The basis of activities that extend and enhance the economic situation of all the members of the community is a moral necessity for equity. Economic equity of resources is required to ensure that all individuals, particularly the poor, achieve and maintain a better living standard.

  • Justice

In this society, justice implies that individuals follow the law and strive not just for their rights but also others’. When laws are enforced unfairly or individuals in a civilized society are excluded from the political process, it is the duty of those who are not impacted to speak out for those that are.

  • Reciprocity

Reciprocity happens when individuals cooperate, share ideas and resources and collude in peaceful and nonviolent towards problem resolution. To maintain reciprocity, everyone has to engage equally. The word reciprocity underlines two interconnected moral concerns of social relations: how individuals treat each other, particularly in situations of conflict; and how groups are formed and overcome.

Significance of Civil Society to Democracy

Tocqueville, in his book Democracy in America, noted that democracies promote equality in society and further added that advancing equality could be a threat to the liberty of individuals, as a society will get polarized between the state and individuals. To prevent democracies from becoming dictatorial, associations created independently by individuals are necessary and these institutions are civil societies.

Civil society acts as the police for the functioning of the state and can help upkeep the will and good of the people by limiting the power of the state by raising awareness and concern about any misuse of power; requesting access to information through laws and bringing to notice the corrupt conduct of officials with the help of laws and institutions. Several PILs (Public Interest Litigations) have been filed by civil societies against the non-democratic policies of governments. 

Civil societies promote political participation by increasing awareness among people about their rights, duties, the importance of voting, and educating them about the democratic values of tolerance, respect for the opposition and such others. Civil society may improve democracy with new methods of cooperation and purpose transcending the pre-existing cultural, social, theological and many other forms of identity. Civil societies also play an important role in resolving conflicts in a democracy as they are diverse in their interests.

Unless it is beneficial and legitimate, any democratic state cannot be considered stable. Civil society acts as a screen to check the state and is also important in developing a trusted relationship between the democratic state and its citizens. 

The significance of civil society to social change.

Societies are dynamic as they are influenced by world events and advances in the economy and technology. Civil societies provide the means to recognise and be involved in these changes by working with organisations to check on developmental activities. The domain which leads to social change beyond the household, the market or political institutions is civil society. It is a sphere where individuals embrace the citizen role and hence aim towards the greater good of society as a whole through social help. Civil societies, in recent history, have led various movements of change in different areas, such as civil rights, environmental rights, gender equality, and other movements. For example, the Narmada Bachao Movement and Black Lives Matter. 

Civil societies represent a moral idea, and when the idea spreads throughout society, it fosters changes in power structures and instils knowledge in families, communities, governments, and corporations. Civil society brings about social change through social accountability, community empowerment, and ensuring good governance. Civil society promotes change via social economy where its role as a powerful economic and social player helps in organising its associated network and fostering participatory democracy.


Civil society is of importance to the state and society as it acts as the connecting link between the two. It is made up of a diverse group of people, each with their own set of interests and goals for the community. It keeps in check the government to ensure that true democracy where people’s desires are given priority is maintained to warrant stability. Civil society is interconnected with all spheres and is a vital player in social change and takes responsible steps for the betterment of society via necessary social change.


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Singh, M. (2016). Civil society. In Acharya, A & Bhargava, R (Eds.), Political Theory: An Introduction (189-205). Pearson.

World health organisation. (n.d.). Civil Society.

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Ruthu is a student of Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, pursuing interdisciplinary studies in international relations, political science and sociology. She is passionate about current affairs, public policies, sustainable development, human rights and quality education. She aspires to have a career in research and academia that allow observation of social reality by combining her subjects and passions in writing.