8.2.1 Defining civil society
The notion of civil society is much talked about and debated in politics and it is often used by academics and politicians to mean very different things. I use civil society to mean the following:
- Civil society represents a distinct sphere that is separate from the ‘state’ (political institutions, political parties and other political organisations) and the ‘market’ (organisations of production and distribution, such as firms and businesses).
- Civil society provides a space for individuals and organisations to discuss, exchange views, and form opinions on matters that are important for society as a whole. Civil society is composed of organisations such as charities, non-governmental organisations, community and environmental groups, women’s organisations, faith-based and consumer organisations, professional associations, trade unions, self-help groups, business associations and advocacy groups.
- Most importantly, these voices and opinions emerging from civil society scrutinise, critique and counter-balance the otherwise overbearing influence of political society (the state) and economic society (the market). Civil society is thus a check – a form of control – on state power. For this reason, a vibrant civil society is often considered to be a vital element for a democratic society.