What is civil society?

Civil society is a term that’s widely used, rarely agreed upon, and not always understood – and it often means different things to different people. The academics Jeremy Kendall and Martin Knapp have even called it a ‘loose and baggy monster’.

As we said in the first report from the Law Family Commission on Civil Society, Civil Action:

‘At its broadest, civil society is the connections that exist between different individuals and institutions. We engage in civil society when a group of people find common interests and make their voice heard, when we debate about the sort of future we want to see, when we help our neighbours and friends, or when we make our communities better places to live. A narrower concept of civil society would be the set of organisations that provide the infrastructure for those connections, from charities to trade unions and from housing associations to social enterprises.’

The Law Family Commission on Civil Society is concerned with both broader and narrower concepts. Taking the narrower view, we are interested in how the subset of charities, community groups and social enterprises that together form the social sector, which sits alongside the private and public sectors, could be supported to achieve even more. But the broader view allows us to explore the integral role civil society plays in the success of our economy, the functioning of our democracy, the strength of our communities and the nation’s wellbeing. In this case, having a rigid definition to identify what are inevitably blurry boundaries is less important than understanding what it is that makes civil society distinctive.

This report (available below) sets out clearly what this Commission will mean when it talks about civil society, with a particular focus on the features that distinguish it. Inevitably, our definition will not align with everyone’s and will not capture everything. Some ambiguity is unavoidable and, indeed, necessary given the amorphous nature of civil society. But it is important that we establish some boundaries and definitions for the purposes of analysis and shared understanding. Nonetheless, while these definitions will guide our work, they are not intended to limit it or its ambition.