Civil society: some gaps in the maps (and why they matter)
Paton, Rob (2011)

by Rob Paton, Open University Business School

This paper will continue the debate about the nature and extent of civil society and hence of related terms like the third sector (Alcock, 2009). It builds on the proposer’s earlier work on A Sedimentary Theory of the Third Sector. If policy debates are to go beyond market/state dichotomies, a good grasp of the nature and contribution of civil society is essential – this is one of the big social science issues of our time. In practice, however, the concept of civil society has been adopted and deployed quite narrowly, to suit different political and disciplinary concerns; and the resulting maps show some striking oversights, anomalies and idealizations. In particular, I argue that the usual omission of professional and scientific associations is hard to justify, and that their inclusion may lead to a deeper and a more comprehensive understanding of civil society, both historically, and currently.

In this historical view, civil society is an institutional complex that can only be understood in relation to the other institutional complexes of modern society with which it co-evolved – the market and the state. But while civil society is distinctive (with its own institutional logic) it is also interdependent with the other sectors (as they are with civil society and each other). Moreover, in civil society, just as much as in the other complexes, the pursuit and enjoyment of power may generate behaviour at odds with espoused principles and legitimating narratives.

Some implications of this perspective are then set out: for example, it leads to a quite specific approach to the currently topical question of hybrids and hybridisation. The insights offered through such implications provide a way of assessing the contribution of this high-level conceptualisation compared to others.

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