‘Don’t mention the war’ … but: Could Britons draw lessons from a German approach to ‘organized’ civil society?
Bode, Ingo (2007)


By Dr Ingo Bode, University of Edinburgh

So much has now been written on civil society, its evolution and its role in modern life – yet, recent debate in Britain about both the hot issue of political independence and the tricky economic role of voluntary organisations illustrate that we still are in a theoretical mess. One reason for this, the submitted paper argues, lies in shortcomings of the Anglo-Saxon tradition of making sense of civil society. In this tradition, the voluntary, or ‘Third’, sector has often been conceptualized by using dichotomic distinctions between state and civil society on the one hand, and between associational and economic agency on the other hand. However, when it comes to understanding the role of voluntary organizations in contemporary Western society (irrespective of national traditions), this conceptualization presents some drawbacks. In particular, it ignores those interfaces which constitute, and reproduce, civic agency within organisations operating beyond state and market. On the one hand, it downplays the entanglement of civic actors with various departments of the modern state. On the other hand, it obliterates the economic character of much civic action in contemporary society, including where this character has now become acknowledged tentatively (like in Britain). The ‘German tradition’ of grasping both the relation between state and civil society and interlinkages of civic and economic rationales in ‘Third sector’ activities can help overcome some of the Anglo-Saxon limitations. It enlightens the interfaces between civic activities, statutory action and socio-economic agency – and, in particular, it allows to think these spheres of action as highly interconnected. Somewhat paradoxically, it is precisely through this interconnection – rather through an opposition to the state and an abnegation of economic functions – that ‘organized’ civil society has become a societal force on its own – not just in Germany, but throughout major European societies.

Ingo’s presentation is available here (Powerpoint).


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