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Exploratory System of 14 Contrasting Concepts of Civil Society

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It is a basic mistake to assume that the concept of "civil society" is understood in the same way, whether between cultures or within any culture. The questions as to whether individuals or groups can associate or develop through intentional social groupings (other than in the obvious ways that preoccupy educators, economists, physicians and psychologists) are not understood in the same way in different contexts.

For some, although alternative modes of collective association are a reality, social and individual development does not necessarily mean a journey through a pattern of such less conventional modes. Individual and group maturity have not been effectively defined and it is uncertain whether they lend themselves to definition. And for many, the degree of individual suffering in the world renders quite absurd any discussion of development within society that does not concentrate on basic human needs. In some traditions, however, it is the failure to cultivate some of the less recognized modes of association which is directly responsible for the ills engendered in the world.

Cross-cultural challenge

In the light of the recent experience in Eastern Europe with "Western" models of management and democracy, it is questionable whether it is useful to concentrate on a conventional articulation of a supposedly uniform "Western" view of "civil society". The challenge would seem rather to be one of offering a set of catalytic images through which a range of alternative understandings of civil society may be creatively explored.

Specifically the challenge is to evoke, from a Russian cultural perspective, images that give coherence to some understanding of civil society that reflects the richness of Russian culture. Failure to do so leads to the risk of premature formulation of legislation and administrative procedures which can rapidly turn out to be irrelevant and even counter-productive in a Russian context.

It is useful therefore to start this process by attempting to identify many alternative ways in which civil society can be perceived, as a means of increasing understanding of the constraints on providing any simplistic definition. This will also make evident the diffiCUlty of attracting any consensus on strategies of association. Whilst it is possible to discuss these perceptual modes as models, a broader and more insightful discussion results -from treating such models as part of a set of metaphors.

Such an exercise must necessarily include, and go beyond, the perspective of particular disciplines that have their particular approaches to associative phenomena, such as:

(a) legal and administrative sciences with their focus on recognizing and regulating authorized associations; criminal

(b) economic and fiscal sciences

(c) sociological and anthropological sciences

(d) cultural sciences expression

(e) political sciences and governance

(f) developmental sciences

(g) religious sciences

(h) psychological development

(i) human rights, freedom of association

Contrasting images

The following alternative perceptions are therefore discussed as contrasting metaphors of civil society and its implications for the process of association and development. They are not mutually exclusive and may often be complementary. The set has been adapted from the work, discussed elsewhere, of W T Jones (The Romantic Syndrome: toward a new method in cultural anthropology and the history of ideas, 1961).

1. Order / Disorder

  • Ordered array: Civil society can be viewed as constituting an ordered array of modes of association, like stations on a subway network. This view would tend to be favoured by those who are used to defining their environment in an orderly manner, in terms which favour management and control, whatever the degree of simplification necessary. In such an array, all associative contexts are relatively accessible, although some may only be reached through intervening associations. Each such context is different, but not necessarily better in any developmental sense. In this metaphor, development might be envisaged in terms of extending and complexifying the network into a rich array of associations. This would be contrasted with a less developed condition equivalent to a subway network with relatively few stations and (possibly unconnected) lines. Goals of social development might be expressed in terms of improving the stations, increasing the facility of movement throughout the network, and organizing the network into the most effective configuration of stations. (To be contrasted with...)

  • Disorder and chaos: Civil society can be viewed as completely unordered, to the point of being essential chaotic and disorderly. This view would tend to be favoured by those who have lost control over their environment, realize that they are subject to more forces than they originally assumed, or simply prefer the challenge of the disorderly and unpredictable (cf William James, Bergson, Schopenhauer, Rousseau). The range of associations is then too confusing to present any stable or orderly features permitting them to be distinguished or labelled. In this metaphor, development might be more concerned with ways of experiencing this chaos more completely, responding to it in a manner unfiltered and uncensored by artificial orderings.

2. Static / Dynamic

  • Static structure: Civil society can be viewed as forming a static, semi-permanent set of associative contexts (especially by those who benefit from such predictability). This view would tend to be favoured by those seeking a reliable set of social partners (employers), stable markets (advertisers), or faithful constituencies (politicians), over an extended period of time. The view is then reinforced by legislation and regulatory procedures anticipating the range of basic needs of the average citizen, which are held to be unchanging or to change quite slowly. Social development is then primarily the process of ensuring that more people have such needs satisfied. (To be contrasted with...)

  • Dynamic structure: Civil society can be viewed as constituting a dynamic structure, in which associations arise in the dynamic relations between static elements. Like harmonies and melodies, based on a configuration of established musical notes, such associations cannot be readily isolated and named with any confidence. They only exist temporarily as dynamic relationships changing continuously. This view would tend to be favoured by those who respond to the unique opportunities of the moment, possibly because their survival depends on the uniqueness of their response. In terms of the musical metaphor, social development then becomes a question of being able to form more complex harmonies amongst the predictable features of the environment, encompassing for longer periods the disharmonies which might otherwise be considered more significant.

3. Discrete / Continuous

  • Discrete phenomena: Civil society can be viewed as made up of distinct associations, with some form of boundary separating them. This view would tend to be favoured by those who need to distinguish clearly where they are, either from where they have been, or from where they want to be. As on a ladder, each association corresponds to a dependable step and there is no intermediate condition. In terms of this metaphor, social development may then be conceived as moving up a series of steps, possibly understood as a series of initiations, or developmental stages. From each successive step a broader view may be possible, incorporating those below it. (To be contrasted with...)

  • Continuous phenomena: Civil society can be viewed as part of a single continuous field of societal activity. In the light of field theories, particular associaa single continuous field of societal activity. In the light of field theories, particular associations might then be understood as interference patterns (cf Moire patterns). In this metaphor, social development might be understood in terms of increasing the number and complexity of such interference patterns and increasing the facility for shifting elegantly between them.

4. External / Embodiment

  • External relationship to phenomena: Civil society can be viewed as made up of externalities, as objects of investigation, and as "places" that can be visited. As such their existence is independent of any particular observer. This view would be favoured by those with either a rationalist or an empiricist orientation. This may be seen in the scientific investigation of states associated with biorhythms. It is basic to the assumptions in many educational development programmes. Social development is thus a question of acquiring the expertise, or possibly the technology, to gain access to such places at will. (To be contrasted with.. .)

  • Identification with phenomena: Civil society can be held to be only genuinely comprehensible through an intuitive identification with the experience it constitutes, experienced by the observer as he experiences himself (et Bergson, Hegel). This view would be favoured by those whose views have been strongly formed by particular unsought personal experiences of alternative associations, largely unconditioned by external explanations and expectations. Social development from this perspective might then be viewed as progressive achievement of a more profound, enduring, and all-encompassing identification with such alternative associations as communities through which identity itself is redefined.

5. Sharp / Implicit

  • Sharply defined phenomena: Civil society can be viewed as being made up of directly experienceable phenomena (et Descartes, Hume), like individually framed paintings. This view would tend to be favoured by those concerned with the objective reality of such states as joy, pleasure, and love. For them, any other kinds of association are unreal abstractions of no significance, other than as distractions from the concrete reality of human experience. Social development might then be viewed as a process of achieving more intense experiences more frequently, rather as an art connoisseur seeks greater exposure to better paintings, through which his taste is developed. (To be contrasted with.. .)

  • Implicitly defined phenomena: Civil society can be viewed as implying levels of significance greater than that immediately experienced (et Hegel, Whitehead, Niebuhr, Proust). As with the experience of an iceberg, this view would tend to be favoured by those for whom the associative experience encompasses both the tip and some sense of the invisible presence of its underlying mass (and the possibility that nay suddenly become visible). Significance is derived from the unexpressed presence or the potential of any moment. Social development might then be viewed as the birth of such potential d the increasing recognition of the immensity that remains unexpressed.

6. Comprehensible / Incomprehensible

  • Inherently comprehensible phenomena: A society can be viewed as comprehensible in terms of existing paradigms or through their cultural evolution. This view would tend to be favoured by pragmatists, and those with a scientific orientation, for whom a satisfactory explanation in terms of collectively known factors must eventually be possible (if one cannot immediately be imposed). Social development is then a process of making what is known to the experts more widely accessible and of investigating what 3y do not yet comprehend. (To be contrasted with...)
  • Inherently incomprehensible phenomena: A society can be viewed as calling for explanation in terms of other frames of reference, which 3.y not necessarily be accessible to the human mind (et Plato, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Plotinus, Niebuhr, Toynbee). This view would tend to be favoured by many religious groups and in cultures sympathetic to belief in other levels of being or realms of existence. Social development is then essentially an evolving mystery whose nature is beyond the grasp of the human mind.

7. Due process / Spontaneous

  • Phenomena in a context of due process: A society can be viewed as subject to known (or knowable) laws as a part of definable processes. This view would tend to be favoured by those endeavouring to develop programmes human development which certain forms of associative activity are experienced at certain 1ges or developmental phases. Social development is then viewed rather like an educational curriculum through which people need to pass in an orderly manner, building on appropriate foundational experiences, to the possible levels of achievement defined by the outstanding meers of the last. (To be contrasted with. ..)

  • Spontaneous phenomena: v'il society can be viewed as a set of totally spontaneous conditions or peak experiences connected to each other. This view would tend to be favoured by those who perceive chance, cident or divine intervention to be prime explanatory factors. It is also natural to those who >pond spontaneously to their environment. placing relatively little reliance on norms and pectations. In this view social development is the increasing ability to rely on the spontaneity the moment and the ability to respond proactively to the opportunities it offers.


These different views are not mutually exclusive and overlap in complex ways in the case any culture, discipline or school of thought. The 14 views have in fact been elaborated on the sis of the investigation cited above by W T Jones (1961), who developed 7 axes of bias by which many academic debates could be characterized. The 14 views above form 7 pairs of extremes corresponding to the extreme positions on such axes. Jones showed how any individual had a profile of pre-logical preferences based on the degree of inclination towards one or other extreme of each pair. The scholars named in each case are those given by Jones as examples.

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