How to Measure Civil Society
Helmut K. Anheier

Editors Introduction Civil society has become an important concept in the social sciences, and has emerged as a central topic among policymakers and practitioners alike. With such prominence comes a need for clearer understanding, better information and ways to position civil society and its various dimensions in the context of economy, polity and society at large. In this feature, Helmut K. Anheier, director of the Centre for Civil Society based at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Lisa Carlson, research assistant at the Centre, discuss the various definitions and the complexities of civil society.

A phenomenon as complex and multifaceted as civil society invites a variety of definitions and attempts to capture its "conceptual essence". Even though the concept of civil society has become prominent in the social sciences, it remains somewhat unclear and even contested in terms of its actual meanings and uses. Ultimately, it may not be possible to develop a standard definition of civil society that would apply equally well to different settings. By contrast, an approach that views any conceptual definition as part, and indeed the outcome, of ongoing empirical efforts to understand civil society appears as the more fruitful strategy. In this sense, any definition of civil society will evolve over time, and it neither can be regarded as given nor seen as something that can be imposed.

Nonetheless, a working definition is needed for methodological development and empirical measurement. We would suggest the following formulation as the initial working or operational definition: "Civil society is the sphere of institutions, organisations and individuals located among the family, the state and the market, in which people associate voluntarily to advance common interests."

This operational definition does not attempt to define all aspects of civil society, nor does it necessarily fit different perspectives and approaches equally well. What the definition does, however, is to list elements and components that most attempts to define civil society would identify as essential.

Conceptual development
Many different definitions of civil society exist, and there is little agreement on its precise meaning, though much overlap exists among core conceptual components. While civil society is a somewhat contested concept, definitions typically vary in the emphasis they put on some characteristics of civil society over others; some definitions primarily focus on aspects of state power, politics and individual freedom, and others more on economic functions and notions of social capital and cohesion. Nonetheless, most analysts would probably agree with the statement that civil society is the sum of institutions, organisations, and individuals located among the family, the state and the market, in which people associate voluntarily to advance common interests.

Civil society is primarily about the role of both the state and the market relative to that of citizens and the society they constitute. The intellectual history of the term is closely intertwined with the notion of citizenship, the limits of state power, and the foundation as well as the regulation of market economies. The prevailing modern view sees civil society as a sphere located between state and market--a buffer zone strong enough to keep both state and market in check, thereby preventing each from becoming too powerful and dominating. In the words of Ernest Gellner, civil society is the set of "institutions, which is strong enough to counterbalance the state, and, whilst not preventing the state from fulfilling its role of keeper of peace and arbitrator between major interests, can, nevertheless, prevent the state from dominating and atomising the rest of society." Civil society is not a singular, monolithic, separate entity, but a sphere constituted in relation to both state and market, and indeed permeating both.

Civil society is self-organisation of society outside the stricter realms of state power and market interests. For Jurgen Habermas, "civil society is made up of more or less spontaneously created associations, organisations and movements, which find, take up, condense and amplify the resonance of social problems in private life, and pass it on to the political realm or public sphere". Dahrendorf sees the concept of civil society as part of a classical liberal tradition, and characterised by the existence of autonomous organisations that are neither state-run nor otherwise directed from the centre of political power.

As a concept, civil society is essentially an intellectual product of eighteenth-century Europe, in which citizens sought to define their place in society independent of the aristocratic state at a time when the certainty of a status-based social order began to suffer irreversible decline. The early theorists of civil society welcomed these changes. For Adam Smith, trade and commerce among private citizens created not only wealth but also invisible connections among people--the bonds of trust and social capital in today's terminology. Others like John Locke and Alexis de Tocqueville saw civil society less in relation to the market but more in political terms and emphasised the importance of democratic association in everyday life as a base of a functioning polity. Friedrich Hegel sounded a more cautionary note about the self-organising and self-regulatory capacity of civil society, and emphasised the need of the state to regulate society. For Hegel, state and civil society depend on each other, yet their relation is full of tensions and requires a complicated balancing act. The role of the state relative to civil society was also emphasised in the writings of Montesquieu, von Stein, and other thinkers, who saw the rule of law as the essence of state-society and society-market relations.

In the twentieth century, civil society became associated with notions of civility, popular participation and civic mindedness (Verba), the public sphere (Jurgen Habermas), social capital (George Putnam), culture (Antonio Gramsci) and community (Amitai Etzioni). The various concepts and approaches emphasise different aspects or elements of civil society: values and norms like tolerance in the case of civility; the role of the media and the intellectual; the connections among people and the trust they have in each other; the moral dimensions communities create and need; and the extent to which people constitute a common public space through participation and civic engagement.

The complexity of civil society and the many relations and intersections it has with the economy, the state and institutions like the family, the media or culture, make it not only possible but almost necessary to examine the concepts from different perspectives and orientations. Some analysts adopt an abstract, systemic view and see civil society as a macro-sociological attribute of societies, particular in the way state and society relate to each other. Others take on a more individualistic orientation and emphasise the notions of individual agency, citizenship, values and participation, using econometric and social network approaches in analysing civil society. There is also an institutional approach to study civil society by looking at the size, scope and structure of organisations and associations, and the functions they perform. Note that the different perspectives of civil society are not necessarily contradictory, nor are the various approaches to understanding it necessarily rival; to the contrary, they are often complementary and differ in emphasis, explanatory focus and policy implication rather than in principle.

Defining and quantifying civil society
The definition proposed here would represent essential conceptual aspects of civil society, but not claim to capture and measure civil society either as a totality or in all its aspects. Specifically, the operational definition of civil society includes separate component parts: institutions, organisations and individuals, which can also be depicted visually.

Institutions: Under this category you will find the rule of law, are structural patterns that address and regulate specific areas or tasks. For example, an institution for political decision-making would be democracy, although there are different ways in which democratic decision-making can be organised, as is the case for parliamentary or presidential democracies. In the case of justice, the institution would be the legal system and the rule of law; in the case of social inclusion, a central institution would be citizenship; for reproduction, the family; and for information and communication needs, the media.

Organisations: These would be voluntary associations, and non-governmental or non-profit organisations, social movements, networks and informal groups. These organisations make up the infrastructure of civil society; they are the vehicles and forums for social participation, "voice" processes, the expression of values and preferences, and service provision.

Individuals: Citizens and participants in civil society generally. This would include people's activities in civil society such as membership, volunteering, organising events, or supporting specific causes; people's values, attitudes, preferences and expectations; and people's skills and in terms governance, management and leadership.

As an analytic, conceptual term, civil society is very abstract, even somewhat vague, and certainly highly complex, seemingly resistant to any precise measurement. Yet as an operational definition, it refers to the activities, values and other key characteristics of institutions, organisations and individuals located among the market, the state and the family. Table 1 lists some of the major units covered by the term civil society as defined here:

Civil society includes multiple units, each with its own range of dimensions and characteristics. For each unit (institutions, organisations, individuals), we would be interested in their basic structural features, the values the units represent, the activities they carry out, and the contributions they make. For example, an institution like the media has institutional as well as organisational and individualistic characteristics attached to it.

Civil society can be measured in various ways and at different levels: as separate units, each with specific characteristics, measures and data; or as a composite entity that combines individual components. Moreover we can measure civil society at local, regional, national and even international levels.

What civil society is not
Having put some effort into defining civil society and illustrating its component parts, it is also useful to address what civil society is not and the way it is understood for the purpose of measurement and interpretation.

Specifically, civil society is not synonymous with the more general term 'society'. A society includes economy, market, judiciary, family and other institutions as well as civil society; in other words, civil society is part of the larger society. It is not identical to the non-profit sector, or other terms like third, voluntary or NGO sectors, however defined. The third sector and civil society overlap in terms of organisations, and it would be fair to say that civil society includes large parts of the third sector, even though some non-profit organisations can be close to market firms or state agencies in constitution and behaviour. It does not include the market and market firms, even though some earlier theorists and neo-liberal thinkers see the market economy and its self-organising and self-regulating capacity as an essential component of "non-state" society. What is more, some institutions like the media, while essentially based on market organisations, nonetheless have significant civil society elements.

Further, civil society does not include the state and public agencies even though, through its judiciary and regulatory function, the state upholds the rule of law, social order and other essential components of society and civility. However, aspects of the legal system and specific laws dealing with civil society institutions and organisations can be included. And finally, it does not include the family. Cross-cultural family forms vary significantly and tend to imply different demarcation lines between the private sphere of the family however defined and the public sphere of the wider society. In either case, the family as an organisational unit (e.g., households, extended family systems, dynasties) will be excluded from the nexus.

Of course, establishing a precise borderline for the inclusion and exclusion of some element or another will involve "grey areas" that require close scrutiny and qualitative judgement. Indeed, overtime users will have to establish guidelines on how to apply the operational definition in a specific context, and how to approach decisions on what elements and components to include or exclude.

Civil and uncivil civil society The definition of civil society proposed does not establish any a priori and exclusionary emphasis on "good" civil society. The definition also includes what could be regarded "uncivil" institutions (e.g., encouraging disrespect of human rights), organisations (advocating violence) or individuals (nurturing ethnic or religious prejudice). This is so because the definition only specifies voluntary action and common purpose as constituting characteristics, but establishes neither the limit nor the intent of such purpose, nor does it privilege some over others. In this sense, the definition does not distinguish among causes and objectives, and does not pass judgement on them.

In many instances, the "moral blindness" of the definition should be rather unproblematic, but in some instances, the differences between "good" and "bad" civil society could be of central importance. Users may decide to measure, contrast and compare "civil" and "uncivil" parts in an effort to gauge the overall health of civil society in terms of size, legitimacy, impact or some other dimension. In such cases, users of this definition would have to establish some demarcation line to mark the inclusion or exclusion of such components from various "camps."

Drawing such a line, however, is best done in the context of concrete situations rather than abstractly and a priori. In any case, it is important to keep in mind that the definition of civil society proposed here does not necessary restrict application to what is "good and brave."

Copyright The London School of Economics and Political Science.