Civil Society and Advocacy

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
The ideas "civil society" and "advocacy" are centrally important to any group or organization that seeks to reach a goal through persuasion rather than coercion.

The term “civil society” has many meanings depending on what type of political structure dominates in the society being discussed.  In western democratic societies the term has come to mean the “arena of unforced collective action around shared interests, purposes, and values…” (London School of Economics, 2004).   Civil society commonly embraces a diversity of social spaces, actors, and institutional forms.

John Gardner might define the term more simply as “community” (Gardner, 1991).   Gardner expresses the belief that without the associational ties between individuals that form communities, a democratic society cannot function.  The reason for this is the necessary role of advocacy in the democratic process.  Advocacy is “the act of pleading or arguing in favor of something, such as a cause, idea, or policy; active support.” (The Free, accessed 2/17/08).  In order for people to effect change in the society they must have the means to collectively advocate for that change.  Civil society provides that mechanism.

Historic Roots

The term civil society first appeared in the work of social philosophers in the late 18th and early 19th century.  Freidrich Hegel used the concept to describe a middle point in social structure between the state at the macro level of society, and the family unit at the micro level (Seligman, 1992).  Alexis deTocqueville, in his Democracy in America, observed that voluntary associations seemed to be “necessary” to American democracy.  All of these discussions centered on the need for the citizens of a non-authoritarian, decentralized state to associate with each other in order to reach goals or advocate for ideas that the members of the associating group hold in common.  These associations filled the social space created when the old order of feudal rights and obligations broke down, and the individual’s role and available social space became much less defined by external, coercive forces.  In other words, the emergence of modern society, democracy, and civil society seemed to have occurred in tandem. 

More recently, civil society has been seen as a way for people to cope with an ever larger, more bureaucratized society.  There are many discussions of mediating structures as a way of expressing popular will, (Berger and Neuhaus, 1977) as well as the idea of “empowerment”, which became popular during the tumult of the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States and Europe.  These concepts are essentially restatements of the concept of civil society.  The phrase “power to the people” was really a demand that the large impersonal structures of modern society, like government and corporate business, allow ordinary people to solve their common problems by associating and advocating on a relatively local scale.  This concept was often coupled with the idea of popular democracy in the minds of the reformers of the 1960s and 1970s.  Many types of voluntary associations, ranging from communes, to neighborhood associations, to Common Cause emerged from this period.  All of these are examples of civil society in action.

During the last few years the idea of civil society as a development tool for second and third world societies has gained wide support among international organizations.  Institutions such as the World Bank and the United Nations are actively seeking ways to apply the concept in societies with no experience with freedom, democracy, or economic well being.  These institutions see the emergence of civil society as a mechanism to counterbalance the centrifugal forces of change in traditional societies.   The goal appears to be to avoid the kind of social breakdown that occurred in Somalia, the Republic of the Congo, and Afghanistan.  It remains to be seen whether associations of people with common interests can overcome the traditional tribalism that seems to grip societies when an authoritarian state breaks down or a colonial power withdraws, and there is no tradition of cooperation across group boundaries.    


The ideas “civil society” and “advocacy” are centrally important to any group or organization that seeks to reach a goal through persuasion rather than coercion.  Successful activity in the social space, not filled by macro level structures or by the family, depends on the willingness of members of the society to cooperate for the common good, even if it means that an individual must give up some measure of self-interest to do so.  Without the ability to create voluntary associations, no effective large scale advocacy is possible.   Organizations such as philanthropies, social action groups, and interest groups all depend on the willingness of individuals to take some action that transcends the self in order to further a common cause or goal.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The existence of civil society is central to the activities of the Philanthropic Sector because it gives the philanthropies the social space in which to operate.  Since philanthropies are not, typically, entities of the state, and they are not family units, they can only operate when individuals come together and take actions to further the goals of the particular philanthropic group.  People must have the freedom to associate and the willingness to expend effort or money to pursue a common goal.

Key Related Ideas

  • Common Good:  Also common weal.  Individuals work together to realize an outcome that benefits everyone in the community.
  • Enlightened Self Interest:  The idea that the interests of an individual can be served by voluntarily associating with others to achieve a common goal.
  • Social Contract:  A voluntary agreement that results in mutual benefit to members of the community.
  • Social Space:  The relational network occupied by an individual.  Parts of this network will be determined by family ties, and parts by formal structures.  The rest of the network represents the area of voluntary association.
  • Voluntary Association:  Individuals come together voluntarily to achieve a common goal.

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Alexis deTocqueville, 1805-1859.  An early observer of American democracy, deTocqueville commented on the importance of voluntary associations and enlightened self interest in the operation of American democracy.
  • Freidrich Hegel, 1770-1831.  Hegel used the term “civil society” to define the social space between the state at the macro level of society, and the family at the micro level.
  • John Gardner, 1912-2002.  Gardner was Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1965-1968, and the founder of Common Cause.  He was influential in several organizations that helped strengthen the voluntary sector of American Society.
  • James Madison, 1751-1836.  Madison was the fourth President of the United States.  He was also the author of Federalist Paper #10, where he argued that citizens had the right to associate voluntarily in order to promote the common good.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

The Alexis de Tocqueville Institution,  This organization serves as a modern platform for deTocqueville's ideas.

Bibliography and Internet Sources

Berger, Peter L, and Richard John Neuhaus.  To Empower People: The  Role of Mediating Structures in Public Policy.  Washington, D.C. American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. 1977.

de Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2000. IBSN: 0226805328.

Edwards, Michael. Civil Society. Cambridge, England. Polity Press. 2004.  IBSN: 0-7456-3133-9.

O’Connell, Brian. Civil Society: The Underpinnings of American Democracy. Medford, MA. Tufts University Press, 1999. IBSN: 0-87451-924-1.