What is the Civil Society

In social sciences, civil society is known as the set of civil organizations that do not depend directly on the State and that hold or defend their own rights or interests.

Civil society is generally spoken of within a democratic political framework. And it is, therefore, a social actor with influence in the public sphere.

Although there are different definitions of the term, so it is a concept under discussion within the academic field.

“Civil society is distinguished from the State, the Church, the market or the army, which gives it a multiple and negative identity. Thus, to say that civil society is not the State means that it is associated with the idea of ​​counter- power against the government and public administrations” Eguzki Urteaga, sociologist.

Origin and evolution of the concept “civil society”

The origin of this concept is in the eighteenth century. Specifically in the treatise “Essay on the history of civil society”, by the Scotsman Adam Fergusson. One of the most reproduced books of this century, of great influence on the philosophy of the Enlightenment.

In fact, for many authors, such as Von Haller, civil society is a “revolutionary” term and linked to the Enlightenment ideas that toured Europe at that time.

But the concept has been changing from throughout the Contemporary Age to the present day. And it has been used by various authors to understand and study the social movements that have occurred at different times.

Freedom guiding the people

Photograph of the canvas “Liberty Leading the People” by Eugêne Delacroix, from 1830. The painting symbolizes the people of France in their struggle for freedom and visually describes what some enlightened authors understood by “civil society”.

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Examples of civil society movements and actions

Civil society has decisively influenced public life on many occasions and in many contexts. Some of the most prominent are: the movement for Civil Rights in the US, the fight for the rights of the LGTBI collective in different countries or the global environmental movement against climate change.

In this way, the term “civil society” is also linked to “social activism”. Well, it implies a deliberate action by a social group in defense of its interests or values.

fight against climate change

Characteristics of civil society

In order for us to be able to speak of civil society, a series of circumstances must exist, according to most authors. These are the elements that characterize it:


The independence of political and economic powers is a fundamental requirement to speak of civil society. There are even authors who claim that it is the natural counterpower of these. In this way, civil society would function as a counterweight to the rest of the powers.


Civil society is usually made up of a wide variety of organizations, associations and social movements of all kinds. These can vary both in their content, in their operation and also in their duration.

Thus, there are elements of civil society that bring together a greater or lesser number of citizens. There are also those with a great tradition, which survive the passing of the centuries and are punctual.


To speak of civil society, citizens must be free to associate according to their needs and interests. And also that they can carry out the actions that are proposed to achieve them, within the legal limits of each system.

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Therefore, the greater the freedom of association and action, the greater the strength of civil society.


There are many authors who consider that a true civil society only exists in democratic societies.

According to the United Nations, civil society plays a fundamental role in the defense of democracy. It is through citizen participation that progress is made towards the idea of ​​world citizenship and towards the defense of human rights.

Likewise, the UN defends the concept of international civil society, beyond national interests.

For some authors, such as the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, there can be no democracy without civil society. In other words, for there to be a true separation of powers, it is necessary for citizens to organize themselves and actively participate in political and social life in very different ways.

However, for others, such as Antonio Gramsci, civil society is very varied and with opposing interests between some sectors and others. In this way he is in permanent conflict. Civil society would therefore be the space where social class conflicts arise and are resolved.

Types of organization typical of civil society

Among the types of organization typical of civil society are:

  • unions: workers associations in defense of their economic and professional interests.
  • NGO: non-governmental organizations that defend and support certain groups. NGOs are common in defense of the most disadvantaged in society, such as the poor, immigrants, drug addicts or any other vulnerable group.
  • Citizen associations: These are associations of all kinds, which generally defend common ideas or values ​​among their members. They can be political, economic, social, cultural, etc.
  • religious congregations: These are groups of individuals linked through a particular religion or their own beliefs. They maintain their own relationship with the different social actors.
  • sports federations: associations of athletes from different categories and sectors, for the organization of championships or competitions.
  • professional associations: associations that link workers in a particular branch, such as law, architecture or medicine. Professional associations often have a long tradition of advocating for and supporting their members.
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