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This page is from UK Civil Society Almanac 2012. A more up-to-date version is available.

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What is civil society?

What should we call the activities and organisations that inhabit the space between the state, businesses and individuals? Few, if any, issues cause so much dissatisfaction and disagreement amongst those working in that diverse universe of organisations sometimes referred to as the third sector, or the voluntary and community sector, or the NGO sector, or the nonprofit sector. And so on. For some people, there isn’t even such a thing as a sector: the universe is just too diverse. For others, the focus on organisations ignores the individual or collective action that has always taken place in the public sphere. This isn’t just an abstract problem: how can we sustain and grow something that we can’t even put a name on?

Inevitably contested, the concept of ‘civil society’ advanced by Mike Edwards does however help.1b This definition of civil society is about more than just a group of organisations, though the role of voluntary groups and organisations is central: it is associational life that brings people together and allows civic values and skills to develop.1b But civil society is also defined by values: the values associated with the ‘good society’ which aims for social, economic and political progress. Finally, civil society is defined as a space: the public sphere where debate and deliberation allows the negotiation of the common interest.

900,000
Estimated number of civil society organisations in 20101a
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Against a backdrop of enduring values and a consistent overall definition, however, much has changed and will continue to change in civil society. Whether due to the demographic pressures of an ageing society, or the financial pressures of the 2008/09 recession and its aftermath, there is underway a long-term rebalancing of the roles and responsibilities of citizens, the state and civil society. The voluntary sector is still at civil society’s heart, but recent years have seen the continued blurring of the boundaries between civil society, the state and the market. This is most evident in the development of social enterprise and in the ‘charitisation’ and mutualisation of public bodies. These are set to become increasingly significant parts of the civil society landscape, though one implication is that with every year it becomes more difficult to clearly set out the associational dimension of civil society.

Types of UK civil society organisations, by income, 2009/101a

A big triangle showing the different types of organisations in Civil Society.
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Note: For further information on the number of organisations and financial characteristics of each type of organisation, see the Databank. Click the image for a larger version.
Source: NCVO/TSRC

This graphic, which is based upon work by Adalbert Evers and Jean-Louis Lavelle1c, presents civil society at its centre. Organisations at or near the boundaries of civil society are often said to be ‘hybrids’, sharing the characteristics of different sectors: social enterprise, for example, sits at the boundary with the market. Social movements sit at the boundary with communities. Over time, these boundaries are changing – as is the location of organisations. Finally, whilst the focus of much of the Almanac are the charities that constitute the voluntary sector, the graphic reminds us that a much broader range of organisational forms inhabit the civil society space.

£229 BILLION
The value of assets controlled by civil society organisations in 20101a
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Source: NCVO/TSRC

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Michael Edwards (2011), The Oxford Handbook of Civil Society

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