UK Civil Society Almanac 2016 /
What is civil society?

Civil society has been defined as the associational life that brings people together and allows civic values and skills to develop[1]. The role of voluntary groups and organisations is central to this associational life, but civil society is about more than this, it is also defined by a set of 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. A healthy civil society is one where voluntary associations of people, groups and organisations focused on an identified common good can thrive.

The model of civil society adopted in this Almanac encompasses the body of organisations that exist between government, individuals, and businesses. This definition seeks to include all of the organisations that are variously labelled as the third sector, the voluntary sector, the non-profit sector, the community sector, and so on. Increasingly these organisations are simply described as civil society organisations.

Types of UK civil society organisations by income, 2011/12
A triangle diagram with each civil society category positioned to reflect their closeness to the market, individuals, and the state.

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Source: NCVO/TSRC, various sources

This graphic, which is based upon work by Adalbert Evers and Jean-Louis Lavelle[2], positions groups of organisations according to their distance from the state, the market, and communities. Organisations at or near the boundaries with the public and private sector are ‘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. In the rest of this Almanac we use a “general charities” definition (a subset of the organisations registered as charities) to define the voluntary sector. In truth the voluntary sector comprises these general charities but also many more voluntary organisations that are small and operate as unincorporated associations. The voluntary sector is at the core of civil society, appropriately placed right at the heart of the diagram opposite. The diagram serves as a reminder of the broader range of organisations that have similar characteristics, that operate independently of state control and on a not-for-profit basis.

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UK Civil Society Almanac 2016 / Civil Society

Published: 20-12-2016