Book Review: Associational life, pro-social norms and public sphere
Michael Edwards, Civil Society, Polity Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom, 2004, 138 pp., $22.95.
“Is civil society the ‘big idea’ for the twenty-first century, or will the idea of civil society –confused, corrupted or captured by elites- prove another false horizon in the search for a better world?” (Preface, p. i). The explicit aim of Michael Edwards’ new book is to answer to this question. In slightly more than 100 pages, the author makes an historic and conceptual clarification of the idea, reviewing (a) the associational life, (b) the positive social norms that reinforce cooperation, trust and reciprocity, and (c) the public sphere in which social problems are debated and confronted. The result is a complex –but at once readable- view of the theoretical and practical aspects of the “civil society” concept.
This is a pertinent attempt of explanation, as far as the term has been recently used with different meanings, often to support conflicting ideological viewpoints. “Civil society is simultaneously a goal to aim for, a mean to achieve it, and a framework for engaging with each other about ends and means” (p. 110). Furthermore, in a context in which society is experimenting far-reaching transformations –perhaps comparable to the processes of industrialization and urbanization in the Nineteenth century- it is convenient to revitalize an idea that it may be useful to interpret and to manage these changes. Together with the “network society”, the reshaping of the associational life is a ‘work in progress’.
The first step is to acknowledge that civil society has economic, political and social implications. Nowadays, the Third Sector is recognized as a significant component of the labour market and the economy. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are gaining importance as service-providers, at a moment in which the state is externalizing part of its functions and facilities. At the same time the social values of trust and cooperation are essential for the market to prosper. Secondly, voluntary organizations may act as a counterweight to state and corporations, avoiding the concentration of power. The Non-profit sector is generally attributed with the political role of promoting transparency and fulfilling community needs and aspirations. Finally, it seems that civil society by itself is a reservoir of social capital, cooperation and solidarity. In this sense, collective action and common good form part of the implicit meaning of the idea.
The core of the book is the analysis of three different ways of conceiving civil society: (a) civil society as associational life (Chapter 2), (b) civil society as the good society (Chapter 3) and (c) civil society as the public sphere (Chapter 4).
The most common meaning of the idea is to conceive it as a part of society, distinct from the state and the market. This is the space of voluntary associations, that may be called ‘third’ or ‘non-profit’ sector. In this context, it is usual to talk of “associational revolution”, referring to the fact that the number of registered NGOs has strikingly increased in the last two decades. However, Michael Edwards (briefly) argues that the growth has been exaggerated and, consequently, shows that the boundaries of civil society, political society and markets are diffuse and fluid. The end of this argument is, reasonably, to change the focus from the profusion of organizations by itself into taking “a systems view of associational life that looks at the different components of civil society and how they interact both with each other and with public and private institutions” (p. 32).
Next, civil society is analyzed as a kind of society, characterized by positive norms and values of trust and cooperation. This section of the book overviews the meaning and limits of the Neo-tocquevillian thought. Precisely, the pages dedicated to demonstrate that voluntary action alone is incomplete as a path to good society are, in my opinion, one of the most engaging parts of the publication. Once again, the author points out that the aggregation of associations by itself doesn’t have uniform effects on trust and social values. Together with voluntary associations, families, markets and states play an important role too at this respect. “While governments, firms and families are not part of associational life they must be part of building a society that is civil” (p. 49). For example, the government action is essential, acting against inequalities of power, access and opportunity, shaping the conditions for societies that are civil. “Even Alexis de Tocqueville acknowledged that ‘if men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased’” (p. 51).
The third vision equals civil society with the “public sphere”. It is a space for argument and deliberation, that enables the formation of political consensus, and consequently balances diversity and common good. This is a space confronting significant threats, as the commercialization and concentrated ownership of the media; the “political correctness”; some forms of “balcanization” present in the Internet; the control of the public discourse by the elites; the tendency to “lowest common-denominator consensus”; etcetera (cfr. pp. 64-70).
In reviewing these three approaches, the reader notices how it evolves the understanding of the idea of civil society for the author himself. One idea that points up the key role of (a) the polity, (b) the ecosystem of voluntary organizations and (c) the conformation of an open public sphere. The systemic view of Michael Edwards is central in the integration of the three traditions examined before. That is the reason why the density and diversity of associations is so important, as well as the existence of cross-cutting networks in society. For instance, “business associations that tie together the economic interests of Hindus and Muslims in Indian cities have been crucial in reducing the incidence of intercommunal violence” (p. 28). Thus, the array of connections within groups (“bonding”), between them (“bridging”) and between associations, government and the market (“linking”) are essential to know the strength of civil society. In my opinion, this makes of social network analysis a promising methodology in the field. In addition, social capital is a topic that perhaps merits more space than that devoted by the author.
Finally, it is important to note that this is also a critical and practical essay. For example, the author point out that in Western countries civil society has moved “from membership to management”, and there has been a professionalization as well as a gradual distancing of associations from their social base. In the same vein, informal and small associations at the grassroots are often ignored or neglected. Fundings have focused on elite NGOs in capital cities, while “Nothern NGOs have dominated the emergence of transnational advocacy networks” (cfr. p. 35). On the other hand, the book is full of practical experiences and recommendations. To strengthen civil society, Michael Edwards -Director of the Ford Foundation’s Governance and Civil Society Program- recomends (a) to look for autonomous and independent forms of associational life, (b) to focus on the associational ecosystem, (c) to strength the financial independence of organizations, and (d) to further research on the associational life in non-Western contexts.
In sum, I think we are in front of an important book on contemporary civil society. This is a short essay that combines a complex and well-informed analysis of the subject with noteworthy clarity in the conceptual framework, as well as in the exposition. This book will be essential reading for presenting the basics of the idea of civil society.
Referencia de la reseña:
Maya Jariego, I. (2004). Boof Review of Civil Society by Michael Edwards. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations – December 2004, Volume 15, Issue 4, 405-407.