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  • Relocating Civil SocietyTheories and Practices of Civil Society between Late Medieval and Modern Society
  • Maarten F. Van Dijck (bio), Bert De Munck (bio), and Nicholas Terpstra (bio)

Introduction: Long-Term Practices of European Civil Society

Civil society is widely considered as a crucial element in contemporary society. Academics and policy makers have traditionally associated it with voluntary associations and organizations, assuming that associational life is an ideal intermediary between citizens and government. While members of associations form large social networks, which they can mobilize at critical moments, the conviviality of group sociability fosters the development of a set of common values, such as a democratic political culture and other civic virtues. Its origins are generally situated in the eighteenth century, and are mostly attributed to secularization, Enlightenment thinking, the birth of the “public sphere,” and growing emancipation from oppressive structures such as the church and the state.

However, a growing number of recent studies shows that civil societies existed long before—depending on the definition. This new chronology implies that it was not the secular and voluntary associations of the Enlightenment that were crucial for the rise of a civil society, but rather the Christian—mainly urban—corporations of the Late Middle Ages. It also implies that the political impact of the civil society was not simply a question of membership and participation in voluntary social and cultural organizations. Instead, crucial questions on participation in the political realm arise.

Therefore, this special issue ventures into the world of the early modern guilds, brotherhoods, poor boxes, shooting guilds, chambers of rhetoric, and the like, as well as into some nineteenth-century forms of civil society that challenge present-day commonsense accounts of civil society. We will reveal some of the practices and reflect on the ideological contexts and drivers of all these forms of civil societies to discover long-term continuities and discontinuities. Yet in doing this we inevitably stumble upon a fundamental paradox: Can we still use the concept of civil society, given that most authors have situated the origin of the term in northwestern Europe at the end of the early modern period? In this introduction, we will review the opportunities, limits, and consequences of the use of the concept of civil society in a broader chronological and geographic framework.

Relocating Civil Society

The concept of civil society has roots in Western modernization theories. The birth of civil society has typically been interpreted as part of a linear process of emancipation, [End Page 1] democratization, and progress. Most historians considered the supposedly more secular culture of the Enlightenment as an essential precondition for the rise of European civil society in the modern era (Jacob 1991: 475–91). Historians such as Augustin Cochin and François Furet identified the Enlightenment sociability of clubs, salons, and opera houses as a fertile breeding ground for a civil society, while philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Jürgen Habermas emphasized the critical attitudes of Enlightenment thinking as its central feature (Chartier 1991:16). While these two approaches stressed different aspects of the Enlightenment, both acknowledged the essential role of an “emancipation” from church and state (Outram 2005: 28–246, 101–8). Specifically, economic liberalism, the ascent of the modern bureaucratic state, and the spread of Enlightenment values are seen as essential conditions for the rise of a “modern” civil society.

The growing popularity of the concept of civil society since the 1970s has given rise to a growing literature on the subject and resulted in a multiplication of definitions and approaches. Despite these various meanings of civil society, most approaches continued to emphasize the independence of civil society from religion and the state (Kaviraj and Khilnani 2001b: 1–2; Khilnani 2001: 11–12). The crux of the matter was liberation from feudal and religious “shackles.” Keith Baker stressed that “the institution of society”—in the sense of a growing awareness of a natural bond among humanity—was the logical consequence of this changing intellectual framework (Baker 2001a: 84–85). Others have identified rational debate and equality between human beings in particular as the essential contributions of Enlightenment thinking to the redefinition of the concept of civil society (Chartier 1991: 16). According to J...


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