Author: Jorge Tigno, DPA
In its broadest sense, civil society refers to the set of institutions and patterns of behaviors situated between the state, business, and the family. But unlike government, business, and the family, civil society is able to take on many shapes and sizes as well as varied forms of action. For this reason, civil society is frequently seen as a contested concept. Civil society embodies voluntary and self-help aspects of human society, ranging from philanthropic institutions to labor unions to aid networks.
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Most Essential Learning Competencies
- Analyze the forms and functions of social organizations;
- Explain the forms and functions of state and non-state institutions;
- Examine the concept, characteristics, and forms of stratification systems using sociological perspectives;
- Suggest ways to address social inequalities (local, national, and global); and
- Examine human responses to emerging challenges in contemporary societies.
By the end of this module, learners are expected to demonstrate an understanding of:
- Cultural, social and political institutions as sets of norms and patterns of behavior that relate to major social interests; and
- The agents/institutions, processes, and outcomes of cultural, political, and social change.
By the end of this module, learners are expected to:
- Analyze aspects of social organization;
- Identify one’s role in social groups and institutions; and
- Evaluates factors causing social, political, and cultural change.
Lesson 1: What is Civil Society?
At the end of the lesson, the student is expected to be able to:
- Define civil society;
- Describe how civil society has evolved; and
- Understand the roles played by civil society in ensuring equity and sustainable development as well as an accountable and responsible government.
- Civil society – space closely interacting with state, business and family which helps cultivate common values and bring about social change.
- Civil society organization (CSO) – organized groups in civil society.
- Non-governmental organization (NGO) – professional groups aiming towards improving public affairs.
- People’s Organization (PO) – membership-based groups support and mobilize for the welfare of the collective.
- Social capital – connections and values that inspire or achieve goals benefitting concerned organizations.
Show a movie that is able to convey the power of civil society (example: A Dangerous Life) and discuss the impact that civil society organizations (CSOs) have had on politics.
Discuss using these guide questions:
- What is civil society? What are the kinds of civil society organizations (CSOs)?
- How has civil society evolved over time?
- What is the role of civil society today?
Self-Evaluation Form (Part 1)
Answer the following questions.
- What do you already know about the lesson?
- What do you want to know more about the lesson?
No fundamental social change occurs merely because government acts. It’s because civil society, the conscience of a country, begins to rise up and demand…demand change. -Joe Biden (2014)
Remarks to the Press with Q&A by Vice President Joe Biden in Guatemala
As an introduction, watch this video to have a better idea of civil society.
Private business organizations operate primarily out of a desire to earn profit. Civil society is associated with voluntary actions by individuals and groups working to help others in need. Civil society initiatives are characterized as non-profit, their services provided freely or at nominal cost compared to the business sector. Civil society actions can be either organized or spontaneous. Organized civil society actions are referred to as civil society organizations (CSOs) which can take different forms, the most common being non-governmental organizations (NGOs), people’s organizations (POs), and non-profit organizations (NPOs).
Watch this video to know more about civil society and NGOs.
Civil society is not the same as family dynasties or clans. The members of civil society are not related to one another by blood or personal affinities. While it is normal for family members to help one another primarily out of a sense of familial obligation or filial devotion, the members of civil society come from different backgrounds but are bound by a common desire or shared interest to serve and help even strangers in need.
In the Philippines, civil society played a key role in the People Power Movement that led to the end of authoritarian political rule in 1986. Up to now, civil society continues to play a major role in demanding greater accountability, transparency, and responsibility in the government as well as the private business sector. Accountability organizations like the Transparency and Accountability Network (TAN) work towards reducing and preventing corruption in government.With connection to the right to demand for accountability and transparency, organizations support individuals and improve their awareness of their rights relative to the institution or the sphere they belong to. These organizations unite people based on their experiences, build advocacies and suggest action plans. An example for this case is the Nationwide Association of Consumers, Inc. (NACI), which is a non-government entity engaged in activities that promote consumer rights and protection.
Civil society also manifests itself in efforts to promote sustainable development, develop disaster preparedness and resilience, protect the environment, and minimize the effects of climate change. The Center for Disaster Preparedness (CPD) is a resource center promoting community-based disaster risk management. The Haribon Foundation is a well-known organization dedicated to nature conservation and sustainable development.
In addition to these forms of civil society, there are also the spontaneous self-help initiatives of various individuals acting out of a concern for their fellow human beings during times of need and emergencies. The community pantries that have sprouted in many parts of the country during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 are examples of such voluntary humanitarian efforts of civil society.
In addition to criticizing the government and businesses, civil society can also work with government institutions by enhancing or supplementing their capacities. Article II of the 1987 Constitution mandates the State to “encourage non-governmental, community-based, sectoral organizations” towards promoting the nation’s welfare. Likewise, the 1991 Local Government Code allows for the participation of NGOs and POs in local governance.
Civil society organizations have gained greater recognition at local, national, and international levels. Intergovernmental platforms are increasingly acknowledging the important role that civil society plays in crafting effective policies and programs. The Global Compact for Migration (GCM) is an intergovernmental conference that allows for the discussion of issues related to safe, orderly, and regular migration. While it may be intergovernmental in nature, part of the GCM process includes modalities that allow for civil society engagements and consultations.
Policy changes happen primarily through government institutions while the market and the private business sectors play a role in bringing about prosperity and economic growth. The role of civil society is to check on the government and businesses. The overall function of civil society is to push for conditions that promote equitable and sustainable development as well as demand for greater accountability from the government to the people.
Evolution of Civil Society
Civil society is a space located between the state, business, and the family. Civil society involves a range of bodies and initiatives that go beyond the personal towards the societal. Being a broad domain, civil society can be an ambiguous concept (Harrison et al, 2015).
Civil society is distinguished from the public institutions of the state and the private institutions of the business sector. However, some members of civil society can and do belong to either government institutions or private business entities. Agents of civil society have become a potent social, economic, and political force today.
The meaning of civil society has changed over time. Civil society originally meant a political community or association where social conflicts were resolved. During the classical period, civil society was understood to be a good society, indistinguishable from the state. In Ancient Greece, for instance, there was no distinction between society and the state as we know it today. Civility was an essential component of living in the polis—the city state of antiquity.
With the birth of the sovereign state system in the 17th century, social relations became distinct from political relations. Thomas Hobbes contends that civility is a function of a social contract in which man’s natural rights are surrendered to a sovereign or Leviathan.
By the 19th century, the meaning of civil society had acquired its current form as a set of non-state (non-political) entities and relations. Georg Hegel distinguished between the political state and civil society. According to Hegel, civil society is a realm that “intervenes between the family and the state” (Hegel 1821, Section 182).
Antonio Gramsci, in the early part of the 20th century, looked upon civil society as the platform for a particular class—the bourgeoisie—and understood it as a contributor of cultural and ideological hegemony which are patterns of power relations among social groups. Gramsci saw civil society as the sphere where ideas and beliefs are shaped and reproduced, such as in schools, religious institutions, and mass media, among many others (Chakraborty, 2016).
In 1995, Robert Putnam published an essay entitled Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital in which he argued that civil society embodies social trust and altruism. In the book, Putnam describes the notion of social capital as “networks, norms, and trust that facilitate action and cooperation for mutual benefit” among social organizations (Putnam 1995, p.35).
Today, civil society is seen as a platform for caring for people and values in common, such as human rights and climate change. Moreover, civil society also has a role to play in bringing about greater transparency and accountability in government as well as ensuring democratic participation in governance. Civil society is a diverse and dynamic sector (Akihiro, 2018).
In the Philippines, organized elements of civil society are known as NGOs and POs. In the past, these NGOs and POs have also been called cause-oriented groups and the third sector. People’s organizations (POs) are membership-based associations “that organize and mobilize their constituents in support of collective welfare goals” while Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) are “professional organizations… concerned with public welfare goals” (Clarke 1998, pp. 2-3). NGOs are also likely to provide support and assistance to POs, which would have a wider and more popular base.
Since the proclamation of the Local Government Code in 1991, NGOs and POs have been seen as partners in local development in the Philippines. A number of CSOs have formed themselves into party-list organizations through the Party-List Act of 1995. Moreover, there have been cases of NGOs and POs being organized and sponsored by political families. As such, the dividing line between civil society and government has become less distinct in the Philippines.
Self-Evaluation Form (Part 2)
Answer the following questions.
What have you learned from the lesson?
How will you apply the knowledge you have learned in this lesson in improving Philippine society?
List of Activities
Synchronous Activities (In-class)
Activity: Class Debate
Step 1. Divide the class into three groups representing government, business, and civil society.
Step 2. Assign a topic/issue for the class to cover using their assigned sector as take-off point.
Step 3. Sample issues / questions can be: What should (your assigned sector) do to address the problem of (climate change, the pandemic, crime and drugs).
Activity: Home Group Work
Step 1. Divide the class into several groups.
Step 2. Ask the students to observe what goes on in their community that they would consider to be the work of civil society.
Step 3. Each group then summarizes their observations and then reports these to the class.
Self-Paced Learning (Optional Activities)
Activity : Reflection
Instructions. Dwell on the following questions and come up with your own stance:
How can civil society be a good thing?
Can civil society also be harmful and violent?
Is it possible for CSOs to be organized by the government and the private business sector?
Can civil society replace government?
How can civil society be regulated?
Is there a decline or increase in civil society involvement among citizens in the Philippines?
Akihiro, O. 2018. Introduction in Routledge Handbook of Civil Society in Asia, edited by Akihiro Ogawa. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 1-14.
Chakraborty, S.L. (2016) Gramsci’s idea of civil society. International Journal of Research in Humanities and Social Studies 3(6): 19–27.
Clarke, G. 1998. The Politics of NGOs in South-East Asia: Participation and Protest in the Philippines. London and New York: Routledge.
Harrison, L, Little, Adrian, and Lock, Edward. 2015. Politics: The Key Concepts. London and New York: Routledge.
Hegel, G. 1821. Elements of the Philosophy of Right, edited by Allen W. Wood published by Cambridge University Press.
Putnam, R. 1995. Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital. Journal of Democracy 6 (1): 65-78.
What is Civil Society? Youtube. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6v-dyeCr7RM.
Strengthening the Capacity of Philippine Civil Society Organizations Youtube. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xj2HYFoLi90
NGOs and Civil Society. Youtube. Available at
Alagappa, M. (2004). Civil Society and Political Change in Asia. Stanford: Stanford University Press.