“Civil society” has been through a series of definitions since it first came into use in the 18th century. Locke, Hegel, Marx, and Gramsci all used the term; but for Locke it meant organized human civilization as contrasted with the animal kingdom’s turbulence, for Marx it meant the economic process, and the other two writers assigned it still other meanings. In Soviet bloc countries in the final years of the bloc’s disintegration, and in Latin America in the same period during the gradual disappearance of military dictatorships, “civil society” was a term of hope often used by advocates of democratic governance to denote the hopeful shoots of democratic process they saw emerging in front of their eyes, that they felt were ushering in the dissolution of dictatorial rule.
Changing Definitions of “Civil Society”
Beginning in the 1980s and growing in the 1990s, the term became almost iconic within movements for global social justice, basically denoting projects and initiatives undertaken by, and furthering, grassroots political interests. These might be to develop anti-racist and civil rights strategies, to address the AIDS crisis, to promote sustainable environmental policies, to empower women, to promote peace, to strengthen responsive labor organization, and a variety of other issues, all of them quite often interlinked. In particular, it signified citizens’ actions against the globalized neo-liberal economic policies summarized in the term “the Washington consensus” and by the policies and priorities of global finance corporations, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the World Trade Organization (WTO), and a series of other international bodies.
In other words, the term had become one that denoted ongoing movement, not simply a static category of society. “Civil society” thus only came to life as a category, at this juncture, when it was in action. By contrast, for many mainstream news media during those years and since, the preferred term was quite often “the protesters,” rendering them marginal and on the verge, for sure, of being simply an irritating nuisance, supposedly often having no clue why they were demonstrating. They were not at all, from this viewpoint, the visible groundswell of a growing tide of informed public opinion. The terminology choice directly mirrored the clash of political visions.
However, the very vagueness of the term “civil society” created a rather pressing need to pin it down to practical specifics. One major response to that need was the emergence of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as the tangible expression of “civil society.” Indeed, NGOs often became defined as the very substance of the concept. This had its drawbacks, given the extraordinary proliferation of NGOs across the planet; as well as having a bewildering diversity of focus and location, their agendas were often not merely diverse but diametrically at odds with each other.
For instance, NGOs could be proponents of abortion rights or evangelists for their denial; they could be US foundations sporting budgets of billions of dollars or an entirely income-free community radio station in the Andes. To define them by what they were not (namely, directly dependent on government) was also inaccurate in quite a number of cases, in that they were not seldom recipients of, or conduits for, state funding, at least in significant part, and thus hardly nongovernmental. They also served in some contexts as recruiting pools for public administration. Finally, while far from all were ideological warriors for a reactionary religious body’s social agenda or for a neo-colonialist policy, it would be empirically misguided to presume they were one and all selflessly devoted to social justice and cultural enlightenment.
Making Civil Society Transnational
Tacking the adjective “transnational” on to “civil society” is hardly surprising in a period in which discussions of globalization and its implications have become so commonplace, and in which international peace activism, environmental activism, labor activism, and solidarity activism have continued to play an important role in world politics. Given the term’s evident tendency to vagueness, though, what is the effect of doing so? Four instances will serve to provide some response to the question. One is a much-cited book by Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists beyond borders (1998); the second is a special edition of the Courrier de la Planète on global civil society (2001); the other two are book-length treatments of the topic by Mary Kaldor (2003) and John Keane (2003).
The Keck and Sikkink study was not only an important contribution, but quite quickly and widely recognized as such. Their distinct preference (1998, 32–34) is for the term “transnational” civil society over “global” civil society. Their rationale is brief, but appears to pivot on the implicitly overly deterministic sense in which they read the term “globalization,” suggesting a process automatically generated by a mixture of economic, transport, and communication changes. For them, in order to analyze transnational advocacy networks focused on human rights, environmental issues, and violence against women – their core topics – it is sociologically and philosophically pivotal to retain a strong sense of both agency and indeterminacy. In their frame, then, transnational civil society is a “fragmented and contested arena” whose politics are all about how certain groups emerge and get to be given an official seal of approval. They do not, however, explain why or how their own distinction between the terms “global” and “transnational” is other than idiosyncratic, or reflects any widely argued positions elsewhere.
Nonetheless, their contribution through a term such as “transnational civil society” enables us to acknowledge the growing role of transnational advocacy networks in international political relations, and that international relations are no longer simply the preserve of states. It can also draw our attention to the roles of activist networks in providing opportunities to negotiate issues internationally between, for example, gender or ecological activists in the global north and the global south, in order to reframe priorities in ways that address critical concerns in different regions of the planet. What is signally missing from their analysis, however, is any attention to the roles of media within the advocacy networks on which they focus. The communication process seems, by default, to be taking place automatically within these networks. This is, as will be seen, a common failing.
The contributors to the special issue of Courrier de la Planète focused on defining or shaping the term “global civil society”; NGOs; the role of the World Bank and the WTO; the UN; and aspects of the World Social Forum meeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Jan Aart Scholte (Courrier 2001) defines global civil society as one in which civic organizations “are engaged with cross-border issues, utilize transnational communication formats, have a global organization, and/or privilege cross-border solidarity as their goal.” He readily acknowledges that few such organizations display all four features. He also underscores that criminal, racist, ultra-nationalist, and fundamentalist forces engage in cross-border communication and organization, so that global civil society is not virtuous by nature. He further admits that at present an Anglophone digitocracy dominates even the constructive dimensions of global civil society. Compared to the resources of states and corporations, he laments, civil society has minimal staffing, finance, equipment, and symbolic capital. Nonetheless, he argues, its emergence is a potential sign of hope.
Maxime Haubert (2001) denies that the term “civil society” has any current value at all, given that military strategists, the World Bank, and global social justice activists all use it, but for very disparate goals. He argues it should be confined to history of philosophy textbooks. François Houtart (2001), a Jesuit priest prominent in the global social justice movement, puts forward a normative position, that “global civil society” should denote (1) a coalition of groups, with multifaceted strategies, to create alternatives to the present world structure; (2) their readiness to engage with utopian visions; (3) their engagement with every form of social existence, from the global to the individual; (4) their involvement with the formal political process as well as movement politics; and (5) acknowledging, but not essentializing, cultural differences.
Mary Kaldor, a long-time peace studies scholar–activist, also recognizes the term’s imprecision. She attacks what she sees as the reductive use of “civil society” to equal NGOs, and proposes instead that there is a long-term process underway, not toward unitary planetary government, but rather toward “multi-lateralist law-making states” whose global meetings offer “the possibility of participation and deliberation at global levels” (Kaldor 2003, 110, 141). Anne-Marie Slaughter, Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, has provided a landmark study fleshing these processes out as regards emerging global networks of regulators, legislators, and judges (Slaughter 2004).
Political scientist John Keane vigorously echoes critiques of the term’s frequent imprecision and also its equation to NGOs. His own definition of global civil society is that it “has no collective voice . . . is full of networks, flows, disjunctions, frictions . . . only its constituent individuals, group initiatives, organizations and networks act and interact. Global publics consequently heighten the sense that global civil society is an unfinished, permanently threatened project” (2003, 172).
Yet once again, while his and the others’ definitions are helpful in portraying the scope, the fluidity and the contradictoriness of activities to be included under the heading of global/transnational civil society, they never or only briefly engage with the media communication process as central to these activities. Keane addresses this critical issue briefly (2003, 162, 166–174), and provides a short discussion (173–174) concerning the importance of “global public spheres” in holding global organizations of all kinds to account, but no specification of what these “spheres” consist of, or where they inhabit. Furthermore, his discussion of media is practically only of conventional mainstream media.
Transnational Civil Society and Media Communication
The analyses cited here are virtually all by distinguished political scientists. Within international policy discussions of transnational civil society, at the time of writing the political science discipline tends to dominate. It is unfortunate then to be compelled to register the superficiality of these scholars’ engagement with mainstream and social movement media issues and problems. These are, nonetheless, central to the question of transnational civil society and so should never be taken for granted as unproblematic. There is a large and constantly growing research literature on social movement media of which these writers appear unaware (e.g. Rodríguez 2001; Couldry & Curran 2003; Opel & Pompper 2004; Kidd et al. 2008).
For example, mainstream media often frame transnational civil society processes in ways that social movement activists feel distort their goals and practices. Whether global environmentalists, labor activists, feminists, information policy activists, or human rights activists, their frequent complaint is that mainstream media typically ignore them, trivialize them, define them as semi-informed idiots, or even criminalize them in over-response to occasional attacks on property by some demonstrators.
Activists generally feel compelled to react to those dominant frames by public actions and statements, but especially by creating their own information spaces and strategies in alternative media. Alternative media activists, quite often closer to the ground than prominent professional journalists, may often “scoop” the latter on emerging stories, but may also find mainstream journalists contributing to their publications under pseudonyms, because they know their editors would refuse to take their copy. Moreover, some social justice organizations develop effective public relations strategies for feeding mainstream media with stories in formats the editors will accept. All in all, the clash of media framings of transnational civil society activism, whether Greenpeace or AIDS awareness or human rights campaigns, is a crucial dimension of the question.
So too is the utilization of the Internet and wireless telephony for debate, information, and mobilization. This has become a remarkable phenomenon over the past decade and looks set to be a permanent feature of the global landscape (Granjon 2001; Downing & Brooten, 2007). However, the potential for joint research in this area by communication scholars and political scientists remains to be fulfilled.
- Couldry, N., & Curran, J. (eds.) (2003). Contesting media power: Alternative media in a networked world. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Courrier de la Planète (2001). Issue 63: Société civile mondiale: La montée en puissance. At www.courrierdelaplanete.org/63/, accessed October 3, 2007.
- Downing, J. & Brooten, L. (2007). ICTs and political movements. In R. Mansell, C. Avgerou, D. Quah, & R. Silverstone (eds.), The Oxford handbook of information and communication technologies. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 537–560.
- Granjon, F. (2001). L’internet militant: Mouvement social et usage des réseaux télématiques. Paris: Éditions Apogée.
- Haubert, M. (2001). Le risque idéologique. In Courrier de la Planète (2001).
- Houtart, F. (2001). Une nouvelle frontière. In Courrier de la Planète (2001).
- Kaldor, M. (2003). Global civil society: An answer to war. Cambridge: Polity.
- Keane, J. (2003). Global civil society? New York and London: Cambridge University Press.
- Keck, M. E. & Sikkink, K. (1998). Activists beyond borders: Advocacy networks in international politics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Kidd, D., Rodríguez, C., & Stein, L. (eds.) (2008). Making our media, 2 vols. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
- Opel, A., & Pompper, D. (eds.) (2004). Representing resistance: Media, civil disobedience, and the global justice movement. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Rodríguez, C. (2001). Fissures in the mediascape. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
- Scholte, J. A. (2001). Qu’est-ce que la société civile mondiale? In Courrier de la Planète (2001).
- Slaughter, A.-M. (2004). A new world order. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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