civic and civil society

from The McKay Foundation

Civic Society: is the sphere of a person’s public life within the state that includes his or her role as citizen, i.e. as voter and political agent, and as someone beholden to governments’ laws and regulations. In this way, a person’s life in civic society is abstract: all citizens (theoretically) have equal identity and status in this realm and their personal uniqueness and life circumstance are irrelevant.

Civil Society: is the sphere of a person’s public life that is exempted from state definition, in which a person’s uniqueness and subjectivity is manifest through personal choice, expression, and affiliation. Religious institutions, commercial firms and organizations, community groups and cultural affiliations, nonprofit and advocacy organizations, universities and educational institutions, various membership organizations, and arts organizations are all vital spheres of civil society. Civil society thus allows for a multitude of public spheres to emerge in which diverse voices can share their experiences, express their opinions, and organize others to influence public policy and other civic society institutions.


Classical political theory often holds these spheres apart in ways that are never mirrored in any real society. Our participation in both spheres overlap continuously. However, one can say with confidence that structural inequality and other injustice experienced by politically disenfranchised groups are almost always remedied first through the self-organizing activities of civil society. Marginalized groups are likely to find a formal hearing among civic institutions only when a broad and vocal base is coalesced and is able to enroll allied groups. Feminism and the Civil Rights movement are examples of this process in which civil society groups forced civic institutions such as legislatures and courts to change their policies in the direction of inclusion and equality.

Democracy in a pluralistic culture functions best when the energized voices in civil society provide innovative ideas, critical commentary, and policy corrections to the otherwise static norms and structures of law and government. Civil society pressures the civic realm to expand and reform. Through organizing and coalition building, civil law suits, direct democracy, media and advocacy campaigns, and the many avenues of public education and consciousness raising, civil groups -- like those in the nonprofit sector -- provide the motor for democracy’s continued functioning. Though always an unequal contest among competing interests, this nexus in which civil and civic society meet is where equality, justice, and political representation expand to include disenfranchised and marginalized groups.