The Idea of Civil Society - SO838

Location Term Level Credits (ECTS) Current Convenor 2018-19 2019-20
(version 2)
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7 20 (10) DR J Kendall







The module provides an up to date overview of how key social science thinkers from across the social sciences have understood and analysed the relevance and contribution of civil society in their models and theories. It explores how contemporary scholars have continued to use their ideational frameworks to explore current social, political and economic problems and issues. It starts by acknowledging some of the key antecedents to contemporary notions of civil society in classical and pre-modern thought, and then systematically reviews how leading theorists of, and commentators on, post Enlightenment social and political developments have defined this sphere, and accounted for its roles and contributions in their formulations. Most of these writers have crossed what we now think of as disciplinary boundaries In each case, their basic socio-political models are reviewed, their accounts of civil society explicated and critiqued, and the applications of their contemporary interpreters to civil society issues explored.


This module appears in:

Contact hours

The module will be composed of 12 lecture hours and 12 seminar hours.



Method of assessment

The module is 100% coursework, involving 2 assignments.

First, each student will write a brief (1,500 word) paper, worth 30% of the final grade summarising, analysing and critiquing a reading (article, chapter or text) from the original oeuvre of a leading civil society thinker.

Second, each student will write an extended essay of 4000-5000 words, to be handed in at the end of term, and worth 70% of the final grade. The essay will examine the contribution of, and contemporary legacy for civil society analysis, left by one key civil

Preliminary reading

The main ways of accessing relevant book materials are via chapter PDFs provided via Moodle, or using e-journals and e-books (marked with . )The lectures indicate specific chapters for careful reading and review in relation to the lecture topic. Required reading for all in advance of the lectures is indicated by ?.. Some readings will need to be accessed via conventional library borrowing. In addition, other books not listed under each lecture are more generally useful, because they are relevant to more than one lecture, and/or include other chapters not made available electronically - but which students may wish to review to supplement the listed readings. The following list covers useful background texts useful for more than one specific lecture topic. You may consider purchasing those marked with ¶

Chambers. S and Kymlicka, W. (eds) (2002) Alternative Conceptions of Civil Society, Princeton University Press. A fascinating survey bringing together diverse understandings of how civil society can be linked to a range of ethical traditions and conceptual frameworks.

Deakin, N. (2001) In Search Of Civil Society, Palgrave. Thought provoking, but accessible single-authored volume.

Edwards, M. (2009) Civil Society, 2nd edition, Polity Press. Attractive and well written overview, more sensitive than the other sources listed here to the situation in less developed parts of the world.

Ehrenberg, J. (1999) Civil Society: The Critical History of an Idea, New York University Press. Engaging and wide ranging survey of how the concept of civil society has evolved historically, especially useful in relation to aspects of pre-modern and critical thought not well covered in other volumes ¶

Elliot, C. (ed) (2003) Civil Society and Democracy: A Reader, Oxford University Press. A useful collection of influential recent politically oriented synthetic statements on civil society, and a good overview of the thinking of leading protagonists from beyond the West, allowing Western classical thinkers to be set in a wider context.

Hall, J. A. (ed) (1995) Civil Society: Theory, History, Comparison, Polity Press. Very widely cited volume drawing together the perspectives of some of the leading writers on civil society from historical, political and sociological perspectives

Hall, J.A. and Trentmann, F. (eds) (2005) Civil Society: A Reader in History, Theory and Global Politics. Selection of rather short extracts from a wide (arguably sometimes too wide) range of texts, with the choice reflecting the authors’ liberal predilections and broad interests in political history.

Hodgkinson, V. and Foley, M. (eds) (2003) The Civil Society Reader, Tufts University. Selection of longer extracts from relatively limited number of texts, but with a bias towards US-based authors and approaches. ¶

Kaviraj, S. and Khilnani, S. (2001) Civil Society: History and Possibilities, Cambridge University Press. Some useful overview chapters, and like Elliot (2003), a strength is the inclusion of extensive material from beyond the dominant Western traditions, allowing the latter to be set in a wider context. ¶

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

See the library reading list for this module (Medway)

Learning outcomes

Learning outcomes
At the end of this module successful students will:

• Understand how the idea of civil society has been approached and utilised by some of the most significant social and political analysts
• Understand why key social science thinkers have deployed accounts of ‘civil society’ or related constructs as part of their social and political framework, and how and in what respects this particular component strengthens and deepens, or weakens and challenges, their overall analysis
• Be able to evaluate how these contrasting formulations relate to on other in terms of ideational scope, content and emphasis.
• Understand the relevance of these formulations to the contemporary challenges of civil society
• Be positioned to critically assess how this range of meanings of civil society have been applied by current theorists and empirical researchers
• Appreciate the value of the range of research methods deployed by the key thinkers themselves, and their contemporary interpreters appropriate to the study of this field

These module specific learning outcomes contribute to wider programme learning outcomes, in particular to enable students to:

• Critically reflect upon key themes, verbal discussion and the written analysis of relevant social and political issues through an understanding of social science perspectives.
• Apply general theoretical and conceptual frameworks to the analysis of specific issues and problems affecting ‘civil society’ and its manifestations on an international scale
• Develop reasoned arguments, synthesise relevant information and exercise critical judgement

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