14 September 2004
Recent Breakthroughs in Civil Society Research
Reactive vs Proactive Exploration of Opportunities and Alternatives?
- / -
This note benefits from the comments of Joel Fischer as editor of Volume 4
(annual) of the Yearbook of International Organizations
the section on Publications Concerning Transnational Nongovernmental Organizations
and Intergovernmental Organization
A. "Reactive" Breakthroughs
B. In Search of "Proactive" Breakthroughs
C. Research drivers
The purpose of this note is to endeavour to create a framework
through which to recognize what might be understood to be the "breakthroughs"
in civil society research from the end of the 1980s. The question raised is
whether the majority of these breakthroughs were in reactive response to events
beyond the immediate preoccupations of the academic community.
In contrast to such "reactive" breakthroughs, pointers are
offered to potential research breakthroughs that might be understood as
endeavouring to frame and enable civil society processes in new ways. As a point
of comparison, pointers to possible research in the 1970s are presented.
A. "Reactive" Breakthroughs
1. Pressure to evaluate the efficacy of NGOs as vehicles for development
initiatives: This concern dates from prior to the end of the Cold War during
which use of NGOs in this way was perceived as indistinguishable from front-organization
activity. More recently funds have been allocated to evaluate the capacity of
civil society bodies and programmes to empower communities in support of sustainable
development (as with the programme of the Global Action Plan in the Netherlands)
Typically calls for such evaluation have been used as political blocking or
delaying initiatives, especially when there has been increasing recognition
of the comparative effectiveness of such NGO vehicles in contrast to government
mediated programs through which aid was diverted to other ends. Funding for
such research, especially during the Cold War, may well have been allocated
deliberately to prove the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of particular groups
2. Bypassing international development NGOs: UNDP, through its national
Resident Representatives, sought in the late 1980s to develop direct contact
with national and local NGOs -- effectively bypassing dialogue with any international
NGOs with which they may have been connected. Research in the past decade has
focussed on "intermediary NGOs" (nature, roles etc), perhaps institutionalizing
This focussed attention on the role of field level NGOs has diminished any
tendency to focus on the coordinative functions of international NGOs. However
it tended to avoid the challenge of coordinating a multiplicity of civil society
bodies. It provided an early pointer to the need to profile national civil society
resources (but without providing funds to do so) and irrespective of the challenge
of how to make meaningful use of that data.
3. Dissolution of the USSR (1989): This resulted in
the expectation that freedom and western economic advice on market economy
would naturally lead to an environment conducive to development.
The major learning was that in the absence of an extensive "civil society",
many of the checks and balances essential to effective economic development
were not in place. This resulted in extensive investment (notably by George
Soros through the Open Society Institute and
Soros Foundation Network) in "civil society" development in Eastern
Europe. This triggered the need (articulated by some western foundations) for
studies to better understand the civil society needs in the former Soviet Union
countries and elsewhere. This might be understood as the key factor in reframing
the distinct academic preoccupations with "voluntary association"
(sociology) and "NGOs" (international relations) to legitimate a much
stronger focus on "civil society" for which research funding had then
become available in support of what was essentially a political agenda. However
it is unclear that such research led to a sense of how a fruitful mix or ecosystem
of civil society bodies might be "cultivated" or rendered sustainable.
4. UN Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro, 1992): A major
step was taken to broaden previous accreditation criteria by the UN to include
national and local bodies (primarily on the initiative of Maurice Strong)
This brought to a higher degree of focus the
challenge of the relationship between official UN conferences and parallel
events, and led to studies of such relationships -- but with little insight
into how such initiatives could be improved beyond simply physically
accommodating representatives in parallel events. As is evident on their
websites, a wide variety of IGOs now present / promote their relations with
civil society (e.g. World Bank, OAS, Council of Europe), raising the question
as to whether this is really engagement or a preemptive information strategy
(The increasing implication of internet-based participation is referenced
5. Emerging emphasis on peoples' organizations: Some
peoples' movements proved able to articulate the valuable contrast to
traditional NGOs and civil society bodies characterized by them as
unrepresentative and elitist. This engaged the attention of researchers on new
This phenomenon was significantly evident at the UN Rio Summit and has developed,
most notably through the Porto Alegre gatherings, now institutionalised as a
self-organizing World Social Forum. This activity has attracted significant
research interest both in terms of the dynamics of the process and in terms
of the alternative socio-economic models advocated. However the research has
not served directly to respond to the challenges of of self-organizing groups
seeking a measure of coherence on such a large scale.
6. Recognition of civil society bodies as a potential
market: This recognition of the significant funds controlled, channelled or
solicited by civil society bodies has resulted in increasing attention to
market research by vendors of products and services. There has been increasing
pressure to provide statistical data in support of such market research.
industry: This has had the longest interest in market research on NGOs
in relation to use of meeting services and travel
to the aid industry: This concerns the market for vehicle sales, air
transport, temporary housing and aid supplies. The emergence of this
sector parallels, but was anticipated by, the professionalization of
association management. Although aid activities have existed for nearly a
century, it is only in recent decades that these activities are perceived
as an industry (and in many cases a problematic one).
to association members: This concerns insurance, credit card programs,
buying discounts etc. It also includes publishing services; electronic
communication services (ISPs, web design and hosting etc).
7. Media visibility of civil society activities: The
opinion forming potential of such bodies, and both their media and their access
to media, has also attracted research attention:
- Media campaigns by human rights NGOs: A typical example is the landmine
campaign which drew attention to the effectiveness of NGO action. More generally
the role of bodies such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch has
become widely recognized. This has focused research on the opinion forming
potential of such bodies.
- Focus on the media role of NGOs: This traditional way of framing
the significance of NGOs for intergovernmental agendas has been extended through
the development of extensive "briefings". These tend to preclude
any effective dialogue and act as a substitute for "consultation".
This has attracted research attention in terms of the ability of IGOs to "get
their message out".
- Media visibility of activist protests at key international negotiation
trade events: The dramatic imagery arising from the conference of the
World Trade Organization (Seattle, 1999) and subsequent events provided a
convincing demonstration of the degree to which the government-supported corporate
agenda had been placed on the defensive and called for radical rethinking.
The later success in destabilizing the WTO Cancun (2003) negotiations confirmed
this. This successful action has evoked intensive "research" by
bodies responsible for ensuring the successful organization of such events,
and the security of delegations. The research has however focused on methods
of containing protestors. Such containment has subsequently been considerably
facilitated by anti-terrorist legislation (to which the research may well
have contributed). Media coverage of the World Social Forum (Porto Alegre,
etc) provided a focus / channel grassroots activities, giving them a legitimacy
that they had been denied on other occasions, and reducing the concern about
the rise of "the black block" etc.
8. Emerging significance of networks and networking: Although
such phenomena had been recognized from the 1970s and were a subject of limited
research (in relation to social network analysis), this research had not been
extended to civil society bodies operating transnationally.
The need to do so became apparent as a result of the effective mobilization
and operation of advocacy and other networks and their creative adaptation to
the internet (see below). Pressures for further network research came from recognition
of the use of such networks for the initiatives of uncivil society (crime rings,
etc) and their successful use in international campaigns (landmines, etc). Most
recently there ahs been even greater pressure due to the need for research by
security services and intelligence agencies on the operations of terrorist networks
- and their interface with networks of advocacy (and dissident) civil society
9. Legal status of civil society bodies: This theme has been the subject
of occasional (draft) conventions from before World War I.
Further legal research has been triggered in recent
years by the legal harmonization programme of the European Community and the
need to give legal form to a European association (to be consistent with
similar preoccupations regarding a European corporation). The matter has become
somewhat more acute as a result of:
- socio-political issues relating to the European constitution and the question
of participative democracy
- the status of NGOs in humanitarian relief situations - especially
given the dramatic failure of existing conventions to protect agents of the
United Nations and other intergovernmental bodies
- the requirements placed by the US Patriot Act and other anti-terrorist
measures to require more effective reporting from civil society bodies
10. Powerful articulations of deficiencies of traditional development models
and insensitive globalization: These have taken the form of critiques of
IMF and World Bank, and other conventional approaches to economic development,
and their failures over decades with respect to social development and the environment.
Action in the light of these alternative models has resulted in initiatives
that have evoked research interest:
of alternative development models: Notably promoted by green parties,
and alternative movements, and following the earlier trend towards
developing alternative communities and lifestyles
of value-based initiatives: Exemplars that have attracted research
attention include those recognized periodically by the Right Livelihood
of strong popular protest: Notably at international trade conferences
(which have proven increasingly vulnerable, both physically and
conceptually) and in relation to environmental issues
- Emergence of the World Social Forum: This has provided a focus to
counter-balance the inadequacies of the Davos Economic Forum.
11. Major scandals at the highest level of government and
in relation to major corporations: These highly publicized affairs,
focussing attention on the credibility and ethical standards of major
institutions, have stimulated research interest in the ethical perspectives
advocated by many civil society bodies. The organization Transparency
International has provided a major focus for such research
- Corporate social responsibility (CSR): This initiative to introduce
an ethical dimension to the strategies of corporations tainted by major scandals
has been the focus of considerable research
- Global Compact of the United Nations: This initiative of the UN to
provide a value framework for multinational corporate action has however proved
problematic in conception and subject to only limited critical assessment.
12. Preoccupation with accountability of civil society
bodies: This followed from the earlier focus on (defensive) evaluation of
civil society bodies:
on sects: Stimulated by scandals, considerable research has focussed
on cults and sects without successfully distinguishing them from more
conventional organizations and from prestigious secret societies. The
value of some research has also been undermined by efforts to use it
deliberately to marginalize unusual social experiments in alternative
lifestyles by associating them with manipulative cults.
on fraudulent operations: The use of some NGOs as a cover for money
laundering, and other covert or illegal operations, has focussed some
research on the need for measures analogous to those developed for
on standards of accountability: This was notably stimulated by the
problems of major scandals in multinational corporations and an effort to
extend the same logic to civil society bodies, notably in relation to
13. Transfer (whether deliberate or tacit) of social
safety-net and support functions to community NGOs by overburdened governments:
- Community civil society: Reinforced tendencies to research local
civil society groups (kindergarten, hospices, etc) reinforcing tendencies
to frame "civil society" in terms of the local framework.
- Developmental experiments: Research attention has also been drawn
to evaluate and legitimate successful social experiments like local currency
(LETS) systems, the Grameem Bank, and the microcredit movement generally.
(see earlier remarks on the Global Action Programme)
14. Professionalization of management of civil society
bodies: The management and strategic challenges of some civil society
bodies forced them to make use of increasingly professional management skills.
This resulted in:
training in nonprofit management: Increasingly business schools have
offered training courses and qualifications in nonprofit management. This
has encouraged associated forms of research.
of association management companies: Offering the service of handling
the day-today operations of certain types of societies / associations.
15. Development of civil society use of internet and
presence on the web: The importance of this has increased exponentially
since the mid-1990s.
political campaigns, notably in opposition to trade negotiations: This
capacity was first widely recognized in 1998 through the action by civil
society groups in successful opposition to the OECD's Multilateral
Agreement on Investment (MAI). By
pooling their information, civil society bodies were able to break through
the wall of secrecy that traditionally surrounds international
negotiations, forcing governments to deal with their complaints.
of techniques of increasing participation and organization (notably in
relation to parallel events): This resulted in a wide range of innovative
experiments by practitioners but without much initial academic involvement
of electronic survey technology: The internet has considerably
facilitated the capacity to survey civil society bodies, and their
capacity to survey their members. This has encouraged particular research
of electronic voting technology: this has been associated with
interest in electronic democracy (to some degree in relation to campaigns
for a world parliament or world civil assembly)
- Emergence of portals dedicated to facilitate civil society processes:
Whilst some of these have been set up as an activity of civil society
bodies, others may be understood as substituting for them. IGOs and INGos
are using topic specific websites (with unique domains) for specific campaigns
(often of limited duration / project specific)
- Portals in support of particular campaigns
- Coordination of civil society bodies through portals
- Portals for employment opportunities (notably for volunteers)
- Portals in support of particular belief systems
- Development of .ORG as a civil society space on the web
16. Increasing preoccupation with participative democracy: This has
had several recent points of research focus:
level pressures for increased involvement
level concerns: as typified by the provision of the European
on increasing effectiveness of lobbying: This follows the pattern set
by corporate interests, which may indeed set up "front" NGOs to perform
their lobbying functions.
consultation: as typified by the continuing efforts to ensure greater
access of NGOs to statutory and other meetings of the UN system. The
research has however ignored the purely quantitative problems of
processing the communications of large numbers of civil society
representatives by a very small number of civil servants. with respect to
a complex evolving range of issues.
and world civil assemblies: The challenges of participatory democracy,
and the increasingly obvious limitations of elected assemblies, have
encouraged research on world parliaments and civil assemblies. This has
however failed to address weaknesses inherent in the dynamics and dialogue
processes of such large number of representatives.
17. Increasing preoccupation with violence, security and
terrorism-related concerns: This follows in part from the increasingly
vigorous protest at official international events and the reactions to the
deliberately violent activities of those who resort to terrorism. It has
resulted in the emergence and institutionalisation of the study of transnational criminal activity ("uncivil society")
with little clarification of the space occupied by more conventional civil
with security of humanitarian NGO action in the field: This follows
early concern regarding field operatives of the UN system, especially in
the light of the increased role that NGOs have come to play in
humanitarian relief, even where the UN is unwilling to act.
recognition of the level of violence employed by government forces against
dissidents and protestors: This was highlighted by the actions against
protestors at the Genoa trade talks (2001).
governmental use of proxies, surrogates and mercenaries, whether overtly
or tacitly: Such groups, effectively nongovernmental operatives
("NGOs") have further blurred the categorization of civil society bodies
in ways that have not been effectively addressed - as with "terrorist
groups" in relation to "dissident groups".
with terrorist networks and their relation to dissident organizations: This
research question has been extremely controversial with the conflation of "dissident",
"terrorist suspect" and "terrorist" - in the absence of evidence subject
to research scrutiny - or adequate taxonomies by researchers to clarify
such distinctions. It has given a
particular focus to research on the legal status of NGOs.
of significance of criminal networks: Increasing research attention
has emerged in response to transnational criminal networks, notably in
relation to drugs, traffic in persons, arms trade, and money-laundering.
of (usefully) marginalizing dissident organizations under anti-terrorist
legislation: It remains unclear what research has been funded as a
means of justifying the marginalization of civil society bodies holding
with mapping and profiling bodies (and especially their networks) that may
in some way be considered supportive of terrorism: This is notably a
response to the much-publicized "intelligence failure" associated with
9/11and Iraq. it has resulted in a notable increase in interest in
research on networks in contrast to that on isolated organizations and
sets of organizations.
B. In Search of "Proactive" Breakthroughs
Part of the difficulty in seeking proactive breakthroughs is
that scholarly research, as conventionally understood, does not have as a priority,
or even a concern, the "improvement" of civil society and its operations. Such
concerns are the more natural preoccupation of "applied" sciences - recognizing
that there is traditionally a somewhat problematic relation between
"theoretical" and "applied" research. Beyond descriptive and analytical
research clarifying how civil society functions, how would research empowering
civil society to function more effectively be recognized? The question is then
what research has sought to provide enabling improvement in civil society
Possibilities might include:
- Action learning
- Appreciative inquiry (eg Case Western)
- Community empowerment (eg GAP, ICA)
- Community and collective intelligence (knowledge)
- Intermediate technology (eg Development Alternatives)
- Community facilitation (eg ICA)
- Dialogue research
- Research on alternative forms of organization
- Cultural creatives -- values
The identification of research critical to the improved
functioning of civil society might include:
organizations of very different types and preoccupations might function
together in their various complementary roles in civil society. Namely how
can the richness of civil society interactivity be improved? What
"species" are important to such an organizational "ecosystem"?
can representatives of diverse sectors of civil society interact more
fruitfully - whether to focus their concerns more fruitfully in a
consensus, or to operate more effectively, as a sustainable "ecosystem",
through mutual reinforcement in their respective domains?
can insights and beliefs of different quality, articulated by civil
society bodies with quite different kinds of members, be meaningfully
shared to engender more powerful insights - rather than being constrained
in unfruitful ways?
can civil society bodies avoid entrapment in "positive" groupthink without
being fragmented by "negative" critical analysis?
can civil society bodies with different value priorities (ensuring that
they oppose each others' strategies) be more fruitfully organized - given
that one group will be seeking to undermine the activities and resource
base of the other? How can strategic dilemmas and value-based
disagreements be more creatively managed within a community?
can civil society identify, and embody more effectively, checks and
balances so as to ensure that its initiatives are not systematically
coopted in the service of particular agendas?
can the learnings from (courageous) experiments in alternative modes of
organization be ordered to enable (legitimate and inspire)) new
experiments of potentially greater value to civil society?
can the multi-media marriage (of visualization, sonification, etc) of
relational databases on civil society be enhanced to highlight new
strategic opportunities - and render them more comprehensible and
can the challenges of communication across languages, cultures and
disciplines be reframed to take advantage of the unique insights of each
rather than the subjection of many to a dominant majority view?
C. Research drivers
Some research has been driven by the attention given to the
fields of study by disciplines which previously were not concerned with civil
society or which had small and specific interests. Examples include sociology,
management / business studies, public relations and media studies.. Some of
this is due the changes to modern culture in the past 35 years (from Mcluhan
forward; broader use of, and developments in, communications technology etc).
Some disciplines are now "discovering" civil society as they endeavour to
undertake "new research" hitherto unknown in their field of study.
Also to be noted are the rise of new disciplines -- development studies; gender
& women's studies etc.
Questions can usefully be asked about the extent to which
research on civil society, and the research agenda, has been appropriated by:
organizations: in seeking to promote politically-relevant research, as
with the case of the European Commission's funding of research projects on
community and in relation to participative democracy
in seeking to promote particular kinds of research consistent with their
in seeking (possibly through policy thinktanks) to associate themselves
with recently discovered fashionable topics for which research funding is
available, in such a way as to reframe those topics as the domain of
groups: in seeking to avoid the constraints of existing institutions,
perceived as unconstructive, enabling them to reframe their own
initiatives with minimal reference to other research efforts
The question to be asked is the
extent to which research on civil society is currently:
- Dollar driven
- Policy driven (including belief system, or in response to security concerns)
- Issue driven
- Animating the Representation
of Europe, 2004 [text]
of Participatory Democracy with International Institutions: Attitudinal, Quantitative
and Qualitative Challenges, 2003 [text]
- Framing NGOs in
the Market for Change: comment on the report by SustainAbility, 2003 [text]
- Global Civil
Society: strategic comments on the path ahead, 2003 [text]
- Tank-thoughts from
Think-tanks: constraining metaphors on developing global governance, 2003
- Renaissance Zones: experimenting with the intentional significance of the
Damanhur community, 2003 [text]
- My Reflecting Mirror
World: making Joburg worthwhile, 2002 [text]
- Psychology of
Sustainability: Embodying cyclic environmental processes, 2002 [text]