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Exploratory System of 14 Contrasting Concepts of Civil Society

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It is a basic mistake to assume that the concept of "civil society" is understood in the same way, whether between cultures or within any culture. The questions as to whether individuals or groups can associate or develop through intentional social groupings (other than in the obvious ways that preoccupy educators, economists, physicians and psychologists) are not understood in the same way in different contexts.

For some, although alternative modes of collective association are a reality, social and individual development does not necessarily mean a journey through a pattern of such less conventional modes. Individual and group maturity have not been effectively defined and it is uncertain whether they lend themselves to definition. And for many, the degree of individual suffering in the world renders quite absurd any discussion of development within society that does not concentrate on basic human needs. In some traditions, however, it is the failure to cultivate some of the less recognized modes of association which is directly responsible for the ills engendered in the world.

Cross-cultural challenge

In the light of the recent experience in Eastern Europe with "Western" models of management and democracy, it is questionable whether it is useful to concentrate on a conventional articulation of a supposedly uniform "Western" view of "civil society". The challenge would seem rather to be one of offering a set of catalytic images through which a range of alternative understandings of civil society may be creatively explored.

Specifically the challenge is to evoke, from a Russian cultural perspective, images that give coherence to some understanding of civil society that reflects the richness of Russian culture. Failure to do so leads to the risk of premature formulation of legislation and administrative procedures which can rapidly turn out to be irrelevant and even counter-productive in a Russian context.

It is useful therefore to start this process by attempting to identify many alternative ways in which civil society can be perceived, as a means of increasing understanding of the constraints on providing any simplistic definition. This will also make evident the diffiCUlty of attracting any consensus on strategies of association. Whilst it is possible to discuss these perceptual modes as models, a broader and more insightful discussion results -from treating such models as part of a set of metaphors.

Such an exercise must necessarily include, and go beyond, the perspective of particular disciplines that have their particular approaches to associative phenomena, such as:

(a) legal and administrative sciences with their focus on recognizing and regulating authorized associations; criminal

(b) economic and fiscal sciences

(c) sociological and anthropological sciences

(d) cultural sciences expression

(e) political sciences and governance

(f) developmental sciences

(g) religious sciences

(h) psychological development

(i) human rights, freedom of association

Contrasting images

The following alternative perceptions are therefore discussed as contrasting metaphors of civil society and its implications for the process of association and development. They are not mutually exclusive and may often be complementary. The set has been adapted from the work, discussed elsewhere, of W T Jones (The Romantic Syndrome: toward a new method in cultural anthropology and the history of ideas, 1961).

1. Order / Disorder

2. Static / Dynamic

3. Discrete / Continuous

4. External / Embodiment

5. Sharp / Implicit

6. Comprehensible / Incomprehensible

7. Due process / Spontaneous


These different views are not mutually exclusive and overlap in complex ways in the case any culture, discipline or school of thought. The 14 views have in fact been elaborated on the sis of the investigation cited above by W T Jones (1961), who developed 7 axes of bias by which many academic debates could be characterized. The 14 views above form 7 pairs of extremes corresponding to the extreme positions on such axes. Jones showed how any individual had a profile of pre-logical preferences based on the degree of inclination towards one or other extreme of each pair. The scholars named in each case are those given by Jones as examples.

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