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Policy Options for Civil Society

through complementary contrasts: definitional challenges

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Presented to a Seminar on State and Society at the Russian Public Policy Center (Moscow, 6-8 December 1994) under the auspices of the Council of Europe. The introduction and the first part of this paper appeared in NGOs and Civil Society: Some Realities and Distortions: the challenge of "Necessary-to-Governance Organizations" (NGOs) published in Transnational Associations, 47, 1995, 3, pp. 156-180. [Only links to these introductory parts are therefore provided here.

Separate paper This paper
1. Possibilities of the legal approach
2. Effective functioning of society
3. Efficiency and effectiveness approach
4. Economic approach
5. Political approach
6. Social approach
7. Psycho-cultural approach
1. Cross-cultural challenge
2. "Civil society" as necessarily undefinable
3. Exploratory mapping process
4. Challenges to governance through contrasting images
5. Contrasting cross-cultural frameworks
6. States versus Society: a challenge for governance

1. 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". Guthrie (1994) calls attention to the problems with this at the European level. Ana Maria Sandi (1992) points out that Western societies also face a challenge as a result of the bureaucratization of their civil structures:

Thus while Eastern European civil societies seek restoring those structures that were destroyed and/or perverted. Western Europeans seek restructuring of their bureaucratized civil societies. The forces willing to maintain the status quo are those interested in manipulating masses of undifferentiated people. Therefore, East and West together have to seek new forms and modalities for structuring civil societies. These societies in turn will foster people's involvement in generating values, formulating opinions, making demands on the state.

The challenge would seem therefore to be one of offering a set of catalytic images through which a range of alternative understandings of civil society may be creatively explored. For a given culture some of these may prove more meaningful and relevant than others (cf Hofstede, 1984; Gannon, 1994).

Exploration of a range of such images has recently proven very fruitful, notably within the business world, in exploring different styles of business organization (Morgan, 1986; Lessem, 1995; Trompenaars, 1994). It is unfortunate that such thinking was not applied earlier to the management challenges in developing countries, as problems in the use of "Western" management models in Africa have illustrated (Bourgoin, 1984). It is becoming increasingly obvious that seemingly intractable social problems and differences of perspective can be fruitfully approached by reframing through imagery relevant to public policy options (cf Schon, 1979; Judge, 1991).

It must also be remembered, within any society influenced by a range of institutions, disciplines, and traditions, that each of these itself constitutes a "culture" predisposed to favour or reject particular modes of association in preference to others. The "cross-cultural" challenge therefore exists within societies such as Russia as much as within and between Western cultures.

Specifically the challenge here is to evoke, from a range of Russian cultural perspectives, images that give coherence to some understanding of civil society that reflects the richness of Russian culture -- specifically with respect to the relationship between State and Society.

Failure to explore this range leads to the risk of premature conceptual rigidification from a particular perspective, excluding other perspectives that later emerge as vital to the sustainable development of society. This is especially the case with regard to those legislative and administrative procedures which could rapidly turn out to be irrelevant and even counter-productive in a Russian context.

It could even be argued that a society develops its competitive advantages most fruitfully with respect to others through the unique style with which it combines particular understandings from a wider range of possibilities. Metaphorically, it is not the set of musical notes which is important, for most may indeed be common to other cultures. Rather it is the unique way in which selected notes are dynamically combined, in melodies and musical forms, that carries the soul of a people. And clearly within a culture such as Russia, a range of such musical forms are needed to embody the many dimensions of being Russian -- whether or not some of these forms are agreeable to other cultures. There may indeed be a place for some "Western music", but it is most important to accord a place to those other forms which will together uniquely embody Russian cultural perspectives.

2. "Civil society" as necessarily undefinable

Approached in this way, it becomes clearer that whilst there may be many rather narrowly defined understandings of civil society. Of much greater importance however, is the context, attitude or mode from which these emerge and which provides a framework for them. It is this more fundamental context which is the Civil Society in its larger sense and which as such must necessarily evade any particular definition -- although being susceptible to many interpretations as shown by Tester (1992) and Ghils (1992).

Consistent with the above approach, Ghils (1992) defines the civil society in the following terms:

Dans sa conception la plus courante aujourd'hui, la société civile repose sur cette dialectique subtile et fragile entre individualisme et collectivité, interêts claniques et rationalité éthnique, affectivité comunautaire et rationalité économique ou scientifique'. La complexité de la notion, la nature souvent floue et vague de ses composantes sémantiques la rendent rebelle a toute conceptualisation, au même titre que des termes tels que peuple ou nation et à la différence de l'Etat. Les définitions en sont donc rares, les sens souvent implicites et chargés de connotations. la structure de référence communément admise est la relation société civile/Etat, avec, éventuellement une dominance diachronique ou synchronique de l'un des termes.

It is this Civil Society as a collective dynamic which provides a context for the spontaneity of ad hoc associative response to new challenges of society -- especially those to which society has been insensitive in the past. Evolution over time of the pattern of associative activity is then the only meaningful "definition" of the "Civil Society" in this larger sense.

3. Exploratory mapping process

It is useful therefore to start this exploratory process by attempting to identify the many alternative ways in which civil society can be perceived (the "notes" in the musical metaphor), as a means of increasing understanding of the constraints on providing any simple definition. In a sense it offers a "menu" of possibilities to be combined.

This will also make evident the difficulty of attracting universal consensus on the varieties of association (the "melodies") or on the ways that they can cooperate in broad social programmes ("the symphonies"). Of special importance is the recognition of the role played by agreement and disagreement in associative activity. As in music, there is a place for particular forms of agreement ("chords"), just as there is a place for certain forms of disagreement ("counterpoint", "discord"), if the music is to develop beyond banality. In this way it can be argued that in many cases it is only the more complex social programmes, embodying patterns of agreement and disagreement, which are adequate to the social challenges in a turbulent society.

Jacques Attali (1977), the former president of European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, has argued that the organization of music pre-figures patterns of social organization. There is a continuing danger that patterns of social organization will be favoured which effectively correspond to very old forms of music. The oldest were based on very simple understandings of harmony that excluded any form of discord -- suggesting modes of organization which fail to benefit from the rich organizational understanding now embodied in the modern theory of harmony.

Whilst it is possible to discuss the range of perceptual modes as models, a broader and more insightful discussion results from treating such models as part of a set of images or metaphors (Morgan).

4. Challenges to governance through 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. These points are summarized in Table 1 (and are presented in more detail in a separate Annex to this paper). They are not mutually exclusive and may often be complementary.

TABLE 1: State versus Society (tentative)

Each horizontal row represents an axis of bias in selecting a policy mix between State and Society. A policy choice must effectively be made between the extremes for each of the 7 axes. For wider public understanding, it is vital to represent each extreme by comprehensible images



"Excessive" "Useful" "Useful" "Excessive"
COHERENCE ORDERED "Subway network" "Carnival fair" CHAOTIC
Totalitarian systems
Planning (urban zoning)
Public transport
Private transport
Slavonic dance
Urban jungle
Gang rule
CHANGE STATIC "Assembly line" "Market" DYNAMIC
Monotonous repetition
Going with the flow
Guerilla group
Seasonal cycles
Ad hocery
Fast food
Alienation and anonymity
Welfare dependency
Avant garde music ?
Division of labour
Collective farm
Task-oriented projects
Pictures at exhibition
Monitoring resources
Inter-group feedback
Inter-personal feedback
Spider web
Vulnerability of integrated systems
Organized crime rings
"Residential complex" "Cafe" INTENSIVE
Urban sprawl Grid plan
Global information
Neighbourhood cafe
Window box
Private garden
Family / Kinship (extended)
Elective affinities
Corner shop
Allotment subdivision
"News broadcast" "Symbol" IMPLICIT
(metaphorical or unstated)
Street hoardings
Public signs
Public law
Role models
Learning by example
Demonstration projects
Tradition-bound (taboo)
Unwritten rules (Catch-22)
Overexposure of private life Institutional
Shop windows
Religious belief and practice
excesses (Kafka)
Jazz group


4.1 Challenge of coherence

Here the challenge to governance is to strike a balance between the extremes of excessive order and excessive disorder. Excessive order inhibits levels of diversity necessary to an adaptive response to a complex and changing pattern of problems and possibilities. Excessive disorder inhibits any possibility of comprehensive or integrated programmes to such patterns within society as a whole.

4.1.1: Ordered array ("Subway network")

4.1.2: Disorder and chaos ("Carnival fair")

4.2 Challenge of change

Here the challenge to governance is to strike a balance between features of society ensuring stability and predictability against those associated with change and development. Excessive stability results in a stultifying, unchallenging society, unresponsive to a changing world. Excessive change leads to social instability and insecurity, making consolidation of any social progress impossible.

4.2.1: Static structure ("Assembly line")

4.2.2: Dynamic structure ("Market")

4.3 Challenge of identity

Here the challenge to governance is to strike a balance between encouraging individualistic identification with particular organizational units as opposed to identification with a wider community of relationships between many such bodies. Excessive emphasis on individualism results in an alienating degree of specialization which inhibits more integrated, holistic approaches. Excessive emphasis on patterns of relationship inhibits individual initiative through particular bodies.

4.3.1: Discrete phenomena ("Army")

4.3.2: Continuous phenomena ("Comunity")

4.4 Challenge of participation (and involvement)

Here the challenge to governance is to strike a balance between marshalling human resources as opposed to relying on the ability of individuals to self-organize in response to social needs. Excessive emphasis on marshalling human resources inhibits individual motivation and evokes resistance to collective initiatives. Excessive reliance on individual initiative leads to selfish indifference to collective challenges.

4.4.1: External relationship to phenomena ("Residential complex")

4.4.2: Identification with phenomena ("Café")

4.5 Challenge of significance

Here the challenge of governance is to strike a balance between significance clarified through clear definitions as opposed to significance implicit in situations and contexts but eluding unambiguous definition. Excessive emphasis on clear and literal definitions inhibits ability to respond to conditions characterized by ambiguity and the unstated. Excessive emphasis on unstated contextual significance inhibits any ability to formulate unambiguous rules where these are essential.

4.5.1: Sharply defined phenomena ("News broadcast")

4.5.2: Implicitly defined phenomena ("Symbol")

4.6 Challenge of understanding (and communicability)

Here the challenge of governance is to strike a balance between a stress on comprehensible initiatives in response to communicable problems as opposed to a stress on initiatives of a less comprehensible or communicable nature. Excessive emphasis on what can be readily communicated inhibits any ability to respond to deal with levels of complexity and subtlety why defy human comprehension. Excessive emphasis on what is beyond human comprehension leads to superstition and reliance on self-selected experts and inhibits action within existing capacities.

4.6.1: Inherently comprehensible ("Public school")

4.6.2: Inherently incomprehensible (or inexplicable) ("Church")

4.7 Challenge of spontaneity

Here the challenge of governance is to strike a balance between due process and spontaneity. Excessive emphasis on due process in response to social phenomena inhibits vital improvisation and self-organization in the case of unforeseen problem situations. Excessive emphasis on spontaneity inhibits any ability to benefit from collective learning and to ensure equality and justice in social responses to similar conditions.

4.7.1: Phenomena in a context of due process ("Tribunal")

4.7.2: Spontaneous phenomena ("Dance")

5. Contrasting cross-cultural frameworks

The metaphorical approach above provides a tentative framework within which options for governance can be explored.

Clearly the different polar perspectives are not mutually exclusive and overlap in complex ways in the case of any culture, discipline or school of thought. The 14 views have in fact been elaborated on the basis of an investigation by W T Jones (1961), who developed 7 axes of bias by which many academic debates could be characterized and profiled. Jones showed how any individual (or school of thought) 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. He also applied his methodology to political philosophies.

As presented it is worth noting the tendency for those with any bias to the left (in Table **), for example, to have difficulty in distinguishing "Useful" from "Excessive" on the right -- and will find it convenient to confuse the two in any debate. The reverse is of course true with any bias to the right.

A methodological framework of this kind can be usefully challenged by other research on cross-cultural frameworks. The dimensions under discussion are clearly complex and make comparisons between them difficult. In each of the following systems, further work could clarify the "biases" associated with the contrasting four categories in terms of a framework similar to that above:

5.1. System of Magoroh Maruyama (Mindscapes, social patterns and future development of scientific theory types) Four epistemological mindscapes:

5.1.1 H-mindscape (homogenistic, hierarchical, classificational): Parts are subordinated to the whole, with subcategories neatly grouped into supercategories. The strongest, or the majority, dominate at the expense of the weak values, policies, problems, priorities, etc). Logic is deductive and axiomatic demanding sequential reasoning. Cause-effect relations may be deterministic or probabilistic.

5.1.2 I-mindscape (heterogenistic, individualistic, random): Only individuals are real, even when aggregated into society. Emphasis on self-sufficiency, independence and individual values. Design favours the random, the capricious and the unexpected. Scheduling and planning are to be avoided. Non-random events are improbable. Each question has its own answer; there are no universal principles.

5.1.3 S-mindscape (heterogenistic, interactive, homeostatic): Society consists of heterogeneous individuals who interact non-hierarchically to mutual advantages. Mutual dependency. Differences are desirable and contribute to the harmony of the whole. Maintenance of the natural equilibrium. Values are interrelated and cannot be rank-ordered. Avoidance of repetition. Causal loops. Categories not mutually exclusive. Objectivity is less useful than "cross-subjectivity" or multiple viewpoints. Meaning is context dependent.

5.1.4 G-mindscape (heterogenistic, interactive, morphogenetic): Heterogeneous individuals interact non-hierarchically for mutual benefit, generating new patterns and harmony. Nature is continually changing requiring allowance for change. Values interact to generate new values and meanings. Values of deliberate (anticipatory) incompleteness. Causal loops. Multiple evolving meanings.

5.2. System of Geert Hofstede (Culture's Consequences: international differences in work-related values) Four indices of work-related values:

5.2.1 Power distance: Namely the attitude to human inequality. The index developed groups information on perceptions of an organizational superior's style, colleague's fear to disagree with the superior, and the type of decision-making that subordinates prefer in a superior.

5.2.2 Uncertainty avoidance: Namely the tolerance for uncertainty which determines choices of technology, rules and rituals to cope with it in organizations. The index developed groups information on rule orientation, employment stability and stress.

5.2.3 Individualism: Namely the relationship between the individual and the collectivity which prevails in a given society, especially as reflected in the way people choose to live and work together. The index distinguishes between the importance attached to personal life and the importance attached to organizational determination of life style and orientation.

5.2.4 Masculinity: Namely the extent to which biological differences between the sexes should or should not have implications for social activities that are transferred by socialization in families, schools, peer groups and through the media. The index developed measures the extent to which people endorse goals more popular with men or with women.

5.3. System of Will McWhinney (Paths of Change: strategic choices for organizations and society.) Four modes of reality construction (resolution and change):

5.3.1 Analytic mode: Based on empirical thinking and depends on hypo-deductive and inductive methods, using all logics, theories and information available to the senses to identify possible solutions, predict implications, and evaluate outcomes. Currently associated with the scientific and quantitative methods. Provides no guide for the processes of change but determines (or predicts) outcomes. Change is driven by the sense of efficiency, of optimally organizing to produce that which can be produced.

5.3.2 Dialectic mode: Composed of a variety of methods which may appear to be totally distinct and arising from contrary world views based on unitary premises (and therefore held to be intimately related). Encompasses the mode of argument, of disputation among partisans of opposing views and of adversarial encounter -- all as methods of unification. Change serves to cleanse the system of error, correct for deviation from the norm, or protect the domain of truth. In the formation of synthesis, evolution occurs as a historically driven imperative that progressively cleanses the organization of impure functions.

5.3.3 Axiotic mode: Based on value exploration, resolving issues by developing new, and shared, evaluations of events. May work through "recontexting" or "transformation" of images by which an issue of "dissolved". Concerned with questions of morality, fairness and interpersonal behaviour as having value in and of themselves. Changes induced may affect the ideology of a system and thus be profoundly disturbing to and often blocked by those of unitary belief.

5.3.4 Mythic mode: Based on methods of symbolic creation. At the deepest level, mythic events create new meaning, literally producing something out of nothing. Resolution is produced by transcending existing structures and meanings that are given to words, situations, objects, and stories. Mythic inventions successful in engendering large scale change are those which are in tune with the needs of the cultural system into which they are injected. They are typically associated with charismatic leadership that captures the will and faith of the involved population. Major methods are those associated with creative endeavour, use of intuition and strong adherence to premises of the mythic reality.

6. States versus Society: a challenge for governance

As Yehzkel Dror's study for the Club of Rome indicates, all countries face new challenges in striking a balance between State and Society in an increasingly turbulent world. In the case of Russia, the key question is how to discover the appropriate mix of policies.

The advantage of the framework like that developed from the work of Jones is that each of the 7 axes of bias can be used as a kind of indicator -- as was his original intention:

But as noted above, Civil Society in its broadest sense involves the freedom of individuals and associations to effectively function with different bias profiles according to need. The fundamental challenge for governance, using the musical metaphor once again, is to ensure that the resulting musical improvisation is both sufficiently harmonious and challenging. This challenge cannot be readily met by legislative provisions alone. It calls for new attitudes which can only be sustained by new images of the Civil Society -- possibly sets of complementary images. It is these which need to be articulated with greatest urgency in the Russian context and in the light of the diversity of Russian culture.

The methodological challenge is further clarified in a number of studies of policy, strategy and team-work styles, especially in multinational business (Hofstede, 1984; Lessem, 1994; Trompenaars, 1994). The insights of Geert Hofstede are especially interesting as a result of his work on the cultural conflicts arising within a multinational corporation (see 8.2 above). He conducted a detailed study of the worldwide management of IBM, which had originally assumed that it was possible to impose a homogeneous "Western" work culture -- and suffered the consequences in dysfunctional, multicultural management teams.

It should be possible to use a methodology like Hofstede's to clarify why there are such differences within Western European nations in their understanding of the civil society -- especially in their legislative provisions for associations and freedom of association. As one of Hoftstede's summary diagrams illustrates (see Figs 5.3, 7.2 and 7.4), Latin, Germanic, Greek and Anglo-Saxon cultures are markedly distinguished. Such cultural differences would necessarily tend to affect their interpretation in practice of international legal principles such as those governing human rights and freedom of association. This would also be true in such a culturally diverse country as Russia.


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