Civil society and democracy in the third world: Ambiguities and historical possibilities

David L. Blaney, Mustapha Kamal Pasha

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The terminology of “civil society” has gained currency in recent discussions of democratic movements around the globe. Although less grandiose in its implications than claims about the “end of history,” this terminology does suggest a certain universality in human experience. We argue that this claim of universality is warranted, but also problematic. We establish the relevance of our argument in reference to the literatures in African and Indian studies.

We note first that the common employments of the concept ignore the theoretical and historical specificity of civil society: civil society is used to label any group or movement opposed to the state, regardless of its intent or character, or used so generically that it is indistinguishable from the term “society.” Instead, we argue that civil society is a sphere of social life, involving a stabilization of a system of rights, constituting human beings as individuals, both as citizens in relation to the state and as legal persons in the economy and the sphere of private association.

Thus, we link the wide resonance of the concept to its embeddedness in the logic of liberal capitalist society and the capitalist global division of labor. This conception allows us to see that, although the emergence of a sphere of civil society involves at least minimal democranization and is supportive of struggles for further democratization, the status of democracy is also made quite problematic by the tensions endemic to liberal capitalism and the processes of uneven development within international capitalism. Our usage also allows us to distinguish more clearly movements dedicated to the construction of civil society from those that may count actually as counter-civil society movements.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3-24
Number of pages22
JournalStudies in Comparative International Development
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 01 Mar 1993


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