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14 September 2004

Recent Breakthroughs in Civil Society Research

Reactive vs Proactive Exploration of Opportunities and Alternatives?

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This note benefits from the comments of Joel Fischer as editor of Volume 4 (annual) of the Yearbook of International Organizations (and specifically 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 of NGOs. 

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 trend

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 below)

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 social movements.

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.

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:

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 groups. 

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:

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: 

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

12. Preoccupation with accountability of civil society bodies: This followed from the earlier focus on (defensive) evaluation of civil society bodies:

13. Transfer (whether deliberate or tacit) of social safety-net and support functions to community NGOs by overburdened governments:

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:

15. Development of civil society use of internet and presence on the web: The importance of this has increased exponentially since the mid-1990s.

16. Increasing preoccupation with participative democracy: This has had several recent points of research focus:

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 society bodies.

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 operations?

Possibilities might include:

The identification of research critical to the improved functioning of civil society might include:

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:


The question to be asked is the extent to which research on civil society is currently:


Anthony Judge:

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