Civil societies and democratization: Assumptions, dilemmas and the south african experience

Theoria 44 (107):65-88 (2005)
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Abstract

The argument put forward by this article is not that democratization does not benefit from the activity of a vibrant civil society, but rather that academic research should address this relationship in a critical way. This article maintains that one should take care to distinguish between 'civil society' as an ideal-type concept that embodies the qualities of separation, autonomy and civil association in its pure form, and the factual world of 'civil societies' composed of associations that embody these principles to varying degrees. At the same time, one should avoid a kind of triumphalism about civil society as a necessary source of democratic energy with homogenous goals and principles; in a word, one should avoid a theory of civil society that privileges civil society (Fine 1997). A first problem seems to be mainly definitional: what is meant by civil society? By reviewing the most relevant literature on democratization, the first part of this article discusses the main assumptions regarding the role of civil society as a democratizing power, namely its apolitical nature, its deep 'civil' stand and its relationship with the state. In the second part, the article utilizes the case of South African civil society as a relevant example of how difficult and nuanced the relationship between civil society organizations and democratization can be, with special regard to the process of democratic deepening and social emancipation.

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