Conferences, 4Rs 2008

Font Size: 
Civil Society and Social Inclusion
Mark Lyons

Last modified: 2008-08-30


The starting point of the paper is Michael Edwards' (2004) attempt to resurrect the concept of civil society from the confusion that has come from its overuse. Edwards argues that civil society is best understood as manifesting itself in three different ways. One manifestation is as the private nonprofit associations that most people belong to and support, through which they cooperate with others and, in some cases, participate in politics. The second manifestation is as a model of the good society a core of which is shared by everyone living in a particular society and polity, but which is argued about at the margins. The third manifestation is the public sphere where these and related arguments about the policies to be pursued by a country are advocated. This includes the various publicly available media and parliament itself.

Any attempt to assess the strength or health of civil society in a particular country must seek to evaluate each of these three manifestations and the supporting links between the three. For example, one measure of the strength of associational life is the proportion of the population participating in associations of all kinds, but for the public sphere to be strong this must include many who are engaged in associations that directly participate in the public sphere. And because the core ideas of a good society include equality of opportunity, non violence and tolerance, associations collectively must draw on and give opportunities for participation as well as voice to all groups in society and must not practice discrimination, intolerance or violence toward others.

The ways these manifestations of a civil society support or weaken each other is important but also very complex. This paper takes up one aspect of civil society as the good society, the value of social inclusion, and explores the ways in which civil society as associational life can strengthen, or weaken this value. It is a matter of some importance in Australia at present as a new Federal Labor government has elevated social inclusion to be a core value of its vision for Australia. Exploring the links between this dimension of a good (civil) society and associational life is also important because the government's approach appears focussed exclusively on the actions that governments can take to build social inclusion.

The paper surveys the limited evidence of the extent to which associational life manifests and models social inclusion. The evidence of higher participation rates among the well educated and the well off, especially when it comes to taking an active role in associational governance, suggests that there is a way to go (Lyons and Nivison-Smith 2004). The paper then acknowledges the existence of associations formed to agitate for an exclusive society and/or that practice intolerance. In addition, many associations are a product of bonding social capital and are weak in the bridging social capital that is needed to build a social inclusion (Passey and Lyons 2006). Some evidence of this effect will be examined.

In conclusion, the paper will report some contemporary efforts by some associations to build a more inclusive society and suggest other initiatives that might be taken by other associations, initiatives which might be encouraged by a government seeking to build social inclusion.


Edwards, M. (2004) Civil Society. Polity, Cambridge.

Lyons, M. and Nivison-Smith, I. (2004) 'Who Governs Australia's Third Sector'. Paper to ANZTSR Conference, QUT Brisbane.

Passey, A. and Lyons, M. (2006) 'Nonprofits and Social Capital: Measurement through Organizational Surveys' Nonprofit Management and Leadership 16 (4) pp. 481- 495.

Conference registration is required in order to view papers.