Civil Society: Overlapping Frames

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Bronwen Dalton


The social sciences are bedeviled by terminological promiscuity.  Terms and phrases are used at one time in a certain context and later borrowed and applied in different circumstances to somewhat different phenomena. Sometimes different groups of actors or researchers simultaneously use the same term with somewhat different meanings. Such is the use of the term civil society. In this 5th Anniversary of the Cosmopolitan Civil Societies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, it is timely to trace the evolution of the idea of civil society to its multiple guises in the present. The paper reviews the term’s 18th and 19th century roots, its recent resurrection and the opposing views of civil society, including views that question its applicability to non-western settings. It then discusses prospects for developing agreed approaches to the study of civil society. To guide our thinking the paper presents a brief overview of different approaches to defining civil society taken by some of the major so-called centres for civil society in Australia and internationally. The paper concludes by reflecting on these definitional challenges as it has played out at one particular cross faculty research centre, the University of Technology, Sydney’s Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Research Centre.

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