What is a Civil Society? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Defines a Civil Society?
  • 1:19 Examples of Civil…
  • 2:55 Who Needs a Civil Society?
  • 3:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
Through this lesson you will learn what defines a civil society and what types of organizations fall into this category. You'll also gain an understanding of how civil society contributes to a functioning nation.

What Defines a Civil Society?

Think about the country that you live in - what does it take to make that country operate smoothly? The government takes care of law and order and businesses offer goods and services in exchange for money, which both help to keep a society moving. But what about other groups, like churches or the PTA, how do they contribute to your society? These other groups actually play a very big part in how your country operates, and they fall into a category known as civil society.

A civil society is comprised of groups or organizations working in the interest of the citizens but operating outside of the governmental and for-profit sectors. Organizations and institutions that make up civil society include labor unions, non-profit organizations, churches, and other service agencies that provide an important service to society but generally ask for very little in return.

Civil society is sometimes referred to as the civil sector, a term that is used to differentiate it from other sectors that comprise a functioning society. For example, the United States is made up of three sectors: the public sector, which is the government and its branches; the private sector, which includes businesses and corporations; and the civil sector, which includes the organizations that act in the public's interest but are not motivated by profit or government.

Examples of Civil Society at Work

In so many cases, it can be hard to know what organization falls into which sector and why. This is because so many of these groups tend to work in collaboration with one another in order to serve the public. Looking at some examples of what falls into a civil society and how they contribute, should help to bring more clarity.

On a global scale, organizations from civil society play an incredibly important role. In the aftermath of a disaster, such as Hurricane Katrina or the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, groups like the American Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity were instrumental in serving those affected and helping them get back to normal. These groups are considered Non-Governmental Aid Organizations (NGOs), which provide assistance to people for little or no fee. NGOs fall into the category of civil society because they are not operated by the government, are very often reliant on donations, and tend to be comprised of volunteers.

Another example of civil society at work is civic groups, such as the Rotary Club or Kiwanis. In the United States, these are groups that are made up of people from the community who volunteer their time in order to raise money for community projects or needs. Though these groups tend to be much smaller than NGOs, they are important because they represent the ordinary citizen contributing to the overall well-being of their community.

In certain cases, your family could be considered a part of civic society because they voluntarily contribute to your well-being and generally ask for nothing in return. This, in-turn, might allow you to go out and contribute elsewhere in the broader civil sector.

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