Veranstaltungen: Dokumentation


Civil Society and Communication on an European Level

On the role and relevance of the civil society

Citizenship presence in the public and academic discourse is more and more recurrent in the last decades, as if it could be an antidote to face exclusion, anomy and lack of participation.

Isabel Menezes

Brief abstract

Citizenship presence in the public and academic discourse is more and more recurrent in the last decades, as if it could be an antidote to face exclusion, anomy and lack of participation (van Steenbergen, 1994). This extensive use tends to ignore the fact that citizenship was "from its inception (...) an exclusionary category, justifying the coercive rule of the included over the excluded (Ignatieff, 1995, p. 56) and that it rests on a universality assumption that has been questioned on the grounds that justice might not always imply "that law and policy should enforce equal treatment for all groups" (Young, 1995, p. 176), and that below claims for universality is a pressure for homogeneity that denies and represses individual and group differences. Similarly, civil society as the context where citizens come together for exerting "control over the conditions that govern their lives" (Eisenstadt, 2000, p. 7) and for deliberating on the common good, is frequently conceived as inherently virtuous: it is through participation in the civil society that citizens empower themselves, which depends on the dispersion of state power (Kymlicka & Norman, 1995).

However, if it appears to be true that participation in local associations and networks can have a positive impact from the point of view of both the individual citizen and the society as a whole (Putnam, 2001) it is also true that this impact appears to be dependant on factors such as the association organizational characteristics (Stewart & Weinstein, 1997) or the quality and the meaningfulness of the experience (Sprinthall, 1991). Additionally, the "growing fragmentation of our society" (Santos, 1998, p. 17) and the inevitable plurality of specific and particular interests associated with the multiplicity of associations might erode a more global sense of social solidarity (Edelstein, 2000). The ‘civil society´ as "the network of associations that institutionalise [private] problem resolution discourses into general interest issues" (Habermas, 1999, p. 367) might play a significant role in the "reconstitution of the public space of democratic deliberation" (Santos, 1998, p. 62) but – contrary to neoliberal visions – this is only possible, as Walzer (1995) stresses, if the state fixes the boundary conditions and the basic rules of all associational activity (including political activity) (...) [compelling] association members to think about a common good, beyond their own conceptions of the good life. (...) [Therefore] only a democratic state can create a democratic civil society; only a democratic civil society can sustain a democratic state. (p. 169 and 170)

This is not to say that the representatives of the civil society should not be included in the discussion and deliberation processes regarding the European Union – on the contrary, it is because the civil society is given ‘a voice of its own´ and actually heard by elected European representatives that we might hope that a non-hegemonic and genuinely comprehensive (in the sense that it integrates a multiplicity of diverse points of view and visions of the world) perspective is to be created in a truly united Europe. And this naturally implies acknowledging and praising difference (either based on nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, and gender) as an essential advantage for the construction of a more-integrated and complex vision of what Europe really is.

Eisenstadt, S.N. (2000). Os regimes democráticos: Fragilidade, continuidade e transformabilidade. Lisboa: Celta.

Habermas, J. (1999). Between facts and norms: Contributions to a discourse theory of law and democracy. 3rd ed. New Baskerville: MIT Press.

Ignatieff , M. (1995). The myth of citizenship. In R. Beiner (Ed.), Theorizing citizenship (pp. 53-77). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Kymlicka, W. & Norman, W. (1995). The return of the citizen: A survey of recent work on citizenship theory. In R. Beiner (Ed.), Theorizing citizenship (pp. 283-322). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Putnam, R. D. (2001). Bowling alone: the collapse and revival of American community. New York, N.Y.: Touchstone Books.

Santos, B. S. (1998). Reinventar a democracia. Lisboa: Fundação Mário Soares e Gradiva.

Sprinthall, N. (1991). Role-talking programs for high-school student. New methods to promote psychological development. In B.Campos (Ed.) Psychological intervention and human development. cap. 3. Porto: ICPFD e Louvain-la-Neuve: Academia.

Stewart, E. & Weinstein, R. S. (1997). Volunteer participation in context: Motivations and political efficacy within three AIDS organizations. American Journal of Community Psychology, 25, 6, 809-837.

van Steenbergen, B. (1994 a). The condition of citizenship: An introduction. In B. van Steenbergen (Ed.), The condition of citzenship (pp. 1-9). London: Sage.

Walzer, M. (1995). The civil society argument. In In R. Beiner (Ed.), Theorizing citizenship (pp. 152-174). Albany: State University of New York Press.

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