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Responses in Africa and the Middle East

Different Understandings, Alternative Genealogies, Afro-arab Discourses, Bibliography

"All vogue words tend to share a similar fate," observes Zygmunt Bauman. "The more experiences they pretend to make apparent, the more they themselves become opaque. The more numerous are the orthodox truths they elbow out and supplant, the faster they turn into no-questions-asked canons" (p. 1). Bauman's specific subject was globalization, but he may well have been alluding to civil society. Ever since it made a blazing entry into mainstream political theory in the mid 1980s, civil society has had a quite remarkable career as a buzzword, both in policy and scholarly circles. Rare is that academic without a perspective on civil society. For all this analytic intensity however, civil society continues to evade the critical gaze, and seemingly definitive statements about its meaning or origin have merely given rise to even knottier dilemmas.

Ironically, history has been of little help. In most cases, historical excursion has only complicated the riddle, for civil society has not one but many genealogies. Its complex story traces back to a tangle of understandings, and scholars generally tend to privilege whatever genealogy best suits their purposes.

Apparently, many of the hurdles encountered in grappling with the idea of civil society could be scaled easily. One is the problem of definition, which, Iris Marion Young contends, has persisted simply because many scholars stubbornly hanker after a one-sentence definition. The implicit suggestion here is that deeper understanding of civil society might be gained if the inquirer were to take for granted its conceptual diversity. This may not be the vehicle that transports one to definitional nirvana, but there is at least the precognition of the inherent plurality of the subject. A second problem is the popular conflation of civil society as an idea, an ideal, and a device for the attainment of a vaguely defined "good society." Again, as Michael Edwards suggests, the problem comes not from this trifurcation, but rather from imagining that civil society cannot be all three at the same time.

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