Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Cement of Civil Society

What is your book about?

The book shows how to analyze civil society as a particular kind of inter-organizational network. Its empirical focus is on networks of voluntary organizations that represent public or collective interests (environmental protection and conservation, minority and migrants’ rights, urban regeneration and inequality, consumer issues and global justice) in two British cities, Glasgow and Bristol. I use the concept of “modes of coordination” to illustrate the variety of ways in which citizens’ organizations can relate to each other. Given its theoretical and methodological focus, the argument should be of interest even to those who are not primarily concerned with grassroots participation in Britain.

Tell us more about the title, The Cement of Civil Society. Civil society can mean many different things to different people. What does it mean to you?

“Civil society” indeed carries different meanings: a discursive space in which different stances and worldviews are negotiated and eventually composed; a set of normative principles and attitudes of “civility”; a series of collective activities aiming at the production of public goods. I focus on the last of these possible conceptions. I do not attach positive connotations to the term. For me, “civil society” is neither good nor bad in itself. What is good and morally desirable for some may be bad, even despicable for others. What interests me is how groups that want to pursue public goals work together, or fail to do so, regardless of the extent to which I may agree or disagree with such goals. In particular, I assign a central role to groups and associations, as they are (still at least) the main channel through which collective action gets coordinated and may secure some continuity over time. A lot has been written recently about the fact that the internet is enabling individuals to coordinate and promote collective action outside any organization (think of the rhetoric on the “Facebook revolution” in Egypt in 2011). I see the value of these arguments, but I think that electronic communication is most effective for short term, if intense, campaigns, less so for longer term efforts.

Why refer to “Cement” in the title? Does not that evoke a sense of rigidity that is at odds with the very idea of networks as fluid and exposed to constant change?

The paradox is deliberate. Networks are certainly more fluid and unstable that bureaucracies, and because of this they offer a more appealing way of organizing to people who have become hostile to/suspicious of the hierarchical organizational format that has characterized so much of industrial society. Small groups often prefer to keep their autonomy and cooperate through network ties rather than merging into a larger, more formalized organization. At the same time, however, I think the fluidity of networks has been overemphasized. Both my research on the UK and my previous work on environmentalism in Italy (Green Networks. A Structural Analysis of the Italian Environmental Movement, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995) suggest that network connections are often quite stable over time. In other words, repeated interactions may – and often do – generate strong connections between groups and organizations even though they are not formalized. I see this as a particular form of “network organization”.

Your research record is primarily in social movements. Why this shift to “civil society”?

Social movements are often treated as synonymous to civil society. This was pretty common, for example, in reference to the crumbling socialist regimes of Eastern Europe. But this is not really appropriate. Starting from civil society enables me to take a broader look at the actors that mobilize on collective issues, rather than starting from “the usual suspects”. For example, when I studied the environmental movement in Milan about 30 years ago some suggested that I should focus on the radical, protest-oriented actors and ignore traditional conservation groups that did not fit the stereotypical image of social movements. Had I done so, however, I would have missed that fact that different groups were often collaborating on a systematic basis and also shared some level of identity. The same may be found in UK cities: extensive patterns of collaboration and mutual solidarity often involve partners that might not be expected to work together based on their characteristics.

Why is this finding so important to your argument?

Because it illustrates what is really the main idea behind the book, namely, that we need analytic tools that enable us to go beyond what I call “aggregative” views of collective processes. By this I mean the tendency to analyze collectivities like social movements, or civil society organizational fields, as the sum of the properties of actors operating within them, instead of looking at how different types of actors relate to each other. For example, Bristol and Glasgow have the same proportion of groups prepared to include some radical form of protest in their repertoire of action, but in the former they do not work together, whereas in the latter they do. That’s what gives Glasgow its reputation as a more radical city even nowadays.

Of course, in theory we all agree that collective phenomena are more than the sum of their components, and that they should be studied relationally rather than from an “aggregative” perspective. But how to do it in practice is not so easy. My book is a small contribution in that direction. Which is, incidentally, what may render it of same value even to those who are not interested in the details of local citizens’ politics in the UK.

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