Civil Society. Humankind’s greatest creation.
The human race has a special ability that distinguishes it from all other species on earth (apart maybe from ants). This is its ability to organise, not just in family tribal or extended tribal groups, but on a huge scale. For example, the organisations of large corporations are hugely complex, often defying the ability of people to fully describe or understand them. Some projects, like the moon landings, required very large organisations, demanding the collaboration of many separate specialisms to bring together the final vehicles and manage the landings. Organisation thinker Gareth Morgan resorted to metaphors to help understand organisations and Prof. Henry Mintzberg questioned whether some organisations were too big and complex to manage (banks?).
Another form of organisation, the nation state, is maybe a couple of millennia old, and can be a major source of benefit to members, but, paradoxically, also be hell to live in and a cause of strife and war. The interplay between ambitions, cultures, history, economies, geography, national regional and local politics - and the pressures coming from within and outside nation states, causing wars and civil conflict, have been a bane on the world and still are.
Amidst all this noise, sitting quietly in the background, is an entity, a construct, an organism, a “thing” that has been the subject of much controversy – Society. Civil Society has had a mixed press in recent years, its existence has even been denied by neo-liberals and free marketers. Margaret Thatcher is often quoted as saying: “there is no such thing as Society. There are individual men and women. There are families”.
Mrs. Thatcher, as a strong believer in individual responsibility and the free market, was conveniently missing the point:
There is such a thing as Society. Here is a dictionary definition:
“A society, or a human society, is a group of people involved with each other through persistent relations, or a large social grouping sharing the same geographical or social territory, typically subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectations. Human societies are characterized by patterns of relationships between individuals who share a distinctive culture and institutions; a given society may be described as the sum total of such relationships among its constituent members. Insofar as it is collaborative, a society can enable its members to benefit in ways that would not otherwise be possible on an individual basis; both individual and social benefits can thus be distinguished, or in many cases found to overlap.”(Wikipedia)
Most Civil Societies have geographical limits, often, but not always, coinciding with geographical or national boundaries. Within the boundaries of an established society lie all the factors that define the quality of life for members. Societies have strong social dimensions, they contain everything that defines Identity; the position of women and quality of families; values, cultures and artefacts, religions, rituals, history and traditions.
Every viable society has institutions and structures for handling important issues of internal order and foreign relations, such as social norms, political institutions, frameworks of law and order, police and military organisations. Managing cultural and geographic differences to achieve understanding and harmony is always a key issue.
Education, as a means of reinforcing social norms and equipping citizens to live in communities and earn their livings, provides an important “glue
Last, but by no means least is the economic and occupational dimension, how wealth is created and distributed, the regulation of powerful economic institutions and trade, how the interests of wealthy and poorer citizens are served; how a society ensures that the interests of its members are taken care of.
Societies are wonderfully rich and complex entities, they are real and tangible, millions of people live in them, and draw sustenance and security from them. But conversely, they can also be oppressive and cruel, causing poverty and misery for many of their citizens. So Societies are not benign by definition, they are simply a fact.
This section investigates the differences between Societies – and what factors make some better to live in than others.