Siirry sisältöön
Aaro Harju
Julkaistu 13.11.2020

The essential characteristics of civil society

Civil society is based on individuals' freedom of choice. People organize activities and services for themselves according to their own hopes and needs.

Civil society is characterized by participation and doing. Central features of activity are spontaneity and activeness, autonomy and voluntariness. In civil society, laymanship and professionalism work side by side for the common goal.

The essence of civil society is, thus, different from the two other main sectors of society, public and private. The public sector is characterized by the concepts of power, authority, legitimacy and democracy, whereas concepts typical of the private sector are markets, competition, profits, customership and consumerism.

Freedom of choice

Civil society is based on an individual’s freedom of choice. In the public and the private sectors, there is no voluntary work, but for the civil society, voluntariness is a central characteristic and strength. The willingness to help and to use one’s free time in a productive manner motivates Finns to participate in voluntary activities.

In civil society, citizens organize activities and services for themselves and other people out of their own hopes and premises. Fundamentally, civil society has no requirements from the outside, as is the case with the private sector.

Freedom from profit making

Civil society is able to adjust to the hopes, needs and desires of people as well as the changes of the surrounding environment. The lack of official duties and responsibilities eases adjustment and makes room for reactions. Neither can the heavy investments or the profit responsibilities of shareholders dictate the activities of civil society. There is room for creativity and new innovations.

There is room for creativity and new innovations.

Many ways of action have in fact emerged in the sphere of civil society and have consequently become general working practices or responsibilities of the public sector. In Finland, civil society has also had a role in patching up the gaps between the public and private sector. Ultimately the actors of civil society can decide for themselves whether to act, to what end, and how.

Freedom from administrative regulations

In civil society, activities are provided and services produced for members and customers in a non-profit making ethos. One ideological cornerstone of civil society is the charitable nature of its activities.

The actors of civil society decide for themselves what kind of activities they engage in, although the financiers have begun to participate in the defining process more in the last decades. Project and targeted funding have become more popular, and outsourcing services have increased.

One ideological cornerstone is the charitable nature of activities.

These developments have tightened the grip of the public administration and financial quarters on civil society, and thus the traditional autonomy and independence of civil society have narrowed.

The government has regulated the operations of Finnish civil society in a reasonable manner. Organizations have received their funding as general grants, which has left room for their own deliberation and decision-making power.

Also non-formal adult education has been moderately regulated. In the last years, however, there has been a change in this practice. Project specific grants have increased, and the authorities have more control over the sphere of non-formal adult education. Despite all this, autonomy remains as an essential characteristic of civil society.

Laypersons and professionals join forces

Another special feature of civil society is in the combination of laypersons and professionals. The peer support of those with similar life experiences forms an important part of the activities in organizations.

The know-how of the members and volunteers is at use alongside the know-how of paid professionals. The soft and hard knowledge, the empirical and professional knowledge complement one another. Laypersons and professionals, voluntariness and paid work coexist in civil society.

Action at a local and grassroot level

Civil society operates in a communal context. The activity can take place in status-based, operational, or mental (symbolic) communities. The erosion of the traditional communality which was based on qualities such as status and descent, has not served to diminish the communal essence of civil society, because new kind of symbolic communality has emerged alongside the status-based communality.

Most of the activities of civil society take place locally and at grass roots. Locality characterizes civil society, not only its activities but its essence, too.

Chance to make a difference

In civil society, people are at the same time actors and objects of the action. The members use decision-making power in defining the domain of civil society. Civil society is not stamped by customership or consumerism.

Participation offers the opportunity and ability to have an influence. Ethics and solidarity are an important aspect of civil society, although the goodness of civil society should not be overemphasized. Like in any human activity, problems exist in civil society, too. Nevertheless, the starting point is the equality between individuals and the goal is the public good.

Substance and quality to people’s lives

The spontaneity and activeness of citizens stem first and foremost from the willingness to participate and act. People are motivated by an interest in some subject matter. The willingness to participate, to take part and to obtain experiences brings substance to people’s lives.

Spontaneous activity acts as a good counterbalance to work and brings variety to one’s life. Through participation a person can make new friends and break the circle of loneliness. The desire to learn but also to help others encourages many people to be active and participate in the activities of civil society.

Article is based on texts “A description and the contents of civil society” and “The scope of present day civil society” by Aaro Harju, published earlier on this web site.

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