Published: 4-01-2012, 14:31

Adult Education and Civil Society

Civil Society: The Problem of Definition

It is important to understand that the idea of civil society has been defined and deployed in different ways at different times, depending on what kind of social and political struggles were being fought, and won or lost. The meaning of civil society is part of the particular arguments and struggles of particular times. Consequently, for example, contemporary interpretations in adult education range from (literally) conservative formulations such as Robert Putnam’s influential account of civil society as the source of social capital to Gramsci’s radical notion of civil society as a site of struggle for moral and ideological hegemony.

Walzer (1996: 7) identifies civil society as the ‘‘sphere of uncoerced human association and also the set of relational networks . . . that fill this space.’’ Essentially, civil society, in its most widely accepted current usage, is distinct from the state (formal/representative politics) and the market (economic production, consumption, and exchange). It is generally understood to refer to those aspects of informal social and political life in which citizens come together in voluntary groups, associations, and movements to pursue their own collective interests and projects in freely chosen and relatively autonomous ways. Modern civil society organizations would therefore include, for example, trades unions and employer associations, churches and voluntary agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and not-for-profit social enterprises, cultural and ethnic groups, and a whole range of popular campaigns, struggles, and movements. It is widely recognized that the vitality and relative autonomy of such informal and non-institutionalized political activity outside the state is an important precondition for the health of democratic politics within the state.

In reality, civil society is frequently in danger of invasion, colonization, and control by the state or the market. For instance, third way policies often seek to incorporate citizens and civic associations into particular kinds of partnership with state and market interests. Similarly, in their concern to roll back the frontiers of the state, neoliberal programs of privatization and structural adjustment may turn civil society into little more than an extension of the market or a manufactured instrument of state policy (Hodgson, 2004).

Finally, civil society is an ideal as well as an idea. Essentially, it may be said not only to embody a vision of democratic associational life, but also to represent the site of the kind of prefigurative work that is required to show that another world is possible. There is an important sense, then, in which civil society should be understood as an ‘‘intellectual space, where people in a myriad of different groups and associations can freely debate and discuss how to build the kind of world in which they want to live . . . a realm of emancipations, of alternative imaginations of economic and social relations and of ideological contest’’ (Howell and Pearce, 2002: 2–8).

Adult Education and Civil Society Today

There are a number of distinct, but related, reasons for the remarkable revival of interest in the idea of civil society in recent years. These include: the failure and collapse of the totalitarian communist state and its command economy in Eastern Europe; fiscal crisis in social democratic welfare states and the effects of neoliberal retrenchment on public service provision; growing disillusionment with the politics of representative democracy and its characteristic democratic deficit; evidence of the increasingly important role of NGOs and other third sector agencies in both service delivery and governance; and the growth of new social movements and their demands for radical political and economic change. Edwards (2004: 13–15) distinguishes between the developmental roles of civil society in economic, social, and political terms: it compensates for market underdevelopment or failure; generates social capital and informal welfare; and is the site for the development of grassroots people power. In the context of what he calls peripheral capitalism, Youngman (2000: 209/210) sees the functions of civil society in wholly positive terms as promoting democratization and constructing alternative models of development – in both respects giving power back to ordinary people. At a more theoretical level, the work of Antonio Gramsci has been of singular importance in presenting civil society as the key site of struggle for the radical left; in addition, in terms of democratic thinking, the ideas of Jurgen Habermas have been particularly fruitful and influential. The impact of civil society on real political change is evidenced in the recent history of varied examples such as South Africa, Latin America, Poland, and Scotland.

As Welton (2001) emphasizes, there is nothing necessarily progressive, or even civil, about the idea of civil society. On the other hand, it does tend to be deployed in its current usage to focus attention on struggles for greater democracy and freedom and against injustice and oppression. Essentially, it has been important in stimulating new thinking. For instance, on the post-Marxist left, the focus of interest on new social movements suggests that the traditional working class can no longer be regarded as the privileged agent of the emancipatory project (Mouffe, 1992). Indeed, some writers who take an interest in civil society adopt a self-consciously radical position. For instance, Powell and Geoghegan (2004: 7) argue that what they call the new face of civil society denotes ‘‘a force for democratisation in liberal democratic societies, where the poor and oppressed have found a voice through associational activities’’, thus making common cause in the struggle against exploitation and oppression.

There is an important sense in which civil society can be conceived as the distinctive space in which citizens come together to make democracy work (Cohen and Arato, 1992). On the one hand, this learning process may be ideologically constructed in different ways for different purposes. It is quite clear that much adult education today, particularly in the guise of lifelong learning, is primarily an instrument of state economic policy. The kind of technical rationality which drives it has nothing to do with democratic deliberation or social purpose. On the other hand, it is also important to recognize that learning in social movements has always been part of a particular kind of adult education. Indeed, some writers would argue that civil society is the natural territory of radical adult education. Welton (1995, 2001, 2005) suggests that learning, particularly the kind consistent with the emancipatory interest which lies at the heart of radical adult education, develops directly out of the communicative interaction that characterizes the groupings, associations, and movements of civil society.

Three Perspectives on Adult Education and Civil Society

The Communitarian Perspective: Learning for Membership

The key characteristic of the communitarian perspective is the focus on a decline in moral standards in civil society caused by a variety of interconnected social changes. These include permissiveness in the 1960s, the break-up of traditional family structures, a decline in social trust, the growth of a dependency culture nurtured by welfare provision, increases in violent crime, a lack of responsibility, particularly among the young and the unemployed, and the proliferation of minority rights (Etzioni, 1995). These trends were exacerbated in the 1980s with the thrust toward the unbridled pursuit of self-interest associated with neoliberal politics and policies. Communitarianism aims to shore up the moral foundations of society by remoralizing those groups which cause social problems. Educating people to be more responsible and active members of civil society is posed as the remedy for this situation.

The conservatism of communitarianism might have had very little appeal to many adult educators. However, its message that human relationships needed repairing and rebuilding chimed well with the emergence of social capital as a key policy concern, which has been influential in social policy and adult education. The dominant tradition of social capital refers to the norms of reciprocity and trust that appear to have been undermined by the breakdown in human relationships. Putnam’s (2000) metaphor of Americans bowling alone (rather than in clubs) captured the sense of the loss of trust, cooperation, and shared activities that bind people together.Whereas communitarianism located the problem in a moral deficit in individuals, social capital relocates the deficit in the structure of people’s relationships. Putnam’s research (see also Putnam, 1993; Coleman, 1994) spurred the growth of a veritable social capital industry among academics. Distinctions have been made between bridging social capital (making ties between different groups), bonding social capital (developing contacts between like minded people), and linking social capital (connecting different levels of power or social status) (Kay, 2005).

The importance of trust, reciprocity, and participation in civic affairs has informed programs of community development which seek to create, enhance, and consolidate social capital in communities. In the UK, the Centre for the Wider Benefits of Learning has documented various positive social, political, and health outcomes related to the impact of adult education on social capital (Schuller et al., 2004). Participation in post-compulsory education – including adult literacy – is identified as one way of developing trust and building civic responsibility (Field, 2005; Tett et al., 2006). Furthermore, social capital can increase the likelihood of enhanced economic activity as confidence levels increase and networks of connections ease the path into work (Falk and Kilpatrick, 2000). However, too much bonding social capital among groups with negative dispositions toward education has also been put forward as an explanation for non-participation in adult education (McGivney, 2001). The bonds that tie people can, in some cases, bind them. Social capital may also contribute toward civic involvement through volunteering and people becoming more active members of their community (Schuller et al., 2004).

Arguably, social capital is an idea which is both politically expedient and highly normative. It is expedient in the sense that focusing on social relationships allows inequalities in social structure and resources to be ignored. Etzioni and Putnam take little interest in poverty and inequality as causal factors in the decline of communities and their social capital. The separation of civil society from the economy therefore leads away from politically controversial issues such as the distribution of wealth and power. It is normative in that only some types of social capital are valued, whereas others are not. For example, communities such as New Age Travellers may exhibit high levels of social capital, but are not the type of communities that governments want to support.

The focus on civil society, rather than the role of the state in reviving civil society, can let governments off the hook by transferring responsibility from statutory provision to voluntary effort (Ehrenberg, 2002). Ironically, the state’s interest in encouraging participation in civic activity seems to be increasing at the same time as democratic spaces for learning seem to be diminishing. The distinction between the invited spaces of policy and the demanded spaces of communities are two distinct ways of thinking about democratic participation (Gaventa, 2006). In the former, participation is structured around the interests of top-down policy imperatives, whereas, in the latter, the spaces for participation emerge because of popular demands from below. Both present opportunities for adult education engagement, however, the context, purpose, and focus of the work provide very different challenges and prospects.

The Habermasian Perspective: Learning for Deliberation

From an adult education perspective, it could be argued that Jurgen Habermas is concerned about rescuing democracy, and the learning process embedded in it, from both the instrumentalism of capitalism (in which it becomes simply a political means to an economic end) and the relativism of postmodernism (in which universal values and purposes are deemed no longer to matter). For Habermas, who ‘‘steadfastly refuses to ditch modernity’s dream of using human reason to create a more humane world’’ (Brookfield, 2005: 25 and 26), the central task of critical theory is to encourage people to think constructively and creatively for themselves and to enable them to follow the agreed rules of democratic discourse. These are intended to ensure that ‘‘no one may be excluded; anything may be said, questioned, or challenged; and no force may be used’’ (Chambers, 1996: 197).

Habermas emphasizes the democratic work that is done in civil society when he describes it as a ‘‘network of associations that institutionalizes problem-solving discourses on questions of general interest inside the framework of organised public spheres’’ (Habermas, 1996: 367). According to John Keane, an eminent contemporary theorist of civil society, the key distinction for Habermas is between the ‘‘logics of the political and economic systems, regulated respectively by administrative power and money, and the life-world of self-organized public spheres based on solidarity and communication’’ (Keane, 1988: 18). In this sense, the state and the economy are complementary domains based on distinctive systems of power, and civil society is defined, partly, in contradistinction to them. The boundaries are often shifting and there may be a high degree of overlap and interpenetration; however, it is, nevertheless, important to maintain the distinction.

Democratic deliberation is essentially about communication, and how we use language to communicate with each other. This kind of discourse, including the rules of argumentation on which it is based, is something we have to learn. The appeal to reason in this process removes the distortions of power which would otherwise saturate and corrupt it. Democracy is constituted and sustained through a process of rational deliberation, which is conducted according to agreed rules and procedures, among equal citizens. In other words, adult learning is absolutely central to the Habermasian idea of building a democratic culture and defending the lifeworld, where people are authentically themselves, against invasion of and colonization by the steering mechanisms of the systems world of state or market. Habermas is concerned about stipulating the discursive conditions and procedures for conducting the democratic argument in the public sphere, understood as the space for deliberative democracy which civil society must keep open if it is to protect democracy. This is necessarily a continuing process, always unfinished.

There are many examples of adult education approaches which reflect this concern for democratic deliberation and organized public spheres. The Workers Educational Association in the UK is, at its best, a bearer of this tradition of social purpose and political engagement (Fieldhouse, 1996). Perhaps the obvious example of this tradition is the study circle. The term itself suggests an egalitarian relationship between members in which participation and democratic discussion focused on issues of common interest or concern are fundamental. This form of organized democratic learning is strongly associated with the Scandinavian and Nordic countries. It also has important parallels in the USA, and resonates with the principles of mutuality which informed learning in the co-operative and labor movements in the nineteenth century (Bjerkaker and Summers, 2006). Moreover, as Welton (2005) points out, the social learning that occurs in progressive movements constitutes a communicative public sphere in which new meanings can be created and debated. These movements assert the importance of the lifeworld and seek to defend it against the corrosive power of instrumental rationality associated with the political and economic systems.

What the Habermasian perspective suggests is that the task of adult education is to create the pretexts and the contexts for this kind of learning to take place within the uncoerced associations and affiliations of civil society. In order to think through what this means, Habermas (1978) distinguishes between three domains of learning, each informed by particular interests: technical learning, which concerns the manipulation of environment and control of the world we live in; practical learning, which concerns the development of interpersonal understanding and relationships; and emancipatory learning, which concerns self-understanding and critical consciousness. Each has its part to play in learning for democracy; however, clearly, Habermas’s main interest lies in the emancipatory project.

It is important to emphasize that good adult learning models the process of deliberative or discursive democracy. In this sense, adult education can be said to do the prefigurative work of democracy in which key ideas and arguments are tested out and interrogated in discussion. The purpose of this kind of learning is not necessarily to reach agreement: in the end, it may well be about agreeing to disagree, and learning to live democratically with the consequences.

The Gramscian Perspective: Learning for Activism

Radical adult education from the 1970s onwards drew inspiration from the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci because of his work on cultural politics and the role of intellectuals in social change. While Gramsci was never precise in his definition of civil society, its relationship with the state in his work is unique. He makes the distinction between two aspects of the superstructure of society (in contrast to the economic base) in terms of civil society and the state/political society. These correspond to the exercise of two forms of power which reinforce class domination: hegemonic power (the leading and directive ideas and values in society) and the state’s monopoly on legitimate coercive power. Civil society is made up of socalled private organizations like churches, trades unions, and voluntary bodies which are characterized by social relations based on autonomy and free association, whereas the state is primarily defined in relation to its coercive potential exercised through the activities of the army, judiciary, and courts. Gramsci was aware, of course, that the state was not merely coercive. More importantly, the boundaries between civil society and state are permeable, and organizations and practices can embody social relations belonging to both spheres. The connections between state and civil society in reproducing class rule are reflected in Gramsci’s (1971) expanded view of the state as ‘‘political society þ civil society, in other words, hegemony protected by the armour of coercion’’ (p. 263).

However, civil society’s apparent distance from the state means it can be a powerful medium for the diffusion of the dominant hegemony. Education, for example, is provided in many countries by the state and influenced by its policies and economic priorities; however, Gramsci locates education firmly in civil society, which seems strange. The school is an important institution of social reproduction. In addition, schooling may be coercive, although adult education still has a voluntary status. Nevertheless, the core of educational relationships is primarily open, rather than closed; critical education can serve to engage the dominant hegemony, rather than simply reproduce it. This ambivalence (produced by social relations that are partly a product of the state and partly of civil society) provides opportunities and spaces for resistance against dominant ideas, values, and priorities.

The voluntary nature of adult education means that there is potentially more space for radical education because of its freer status. It has a crucial role to play in weaning the working class away from their dependency on traditional intellectuals, by creating their own organic intellectuals, who are able to articulate their interests and galvanize class action as a necessary first step toward social transformation. In this perspective, the focus is on winning hearts and minds before a frontal assault on the state – or even to remove the necessity for it. Education is therefore the foundation of revolutionary activity (Holst, 2002).

The radical nature of this type of education means that it is seldom located in the formal adult education provision. In the UK, there is the important historical example of the Labour College movement which focused on educating revolutionary militants (Simon, 1992). In some respects, this development prefigured Gramsci’s analysis of the role of education in class struggle. Holst (2004) has made visible the largely unacknowledged educational role of revolutionary political organizations in the USA, and Boughton (2005) has documented the role of the Communist Party in educating generations of militants in Australia. Allman (2001) addresses the centrality of alliance building under proletarian hegemony involving different socialmovements and popular forces as a key issue in critical and progressive educational work. The struggle against apartheid in South Africa is an example of the importance of alliance building across civil society in which radical educators played a significant role (von Kotze, 2005).

However, the emergence of new social movements from the 1960s onwards challenged the focus on social class as the privileged agent of change. The growth of neo-Marxist accounts of civil society and the development of postmodernist thinking also influenced various strands of radical adult education. Localized narratives of change (Usher et al., 1997) and selective change around particular issues such as the environment (Welton, 1995), rather than generalized class struggle, have either used or dispensed with Gramsci to explain the dynamics of power in civil society and what can be done.

Toward a Global Civil Society? Roles for Adult Education

The discussion so far has considered three perspectives on adult education and civil society in the context of the nation state. It is now becoming increasingly important, however, to think in trans-national and supra-national terms. Each perspective suggests a distinctive way of thinking about the possible contributions of adult education in the context of a global civil society.

It might seem premature to talk of a global civil society, but it is important to recognize the growth of non-state actors such as trans-national social movements with a global interest (Mundy and Murphy, 2006). The spread of neo-liberal globalization, global systems of production, geo-political wars, nuclear armament, environmental degradation, and the role of powerful unelected international organizations in economic affairs have led to an increasing number of civil society groups, NGOs, and social movements contesting and challenging these trends. This globalization from below has been aided by the development of information and communication technologies which have made the coordination of action and dissemination of counter-information possible on a global scale. While the influence of these groups on policy development is debatable, they do have a highly visible international presence.

In the communitarian perspective, the focus is on developing membership among nation states at an international level to promote adult education and to develop reciprocal relations between different countries. There have been various adult education initiatives which might broadly be conceived as reflecting this perspective. The International Council of Adult Education (2007), for example, is a transnational advocacy organization which is campaigning for the right to learn and wider recognition of the role adult education can play in combating poverty, discrimination, and exclusion. In addition, United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)’s International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA) conferences target policy makers, academics, adult educators, civil society organizations, trade unions, and other interested parties to facilitate linking social capital, among other things. These events – held every 12 years – seek to promote adult education on a global scale and to embed it in various development goals and resourcing priorities of nation states and international organizations.

In the Habermasian perspective, learning in the public sphere is another arena where adult educators can make a contribution to the development of a global civil society. The World Social Forum, for example, actively contributes to what Barr (2007) calls ‘‘undiscovered public knowledge.’’ By this, she means independent sources of knowledge rooted in people’s experiences and directed at the collective social, political, and human problems they seek to address.Newman (2007) argues that a deliberative democratic process is essential formaking national politicians accountable.This process demands a sustained dialog between citizens and electors, and requires particular skills: ‘‘how to critically appraise the statements of others; how to think clearly for ourselves; how to think inventively; how to participate actively in the affairs of state; and how to participate wisely’’ (p. 10).

In the Gramscian perspective, globalization raises issues about the growth of a trans-national capitalist class, its hegemony, and how it can be opposed (Robinson, 2005). Gramsci’s own work focused on civil society in the context of nation states; therefore, we need to extrapolate and develop his concepts for the new global context. This raises questions about the type of strategy and the type of social forces necessary to create an alternative hegemony. For example, the confrontational action against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle in 1999 and against the Group of Eight (G8) in Genoa in 2001 is, in Gramsci’s terms, a ‘‘war of movement’’ (direct frontal assaults on the state) in contrast to his view about the necessity for a ‘‘war of position’’ (a systematic struggle for ideological hegemony). The latter points to the need for detailed and systematic critique of the intellectual and moral authority of international institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organisation, G8/9, and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which legitimate the hegemony of an increasingly global capitalist class.


The three perspectives on adult education and civil society, constructed in terms of learning for membership, deliberation, and activism, demonstrate competing meanings and distinctive practices. These are reflected in different adult education purposes, contexts, and constituencies. In the era of globalization, the struggle to define and controlwhat civil society means andwho it is for is increasingly likely to occur at an international level. Adult education has a distinctive contribution to make to the social and political contestation this will entail.

See also: Adult Learning, Instruction and Programme Planning: Insights from Freire; Class Analysis in Adult Education; Community Based Adult Education; Popular Adult Education; Wider Benefits of Adult Education.

J Crowther and I Martin, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK

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