The Civil Society in the Shadow of the State

On the birth of Danish civil society, its emergence, development and present state: What role has civil society played in the development of the modern state and the welfare state? What role does civil society play today, and what role will it play in the future?

An interdisciplinary research project June 2014 – June 2019.

Directed by Lars Bo Kaspersen, University of Copenhagnen & Liv Egholm, Copenhagen Business School

This research project is a key part of a comprehensive research and dissemination project that aims to uncover the role of civil society (CS) – including its possible future role – in the development of the Danish welfare state, from a historical, sociological and political theoretical perspective. The research project is financed by the Carlsberg Foundation (8.97 million DKK).

The project analyses the Danish CS from historical, sociological and political perspectives, including the role  philanthropy and voluntariness have played in relation to the traditional functions of the welfare state, and to what extent CS has contributed to ensuring cohesion in society as well as the retention and development of specific democratic traditions and organisational forms.

The project will help to qualify a range of current political and research discussions about the purpose of CS and the role it will undertake in the future in light of the financial crisis of the welfare state, the growing democratic deficit, challenges from processes of individualisation and the pressure of globalisation.

The Current State of the Research

CS is often overlooked in historical works about the development of the modern state and society. It also plays a notably marginal role when the ‘larger history of Denmark’ and the development of the welfare state are written. Studies on the development of democracy, consolidation and change largely disregard the special role of CS as a supplement to liberal democracy.

When CS is the object of investigation, it is often idealised as if the Danish public mobilised itself from the ‘bottom up’, formed voluntary organisations and gave rise to modern democracy and modern Denmark. Still, there are a number of Nordic social scientists, with CS as their research area, that are interested in (1) the empirical mapping-out of voluntary organisations, their characteristics and the role they play in our society; and (2) CS’s role as a trust-building element in the creation of a citizenship that instils a high degree of social capital in Denmark and the other Nordic countries.

The basis for these studies is that CS, prior to any historical and sociological analysis, is placed between state and market. CS is seen as a sphere governed by voluntariness and philanthropy that is not subject to the state’s power or the market’s conditions, but that is based on a community of values and developed historically prior to the modern state. Consequently, today CS is considered by many to be an unrealised good, which with some changes in norms could flourish and become the agent that could save the welfare state and perhaps even global society.

Theses and problems of the project

Compared to the existing research, this project uses CS as the pivot for an analysis of the development of the Danish state and society and to clarify CS’s importance to this development. In addition, we question the presumptions and conclusions characterising the research. For example, large parts of existing CS research use a fixed definition of CS (which is often defined as a sphere outside of the state and the market) in the analysis of its development and qualities often detached from the historical and geographical context. In contrast, we see CS as a politically contested concept that changes meaning over time and has various attributed features and roles. Consequently, we analyse the development of the concept and its use in a Danish context and examine how CS assumes different shapes and changes nature over time. Its shape is a result of the changing power structures that affect the CS debate and thus have created a certain understanding of CS in the period from 1849 to 2014.

Among other things, this approach shows that CS’s position between state and market is a relatively new one. For example, CS did not exist in the political theory of the fifteenth century. Later, CS was placed next to the market, or even seen as part of it. To other thinkers, CS is seen as the mediator between state and citizen. Our approach facilitates insight into the competing definitions of the concept of CS that exist today. In this way we can expose how these understandings define certain structures for the possible roles that CS can play in tomorrow’s society. In relation to this, and also in contrast to existing research, this project is based on the following theses: (1) the state provides the conditions for CS, (2) CS can contribute to both the cohesion and the disintegration of society, (3) voluntariness and philanthropy are central phenomena but must be seen in the specific context in which they are carried out, (4) CS associations are potentially vital links of mediation and communication between the state and the public, and (5) the organisation of CS can potentially increase effectiveness and transparency in small and medium-sized businesses.

The theses constitute the framework for seven sub-projects:

1. Civil Society and associative democracy. Here the importance of CS organisations and associations for democratic learning, democratic practice and democratic culture in the period from 1820 to 2014 are analysed to discuss the possibility of a revitalisation of CS’s democratic potential in Denmark.

2. Civil Society and philanthropy. This project examines how philanthropic concepts established different logic and constellations between the state, the market and CS in the period from 1849 to 2014. It does so through an investigation of concepts from both the political and CS spheres as an expression of networks in which diverse knowledge, objectives and results are bound together and influence the contemporary understanding of CS.

3. Civil Society and voluntarism. This project will map out, using a historical case-based study as a starting point, the extent of voluntariness in Danish CS and focus on its logic and practices, to investigate how the logic behind voluntariness and the participation of volunteers is constantly challenged.

4. Danish Civil Society from a comparative perspective. The socio-historical and political-legal development of Danish civil society is compared with that of Norway and Sweden in order to determine the specific characteristics of Danish civil society.

5. Good and Bad civil society. Civil society is a contested concept and a discursive struggle over what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ civil society is constantly taking place – and raises the question of whether it is that; which supports the state, or that which criticizes it? Through different cases from the 1970's of, the project investigate which types of CS activity respectively strengthen and weaken social capital and trust, and how a strengthening of CS paradoxically can result in a weakening of social capital and thus also social cohesion.

6. Civil society and social trust/global civil society. The project on social trust will study how social trust in civil society might be a powerful tool to generate support for a particular form of governance – which might not necessarily be very democratic. The project will ask the following question: It is common to argue that a strong civil society will generate trust. How much of this trust is just a part of a hegemonic project? The global civil society project will look into the relation between national and global civil society and assess the differences and similarities. Through empirical case studies from 1990´ies till today the project will uncover how the how relation between national civil society and the global civil society has been developed and what is the consequences of that.

7. Civil society and organizational forms.  The project will study civil society and its different organizational forms. Asking questions about; Which forms of organizations have dominated the development of the Danish civil society? What role does the organizational form play for the outcome of social cohesion and social disintegration of society? What sort of organizational forms do we find today? Do we find organizational innovation in particular areas of civil society? Do we find organizations carrying new democratic practices? Are they characterized by a particular organization form? Does their success depend on their form of organization? These questions and many others can be asked in relation to civil society and organizational forms

Each of these projects will help to clarify how the relationship between the modern Danish state and CS has established and shaped the development and relevance of CS, with an emphasis on the period from the enactment of the constitution in 1849 through to 2014. This clarification will be the basis for understanding CS today and its possible future role. The directors of the research (Lars Bo Kaspersen and Liv Egholm) are responsible for compiling the sub-projects and establishing synergy between the various parts in order to sum up the analyses of the evolution and changes in Danish CS as well as its present state (1–2 volumes).