3rd Book: The Culture of Democracy: A Sociological Approach to Civil Society

The Culture of Democracy: A Sociological Approach to Civil Society

Under Contract with Polity Press

Is “civil society” merely “chicken soup for the social scientific soul”—a normatively heartening idea but an analytically useless concept?

In The Culture of Democracy: A Sociological Approach to Civil Society, I show that the normative ideas intrinsic to the concept “civil society” are not an intellectual liability but the “soul” of an effective empirical analysis of some of the most important problems of our time.

“Civil society” consists of three empirically distinctive realms outside of and in between—but connected to—the state, the market, and the private sphere: the public sphere of discourses, the associations citizens organize and join, and the civic actions citizens take. Central to the three realms, however, is moral-political values, interaction norms, patterns of narratives, and symbolic practices, which inform and motivate associations and citizens to improve their societies and to press for wider changes through their concerted actions. Without paying attention to the cultural forms, a sociological inquiry of civil society is incomplete and inaccurate.

The pivot of various cultures of civil society is the “culture of democracy,” a set of cultural values of inclusiveness, tolerance, equality, and freedom. The culture of democracy is behind the modern revival and diffusion of the concept of “civil society” in the past four decades, and in most civil societies around the world, people still adhere to it in their civic actions. In this culture of democracy, civil society is regarded as the social foundation of democracy, carrying the hope to liberate citizens from oppressive states, to balance and counter the immense power of market economy, and to provide a space for citizens to participate in public affairs.

Nevertheless, the culture of democracy has never automatically been materialized in civic practices and institutions. Despite its contagious popularity, the culture of democracy inevitably encounters messy realities. Around the globe, many people attempt to enact and realize the culture of democracy in civic actions, but others may also endeavor to improve their societies according to their own imaginations of “good societies,” which may be different from and even opposite to the culture of democracy. As such, the culture of democracy may be in constant tension with the actors’ other cultural understandings and practical concerns. Its universal claims may overshadow disparities in wealth and power, and its civility may facilitate uncivil forces. It could be enabled as much as restricted by communicative and regulative institutions in various political contexts.

The cultural sociology of civil society captures this complexity. It neither sets civil society as a utopian goal nor dismisses it as a normative burden. Rather, it empirically examines how cultures—including the culture of democracy and its variations, alternatives, and challengers—link to organizations, institutions, and individuals in various civil societies around the globe. Therefore, the cultural sociology of civil society can provide empirically solid ground for public debates over pressing issues in today’s world: How to facilitate civil, free, and democratic communication across political divides? What are the social conditions for democracy? Is the public good threatened by “corrosive individualism” or does it benefit from individual freedom to take actions on public issues? Can norms in global civil society take roots in local societies? Do citizens under authoritarianism understand their civic engagement in the same way as citizens under democracy do? Why are right-wing populism and even extremism today rising in open, democratic civil societies?

The Culture of Democracy: A Sociological Approach to Civil Society, an up-to-date, comprehensive introduction to the cultural sociology of civil society, for the first time, pulls together various strands of the booming scholarship into a single volume. It guides readers through an intellectual journey to see cultures in the three realms of civil society—public sphere, associational life, and individual civic actions—and then to explore culture in global civil societies and civil society’s “others.” First, it describes how people use various cultural codes in their communication in the public sphere (Chapter 1). Then, it leads readers to real-world associational life and shows that the actual norms, styles, and ideas expressed in civic engagement might dramatically differ from the cultural codes in public discourse and civil society theories (Chapter 2). The book goes down a further analytical level to the subjective world of civil society actors and examines how individuals understand the meanings and purposes of their civic engagement (Chapter 3). Then, it brings readers back to the most macro level to explore what challenges the culture of democracy has to deal with when expanded to the “global civil societies” (Chapter 4). The book ends with an analysis of how the idea and infrastructure of civil society encounter and even ironically help and produce its enemies, particularly authoritarianism and right-wing populism (Chapter 5).

The Culture of Democracy takes a global perspective, presenting cases from not only Europe and North America but also Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, as well as global and transnational civil society. The book addresses long-term, theoretical topics, such as civility in communications across political divides, through a close and timely examination of some concrete issues and arresting cases in many civil societies around the globe, such as anti-Muslim discourse after 9/11 (Bail 2015), the media presentations of the Los Angeles riot in 1992 (Jacobs 1996), the 2016 American presidential election, the public spheres in young democracies like Taiwan (Lo and Fan 2010), the public sphere in China before and after the Tiananmen incident (Calhoun 1994), the “small publics” for dissidents under authoritarian Eastern European regimes (Goldfarb 2006), the Arab Spring, the rise of right-wing populism, the global activism on climate change, and the ongoing protest in Hong Kong. Compared to other books on civil society, this book devotes more discussion to civil societies in the global South and under undemocratic regimes.

Written in an accessible style, The Culture of Democracy will be an invaluable resource for upper-level undergraduates, graduate students, and established research scholars alike of cultural sociology, political sociology, social theory, and political science. Its global perspective can also interest readers based in various parts of the world.

Outline of Chapters

Introduction: Civil Society and the Culture of Democracy

Chapter 1: Values, Codes, and Discourses in the Public Sphere

Chapter 2: Civility in Associational Life

Chapter 3: Meanings of Individuals’ Civic Engagement

Chapter 4: Global Civil Societies

Chapter 5: The Culture of Democracy and Its Enemies: Authoritarianism and Right-Wing Populism



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