“Mankind have always wandered or settled, agreed or quarrelled, in troops and companies. The cause of their assembling, whatever it be, is the principle of their alliance or union.” Adam Ferguson’s Essay on the History of Civil Society, 1767.
Since the Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson coined the term ‘civil society’ in a seminal eighteenth century essay on the subject, much has changed and more has stayed the same.
Humans are still, as he outlined, a collective species. “Sadness and melancholy are connected with solitude; gladness and pleasure with the concourse of men (sic). The track of a Laplander on the snowy shore, gives joy to the lonely mariner”.
How we organise ourselves is about more than markets and governments. Adding up profits and listing laws can help us scribble a rough sketch of contemporary society. But if we wish to truly understand modern life, how it’s changing, and how we can change it, we have to understand more than that. After all, as well as being workers and bosses, pupils, pensioners and prisoners, governments and governed, we are humans. We look out for each other and look after each other. We entertain each other and bully each other. Just as we did in the 1760s, humans in the 2010s arrange ourselves in a plethora of structures and hierarchies, groups and teams; collectives and charities; forums and faiths.
That we organise ourselves isn’t new. But how we organise ourselves has changed enormously. Technology reshapes how we arrange our communities. Social movements have revolutionised our relationships, attitudes and laws. New ideas have changed how we think and behave and all the while, we change the planet around us.
And so we at openDemocracy are delighted to be part of the collection of excellent people and organisations delivering this vital inquiry. A key part of what we’ll be doing is hosting this online hub. On here, expect to find provocative articles, asking difficult questions and, sometimes, saying things that you profoundly disagree with. Rest assured that these are not necessarily the views of any particular members of the Inquiry. They are simply the views of whoever has written them, at the moment that they wrote them. If you want to write a response then please do – drop me an email at [email protected] I’d be delighted to hear from you.
Likewise, if you profoundly agree with something, don’t jump to the conclusion that this is a conclusion of the Inquiry. Again, this is a space for a wide-ranging discussion about English civil society. The views expressed here belong only to those expressing them.
We don’t ask you to agree with everything said here, but we do ask that you engage with it respectfully. There will be space for comments below articles, and please do use them. But please remember, even if you think that someone has got it totally wrong, take a moment to calm down, and make sure that you respond in an open and kind way.
For the next two years, Civil Society Futures will interrogate how that portion of human organisation which reaches beyond the market and the state is changing, and how it needs to change. Ranging from vast charities and NGOs to small community associations and informal groups, civil society is a vast category to look at. And so we’ll need your help: Answer the questions in the space provided to contribute your opinions. If you have more to say, email us on [email protected] to discuss writing an article. Send us your thoughts on social media. Come to one – or more – of our events, or even host one of your own.
Whether you are a life-long professional in what some call the third sector or someone who goes to a local meeting on the first Wednesday of the month to make your community better in some way, it’s your experience we want to understand, so please, get involved.