Panel 6

Panel 6 - Open


Kees Biekart ( Institute of Social Studies 

Tiina Kontinen ( Univesity of Jyvväskylä  

Marianne Millstein ( Oslo Metropolitan University 

Julia Schöneberg, University of Kassel

Title & Content:

Exploring the potential of the Civic Space concept

In recent debates on civil society and development ‘civic space’ has entered the vocabulary of donors, development NGOs as well as activist groups. ‘Civic space’ is often used interchangeably with the notion of civil society itself, or as a particular space defined by the extent to which state protects its citizens’ rights to associate, assemble peacefully and freely express views and opinions. Therefore, civic space is discussed in relation to the (authoritarian) states and the market that defines civil society organisations' room for manoeuvre to mobilise and organize, as well as to critically engage with or resist state policies and interventions. This makes the term useful for a variety of actors and interests and the concept more tangible; one that can be identified and measured, reflected for instance in the debates concerning shrinking civic space across the globe. However, the current use of the notion of civic space might also set aside its various meanings, and leave unexplored the more complex theoretical and empirical dynamics between civic space and citizenship agency, civil society, and the politics of democratic development. The notion of civic space (along with that of civil society) also suffers from being anchored in political theories, experiences and vocabularies of the global north.

Thus, the term needs more nuanced elaboration, and academic scrutiny in relation to the more elusive idea of civil society and to various notions of development. The working group aims to take a critical look at civic space as a new idea and an increasingly popular concept. It asks in what ways civic space is related to, embedded in or different from (more traditional) theorizing of civil society, or from spaces of citizen participation and political engagement. Further, we seek to unpack the multiple meanings and perspectives among actors active in geographically, politically and institutionally different spaces, and reflect on methodologies for the emerging research agenda of civic space and (inclusive) development. This exploratory working group coordinated by the EADI working group for Citizenship and Civil Society in Development invites papers that explicitly engage with the idea and conceptualization of civic space.

We also welcome papers that focus on specific case studies related to civic space, be it from a donor perspective, activists’ engagements, or from a more critical academic vantage point.