Civil society is the arena outside of the family, the state, and the market where people associate to advance common interests. It is sometimes considered to include the family and the private sphere and then referred to as the "third sector" of society, distinct from government and business. Dictionary.com's 21st Century Lexicon defines civil society as 1) the aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens or 2) individuals and organizations in a society which are independent of the government. Sometimes the term is used in the more general sense of "the elements such as freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, etc, that make up a democratic society" (Collins English Dictionary).
The term entered public discourse in the United States in the 1990s. However its tradition is much richer and longstanding.
Volunteering is often considered a defining characteristic of the organizations that constitute civil society, which in turn are often called NGOs, or NPOs. Most authorities have in mind the realm of public participation in voluntary associations, trade unions and the like, but it is not necessary to be belong to all of these to be a part of civil society.
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“The essence of the modern state is that the universal be bound up with the complete freedom of its particular members and with private well-being, that thus the interests of family and civil society must concentrate themselves on the state.... It is only when both these moments subsist in their strength that the state can be regarded as articulated and genuinely organized.”
—Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831)