Civil society is one of the most dynamically expanding sectors in the Asia-Pacific region. By definition, it is the part of the public sphere that broadly refers to non-state institutions and associations that are critical to sustaining modern democratic participation. Civil society needs to be re-conceptualized from its Eurocentric origins, where the idea refers to a particular set of relationships between the state and individuals in the West. Most of the existing scholarship on civil society has been narrowly circumscribed by modern Western modes of liberal individualism. Civil society organizations have become agents of globalization that spread Western values, ideologies, and practices.
We know that each society molds its own version of civil society, reflecting social relationships arising out of specific experiences. These may extol a range of values, which may include individual liberty, public solidarity, pluralism, and non-violence, all of which can sustain a vibrant civic culture. However, as in the West, civil society in Asia may also include social interests that are highly politically exclusionary and il-liberal. To capture this dynamic nature, the academic disciplines need to come together to analyze civil society and its internal dynamics in the context of different cultures and histories. Doing so should produce a more holistic understanding of Asian civil society.
Civil society scholarship in Asia requires deeper analysis and benefits from adopting collaborative and constructive approaches. The Asian Civil Society Research Network creates momentum in this line of civil society inquiry.
Akihiro Ogawa, Ph.D.
Chair, Asian Civil Society Research Network
Professor, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne, Australia