International Encyclopedia of Civil Society

Living Edition
| Editors: Regina A. List, Helmut K. Anheier, Stefan Toepler

Civic Agency

  • Alan FowlerEmail author
  • Kees Biekart
Living reference work entry


Civic agency is a human predisposition toward, and a capability for, leading life together with others in a society with concern for the whole. Agency which is considered civic incorporates a basic principle of a fair, tolerant society.

Civic agency connects political theory with purposeful sociopolitical action by persons who enjoy a minimal condition of meaningful citizenship, i.e., there is at least respect for the “right to have rights” (Dagnino 2005: 5). Environments with a minimum respect for the right of all to have their say and be socially engaged are a precondition for civic agency. Where this precondition is not fulfilled, notions of a public realm and civic agency remain a theoretical potential but cannot operate in a practical sense.

It is common practice to associate civic agency with noncommercial purposes that characterize philanthropy, voluntarism, and equivalent pro-social behaviors.


In a most basic meaning, “civic agency” can be understood as a (collective) effort by citizens to pursue change in society. An essential difference between “civic agency” and “civic engagement” is that the first emphasizes the capacity to pursue change, whereas the latter actually points at a change process itself. Civic engagement is a more appropriate term when referring to online and virtual civic agency initiatives (Pathak-Shelat and Vinod Bhatia 2019).

The notion of “civic agency” enjoins two concepts with lineages stemming, respectively, from ancient Mediterranean politics of governing an (urbanizing) community and from modern sociology. Their coupled history is associated with the emergence in the seventeenth century of nation-states and their subsequent conflicted (internal) consolidation and colonial imposition as sovereign geopolitical units on the world stage. The subsequent advent and content of citizenship as a distinctive feature of a polity is problematic. Difficulties in definition and interpretation stem largely from modernization of societies driven by the private accumulation of capital and (collectivized) reactions to it at different times and places. These processes emerge as systemic “political projects” that contend for recognition and supremacy in terms of beliefs about what society should be and what is at stake for whom in attaining this future condition (Dagnino 2008: 27).

Contemporary understandings of citizenship place civic agency as a value-based mode of sociopolitical expression which is increasingly allied to rights-based perspectives on the relationship between polity and state. Today, civic agency is located within normative debates about a desired form and quality of governance, with democratization as a pivotal feature of discussion. One consequence is that civic agency cannot be properly understood outside of contested meanings. Nor can it ignore different scales of the historical geographies in which meanings play out. In other words, ascription of civic agency is mediated by power over signification or labelling (Moncrieffe and Eyben 2007).

These observations signal that the definition provided and a comprehension of civic agency are not straightforward. An iterative approach to explanation involves a sequential discussion of “agency” and “civic” providing the grounding for examining their linkage.


In a comprehensive treatment of the topic, Emirbayer and Mische (1998: 963) argue that agency has not been adequately addressed as an analytic category in its own right. This shortcoming is attributed to theorists’ preoccupation to demonstrate and explain the interpenetration of structure and agency. Their analysis posits temporal reflective process through which people gain and apply a responsive capacity to (problematic) situations as they arise (ibid: 970).

In this view, agency is an interplay between (1) past routine, experience, and learning, energized by (2) images of a desired future situation, which is then (3) situationally judged for achievability and risk, from which action may or may not be taken. In this reflexive sense, inaction is also an action. Results of (in)action feed into capabilities and future decision processes leading to a constantly self-developing and updated condition of capability, appraisal, and decision choice. At a given moment, any one of the three elements determining agency dominates, but all are present in agentic processes.

Thus, as one category in a total repertoire of human behavior, agency is co-defined by personal or group action toward the stabilizing, enabling, and constraining forces of social norms and values embedded in institutions (Walker and Ostrom 2007). Agency can thus be interpreted as an investment in a future that people care about. It is precisely the nature, breadth, and depth of caring that “civicness” is concerned about.

The reflexive experience of agency is an important factor co-determining what is perceived (not) to be in one’s interest. More critically, agency is a mechanism through which meanings are communicated, preferences are expressed, and correspondence or divergence with others is found. The latter are typically labelled in a normative way, for example, as friendly, antagonistic, or irrelevant or indeterminate. Human agency is “projected” toward a preferred imagined future to be realized through practical action.

One critique of this analytic lens is that there is inadequate attention to layering of scales of agency and their evolution in terms of human processes of becoming, learning, and associating. Agency of early childhood is, initially, more conditioned by affinities of family, community, and physical proximity. Wider sources of influence are filtered and transmitted through these intermediaries until self-awareness and self-reflection gain an upper hand. The range or circle of a persons’ agency expands over time toward identification of self in a structural context. This evolution produces values and attitudes toward others as well as identification of affinities, such as citizenship, and of life experience, for example, a shared livelihood, role, or profession.

In this sense, formative worldviews generated by early socialization are insufficiently delineated as axiomatic self-referents influencing agency in later life. For purposes here, it is sufficient to note that temporal trajectories are intergenerational. Moreover, human values are malleable. Consequently, identities associated with intergenerational processes and the forces that give meaning to life experiences are critical for addressing a normative approach to agency. The concepts of civic, civicness, civility, and citizenship introduce such a normative directionality.


In Heater’s account (2004), the earliest references to “civic” are allied to the concept of citizenship associated with a sociopolitical status accorded within Spartan communities and the governance of Athens as a city-state. Citizens were recognized as political beings with rights to wield the power required to protect and “justly” oversee and govern the affairs of rural communities and of urban city-states. There was stringent attention to citizens properly discharging their mutual duties which called for particular “civil” behavior in terms of constrained self-interest for the overall good. That which emerged as “civic” – a normative property of citizenship – included responsibility for the proper servicing and management of public areas and of investments and resources derived from the functioning of the whole populace.

History shows citizenship transforming from exclusive power with normative prescriptions of virtue and probity toward a legal status for those ruled under the Roman Empire. In return for state protection, a citizen’s required behavior was loyalty, allegiance, and obedience toward Rome and its edicts. Citizenship thus evolved into a judicial status allocated by the state as a single political authority. These ancient principles underpinning citizenship continue to resonate in contemporary perspectives on civic agency within the context of statehood.

The works of T. H. Marshall (1950, 1964) draw on a history of Britain, to argue for a historical sequence in the content of citizenship, beginning with attaining rights associated with individual liberties of speech, thought, faith, and equality before the law. Thereafter arose a political element expressed in the franchise to both define (as an elected member) and take part (as a voter) in the political system. This perspective hinges on a self-realization of a civic identity within complex mosaics or layers of identity, meaning, attitudes, and driving energies toward social issues and choices of preferred futures. The latter interpretation is more attuned to the concept of agency as previously described.

Civic Agency

Agency is the decision process and capability to pursue individual or collective action, that is, practical human action to bring about a desired future society. Associated with citizenship, civicness introduces normative behaviors for applying agency as a right and a duty. A first condition is that agentic action is directed at change which consciously takes into account concerns of the whole rather than of a narrow self. Second, an imperative for moral virtues would rely on the self-willed responsibility of people to act in ways that are civil. A loyalty imperative would treat civility as compliance and conformity – behaving as a state requires and expects. In either case, what would civility entail?

One line of argument links civility to political culture: that is, citizens’ perceptions of political engagement, legitimacy, and traditions. Here, a positive interplay is conceived between a “natural” emergence and dominance of civic values leading to democratic forms of governance, a form of politics which is posited as more cost-effective for society than (authoritarian) coercion (Almond and Verba 1963).

More recent arguments concentrate on the content of civicness itself, through the lens of civility. For Anheier (2007: 46), three elements constitute this condition. The first element, dignity, is implicit to equality in human interaction and a basic principle of human rights. Stemming from recognition of common humanity, the second element calls for a worldview and relational stance that is inclusive and tolerant of difference. The third element embodies a “social duty of assistance” that is argued to be intrinsic to human nature (Burchell et al. 1991: 23). It also defines a prescriptive rule for agency as “projection into the future.” Akin to the second element, in psychological terms it equates to adequate “projection of self” into the life world of others, leading to willing self-restraint. Incivility would exhibit the opposite characteristics: behaviors are disrespectful, exclude, and denigrate “the other” and pursue selfish exploitation.

However, these perspectives obscure theoretical biases and political contentions about language and social futures that are themselves embedded in a global hegemonic discourse. A concluding critical framing of civic agency is therefore still required.

Key Issues and International Perspectives

Academic debates impacting on civic agency have revolved around two issues, both with international dimensions. One is the problem of theoretical disjuncture and dislocation of civic agency, a process allied to the elision of language and meaning in ways that systemically distort citizenship discourse. Second are critical reviews of the link between civic agency and the politics of democracy and (re or de) democratization. This latter debate is being updated by contending discourses on the messy role of social media in fostering both civic and uncivic agency. Examples are seen in facilitating mass protests to combat climate change, the growth of e-platforms against sexual harassment which are living alongside an e-fostering of extreme right antiestablishment populism, allied to anti-immigrant agitation and false news associated with charges of foreign Internet-enabled meddling in the elections of other countries. The political terrain of (un)civic agency is increasingly complicated and contested.

Dislocating Civic Agency

By “locating” civic agency as a distinctive attribute of (a) civil society, much enquiry in the field exhibits a logical inconsistency. This location is often understood as a Habermasian public space for communication, information, debate, and exchange bounded by state, market, and family. However, as sociopolitical categories, citizenship and civic agency are not amenable to framing in terms of location within a particular institutional “sector” or “space.” Sectoral differentiation within a society distorts the essence of what citizenship and civicness are about. It does so in ways that recast their ontology toward a particular political project associated with liberal capitalism. Disembodied from the enduring rights and duties of citizenship and fixated on civil society organizations, placing civic agency within one institutional category introduces a potentially narrowed and apolitical separation from roots of politics and rights.

Aside from a Western bias and common lack of attention to asymmetries in power, one reason for questioning a sectoral analysis is the potential to understate or ignore the degree of market and state penetration into the Third Sector – as civil society is also (mis)labelled. An increasing infiltration of market principles and state oversight of civil society is influencing “civic” in terms of its self-understanding and its projects. Though highly variable across the world, the resource base and functions of civil society – as a (nonprofit) sector – are heavily influenced by commodification and reliant on surpluses derived from market transactions directly or via redistribution through taxation. And, increasingly, access to tax finance is premised on the provision of services where citizens as claimants become needy beneficiaries and the victims of poverty requiring charity. Citizenship is recast from a legitimate claiming of rights toward integration in society as compliant consumer or producer of public goods.

Furthermore, it is precisely the fact that agency is within “everyone, everywhere,” so to speak, that applying “civic” norms to business can lead to the notion of ethical markets and corporate citizenship (Zadek 2001). It can produce unlikely champions of “civilized” capitalism such as George Soros. Similarly, civic norms often underpin reforms of public management such that agency of government employees is really “civil” by volition and commitment, as opposed to deploying a “govern-mentality” toward citizens and change. And, as feminist analysis strongly shows, family and patriarchy are also systems and sources of (un)civil behavior that can affect the whole today as well as carry into the future by shaping the experiential worldviews, imaginations, civility, and agency of subsequent generations.

A challenge, therefore, is not to permit a discourse on civic agency which allows responsibility for the whole to be passed off, sectoralized, or located into a civic arena such that the rest of a society’s institutions at any sociopolitical level are able to go about uncivic business as usual.

What then of civic agency and civil society? Does an allocational error mean that civil society is simply on a par with other locations within society in terms of civic agency? One view is that (transnational) civil society actors have a greater potential and necessary obligation to deploy their “preemptive” civility in service of conflict prevention and resolution (Ezzat & Kaldor, cited in Anheier 2007: 48). The mechanism involved is one of fostering mutual respect and providing pathways for communication and dialogue. This aptitude was “naturally selected” because it helped reduce transaction costs and attenuate instabilities arising from conflicts of interest as capitalism evolved.

A different, contemporary analysis spans a wider geography. In this view, civil society continues to generate and harbor factional identities and their public actions. Contestation between faiths is but one example. With enhanced communication and network effects associated with social media, civil society actors are more ready and capable for disruptive assertion as much around fine-grained local issues and disputes as around incidents commanding international attention. Positive cases of civil society promoting civicness are notable but over-cited because they are relatively rare and gain media hype. They cannot gather the power to successfully tackle deep structural dysfunctions of international governance and markets. Moreover, reflecting Anheier’s contemporary concern and as a historical trait or not, civility within civil society is being undermined by identity politics, insidious marketing, branded memberships, alienation, and unbounded inequality. These processes are allied to political manipulations that stress differences over commonalities, feeding anxieties that reinforce a state’s right to shrink civic space and citizen’s freedoms.

In sum, there are contradictory interpretations that do not allow an uncontested conclusion about the “civilizing” potential for civil society on society as a whole.

Civic Agency and Democratization as a Political Project

Accompanying the issue of understanding or defining civic agency from a sector perspective is a critical area of politics with local to global dimensions. This terrain can be seen in terms of a polity defining a state projected toward an imagined better society. Civic agency presumes and requires the right of all citizens to influence the commanding image and ways of getting there. However, it need not and does not necessarily follow that this can only to be achieved via a party-based, electoral-process mandating representative. Indeed, there is accumulating evidence – such as decline in voting and growing mistrust in politicians – to suggest that relying on this method may have reached its historical limits (Marquand 2004). An analysis stemming from, but not limited to, the United States identifies factors that conspire to work against civic agency as a force in politics:

We live in a hyper-regulated world that constrains agency on every side, a world of hidden manipulations, standardized programs, mass mobilizations, and bureaucratic interventions. In a memorable turn of phrase, the South African writer Xolela Mangcu has termed the invisible virus spreading through modern societies that erodes agency “technocratic creep.” (Boyte 2017: 187)

It is argued that solutions are not to be found by improving mass mobilization through political parties (Michels et al. 1999). These processes are oft-proven to be sites of manipulation and control by elites over future image and shared identity. Nor is it likely to be found by enhancing “participation.” Too seldom are the associated rules of the game and the nature of participants subject to unconditioned co-definition and symmetry in power over outcomes. An alternative future perspective is called for.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of WitswatersrandJohannesburgSouth Africa
  2. 2.International Institute of Social StudiesThe HagueNetherlands

Section editors and affiliations

  • Regina A. List
    • 1
  1. 1.HamburgGermany