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How America Works: a Primer


Humankind lives collectively. People interact with each other and form social structures in a wide range from political interest groups to football clubs. In democratic societies, this collective interaction extends to their governments. Taken as a whole, this complex web of groups and interests across a community constitutes something called "civil society'.

This series, How America Works, examines at the local, county and town, level how citizens and their groups address common problems, promote the interests of those who need help, influence their governments, and, simply put, “look after each other.” To portray these activities, we are taking an in-depth look at Montgomery County, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC. The civil society elements and attributes found in Montgomery County are found in communities across the United States. They are also found in other democratic countries.

Civil Society Elements

Here are some of the more significant elements that make up a civil society:

  • A governmental system that provides for and encourages the public to take an active role in the process of governance
    Political entities that represent the interests of the people and compete with each other in a pluralistic, participatory system
    Interest groups that advocate and promote their goals in a constructive, non-violent manner
    An understanding among the people in a community that its members have a responsibility to promote and ensure the collective good

Examples of Civil Society Elements

  • Citizens advisory groups formally attached to governmental entities and operations. These groups make input to and promote goals involving their schools, public safety, public transportation, planning and zoning, parks and recreation, and other services provided by local governments.
    Citizen groups that promote participation in the democratic process, such as those that staff and assist voting sites in elections. Included in this category are other citizen groups that exist to help ensure that the democratic process is fair and inclusive.
    Groups that represent and advocate the interests of a neighborhood or other subset of the community. One example is a neighborhood “crime watch” association that works with local police to promote safety.
    A free press that informs the public and communicates opinions found among its elements to each other, and to their governments.
    Advocacy groups that provide a voice for members of the community in need of special attention, such as those representing the poor, the handicapped, the homeless, and the hungry.
    Advocacy groups that represent distinct elements within the community, and promote the inclusion of those elements in local society. Examples include groups based on race, ethnicity, and other delineations.
    Groups of common religious interest; churches, mosques, and synagogues. These are more than houses of worship – these groups also provide social and social welfare structures that are important to the promotion and stability of the community.
    Volunteerism - citizens using their unpaid free time to contribute to the collective good of the community. Examples include volunteer firemen, hospital aides, those who assist the elderly, and involvement with school activities such as sports teams.
    Groups of social organization such as the Boy and Girl Scouts which give participants an entity to belong to as well as a code of behavior meant to encourage the development of constructive attitudes.

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