Civil society is one of the great slogans of the 1990s, linked to phenomena ranging from the decline of the Western welfare state to the transformation of the former Soviet bloc to resistance against authoritarian regimes in the developing world. This book nicely charts the spread of civil society discourse to show why it has fit so many different contexts. Its popularity, Keane argues, stems from the growing realization that a stable democracy rests not only on properly functioning elections and institutions but on the more elusive "civil" qualities in society.
Most scholars consider the state to be civil society's counterpart, and many activists have used the notion of civil society to resist oppressive regimes. But Keane neatly dissects this approach, noting that no simple relationship between the state and civil society exists. On the subject of national identity, he argues that although the rise of nationalism in early modern Europe helped foster the growth of civil society, today it is more likely to hinder it. The author concludes by asking how citizens can foster civil society through wider political action, but suggests that such a task still has a long road ahead. Although the book does not break new ground, it provides a thoughtful guide to the debate.