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Reassessing Civil Society, the State, and Social Capital: Theory, Evidence, Policy

Organized by the
University of Bergen, Centre for Development Studies
Ullensvang Fjordhotell, Lofthus, Hardanger, Norway
May 11, 12 & 13, 2006


The Centre for Development Studies and the Department of Comparative Politics at the University of Bergen, Norway, announce an international conference, Reassessing Civil Society, the State, and Social Capital: Theory, Evidence and Policy. The conference will be held at Lofthus, Hardangerfjord, over May 11, 12 & 13, 2006. Researchers, policy analysts and policy makers involved in these fields are invited to contribute original papers. Please note the instructions to participants given below.

Tentative Conference Programme

Please check the Conference's official web site for updates on the Conference Programme.

Aims of the conference

Over the last two decades, civil society and social capital have been at the centre of both a burgeoning debate and a rapidly growing volume of research. The conference is intended to explore some critical issues and dimensions that have so far received relatively little attention in the published literature. At the heart of the conference agenda are the multiple normative theories and empirical models of civil society that have been described by scholars.
While the social actors identified as central to “civil society” have a considerable overlap, lending the term a sense of universality, models of civil society have varied extensively across historical, institutional and political contexts. They range, for example, from the “liberation theology” of Latin America in the 1970s to the “resistance against the state” of Eastern Europe or South Asia since the 1980s, or Robert Putnam’s model of benign, trusting citizens in Italy and the USA over the 1990s. A central question is how researchers have approached this plurality through social capital or other empirical approaches. For instance, does a commonly used method for social capital research, with its emphasis on formal associations and horizontal ties as pathways to cooperative trust, privilege a particular model of civil society? How does such an approach fare in societies where associational activity exists predominantly within informal networks and groups, such as in the countries of Asia or Africa?
The conference agenda lays particular stress on the role of vertical ties and networks. Vertical ties include links between citizens’ groups and the state; or across hierarchies of associations, such as at national, provincial and local levels; or between elites and other groups in a society. In some, notably Anglo-Saxon conceptualisations of social capital, the state is absent or plays a passive role, such as by facilitating and legitimising networks and social structures conducive to the growth of civil society, as guarantor of the equal entitlements and rights of all citizens, or by influencing the general predisposition of citizens towards the collective. Other versions describe a more active role for the state, through devolved and robust local governments that support high degrees of democratic participation or build linkages between associations and groups across social and political divides.
Analysts of civil society lack a broad taxonomy of associational forms in relation to their effects on citizen participation, trust building, and social exclusion. A central question is the external effects produced by different kinds of associations and ties – formal or informal, voluntary or ascriptive, vertical or horizontal, “thin” or “thick”, or other types along a continuum bounded by such distinctions. While research in this area is at a preliminary stage, the conference is intended to develop better comparative analysis of the features and characteristics of associations across social and political contexts, as well as to identify future research initiatives towards these goals.

A related issue, though one that is often omitted in most analytical frameworks, is the distribution of social capital. Many scholars have begun to acknowledge that which group possesses more social capital than others in particular contexts is a more critical matter for civil society than simply assessing the average level of social capital. What do widening asymmetries in social assets – such as access to private networks or multiple memberships in influential associations – imply for civil society, trust and democracy in both the Western societies and developing countries where this has been the trend?
Finally, the conference will devote a full session to a consideration of how these concerns affect policy making in countries of the North and South. Given the diversity of both normative theories and empirical frameworks, how have policy makers chosen among them? Are their choices based on sensitivity to social and institutional context, to the influence and charisma of specific theorists, or to some other factors? How can systematic feedback be fostered between the worlds of policy and research? We hope to have panel discussions on some key themes and topics within this session.

Calls for papers and instructions for participants

Contributors are required to submit abstracts of around 500 words summarizing the main points and conclusions of their paper. Abstracts should be submitted as an email attachment in Arial 11 pt., single-spaced format, using MS Word or a compatible application. The author’s full name, institutional affiliation and contact details, as well as the title of the paper, should appear at the top of each page. Authors may also mention whether their contribution is intended primarily for the theoretical or policy-oriented sessions of the conference. Around 30 minutes will be provided for each presentation at the conference.

Paper submission

Contributors should submit their abstracts to both organisers at the email addresses given below no later than April 26, 2006. Abstracts from prospective contributors (those other than invited participants) are subject to review, which will be communicated within two working days of receipt. The conference supports full board and lodging costs for all contributors over May 11-14. In addition, a limited amount of support for travel is available for participants based in the South.

Instructions for participants

Participants should plan to arrive in Bergen preferably by 2:30 pm on Thursday, May 11. Transport will be arranged to take them from Bergen City Centre and Bergen Flesland Airport direct to the conference venue. Participants who arrive later than 2:30 pm but before 6 pm will be provided alternate transport arrangements, but will miss the conference inauguration on May 11 evening.
The conference concludes with a dinner on Saturday, May 13. Participants should make departure arrangements from Bergen preferably no earlier than 12 noon on Sunday, May 14. Those participants who plan to arrive after 2:30 pm on May 11, or leave before May 14, should inform the organisers in advance (please note that the travel time between Bergen and Lofthus is approximately 3 hours).

Further information

For further details, please visit www.uib.no/sfu or contact the conference organisers:

Sanjeev Prakash
Senior Researcher
Email: [email protected]
University of Bergen
Centre for Development Studies
NO-5020 Bergen

Per Selle
Department of Comparative Politics
Email: [email protected]
NO-5015 Bergen
University of Bergen



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