Incivility is not only a moral or political challenge but also something that should make the third sector research community think about the appropriateness of some of its widely used basic concepts. This paper sketches three different types of attitudes in the third sector that are a threat to civil society, each of them pointing to challenges for third sector research. Altogether, this leads to a fourth and final point, where it is argued that the world of associations (the third sector) and civil society are different subjects. Civicness and civility should be seen as qualities of society at large. And it is questionable to assume that association building has a kind of natural and privileged link with the making of active citizens and the building of civil society.
Civil society is often used as a point of reference in public and welfare policies. However, there are various notions of civil society. The most popular concept broadly equates it with the ‘third sector’. A second concept sees the key to a more civil society mainly in the public domain with its ability for intermediation. Finally, there is a third notion, arguing that a more civil society takes shape through a struggle to strengthen civility and civicness throughout society. This article outlines these three approaches and their respective strengths and weaknesses. With an eye on public policies and welfare reform, it is argued that the first approach tends to limit questions about civil society to issues of strengthening third sector-based service provision. Such a focus, however, marginalises the potential offered by the other two approaches for analysing gains and losses in civility and civicness across society at large.