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In this article we discuss findings from our ethnography investigating how volunteering in local associational life is changing, asking whether structural factors fixed in localities remain important or whether, as others have suggested, volunteering is becoming disembedded from place. Across two locations, we observe how situational variables, including belonging, identification and interaction, remain important determinants of volunteering, and how the relationship between people and their localities has distinct meanings. In one locality, people participated as volunteers because they had a strong sense of belonging; in the other, they often volunteered because they wanted to belong. We find that local voluntary association is important in forming bridges between people in ‘places’ and wider society, but that differing notions of belonging mean that localities are not equally situated to operate as effective conduits. We conclude that understanding these dynamics is important for outside agencies in delivering support and public services.

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The aim of this chapter is to explain how we are using the concept of civil society in this book and how this informs our approach to researching civil society in two local settings. This entails setting out a sociological approach to the concept, one which is amenable to the qualitative and ethnographic investigations undertaken in the study. In what follows, we provide a discussion of the meaning of civil society and the importance of the ‘local’ in its formation and dynamics. By the end of the chapter, the case will have been made for studying civil society as a local, action-orientated, phenomenon, and understanding it as a dynamic interaction process which unfolds over time.

Civil society is a complex concept, as witnessed by competing definitions, changing historical scope and disputes about its analytical value. It has both descriptive and normative connotations in equal measure. As we explain further on, civil society has been deployed to describe certain types of action and a kind of social space, as well as an ‘ideal’ towards which we can progress and which provides an evaluative standard against which forms of social life can be judged. This positions civil society close to the idea of ‘community’ which also has this moral dimension through its association with ideas of ‘communion’ and solidarity. Inevitably, this leads to debate and disagreement around what constitutes the ‘good’ or ‘civil’ society – making civil society an essentially contested concept.

The starting point for many definitions of civil society is to say that it refers to a space which lies between individuals, families and the state.

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This chapter proposes the view that local civil society be examined and understood with reference to community and local studies carried out over the long term. To do this it draws on studies carried out in a wide range of geographical settings, leaving our next chapter (Chapter 3) to focus on both Wales and small village settings. In the previous chapter we described how ideas of community and civil society are often thought to occupy the same social space, both lying as they do between the individual, family and the state. They are also ideas which combine, and are often seen to confuse, the empirical state of affairs with the normative ideal yet to be achieved. In the analysis of place and locality, however, there has been a clear shift among sociologists and geographers away from community as a framework for research practice, especially in urban and big-city contexts. Specific charges against community studies include the tendency to produce homogenous accounts of place, and by romanticising local community life, to ignore or underplay exclusion, and indeed, incivility (Cohen 1997). In response, a cosmopolitan re-orienting of place and locality is advocated, based on research imaginations capable of attending to diversity and the interplay between local and global levels (Back 2009). The implication of the cosmopolitan method is not only that a shift away from community, and traditional approaches, is necessary for capturing the progressive elements of local social life, but also that ‘bounded’ communities are not generative of civil society. Examples of such approaches for linking local and global within place-based studies include Massey’s ‘progressive sense of place’ (1991) and ‘throwntogetherness’ (2005: 140), and Savage et al’s (2005) theory of ‘elective belonging’.

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The evidence in this book comes from the study of two villages in North East Wales. The choice of ‘village’ as a focus for a study of local civil society occurs at a time when many observe how modern life is increasingly mobile and subject to change. In such a context it might be argued that the traditional view of ‘the village’ as a close-knit community with deeply rooted bonds has become less interesting, as people within them have decreasing ties and commitment to place. As such it may seem that villages have little to tell us about wider developments in society and civil society in particular. Unsurprisingly, we take the opposing view that villages provide a unit of study that remains relevant in reflecting upon how the structures and practices of local civil society have changed, and are changing. Interest in villages and village life is a well-established theme among rural sociologists, anthropologists and social geographers. Their work has produced numerous individual case studies of village structure and social relations (for instance Williams 1956; Littlejohn 1963; Blythe 1969) often referred to as ‘community studies’. While these have been idiosyncratic both in approach and analysis, efforts have been made in theoretical reviews to bring them together, draw out their lessons and reach some general conclusions (Frankenberg 1969; Bell and Newby 1971; Harper 1989). Others have sought to produce classifications of different types of villages and their social natures and implications (Pahl 1968; Newby 1980; Harper 1989; Murdoch and Marsden 1994).

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This chapter examines the long-term emotional connections between individual biography and place identity, and their importance for the building and sustaining of local civil society structures over time. To do this we provide a biographical analysis of two individual cases – Ifor (79 at the time of the interview) from Rhos, and Linda (68 at the time of the interview) from Overton, both of whom present us with narrative accounts of their involvement in the production of local newspapers. Through this biographical analysis, we identify the narrative patterns of nostalgia, understood as the ‘concern with something which is about to disappear’ (Adam 1990: 141), that underpin the organisational structures and actions of local civil societies in both Overton and Rhos. Elements of nostalgia in the biographical narratives point us towards the organisational structures of local civil society, internal power structures, and access to the shared resources that directly, but often informally, underpin the hierarchies of local actors and the opportunities for civil society participation.

We begin by discussing the conceptual relationship between civil society participation and biography. Following this, we outline the narrative framing of the community in the time and space across the two localities. In the second half of the chapter we discuss two types of civil society narratives, based on the notion of solidarities and dialogue, and their impact on the organisation, mission statement and self-governance of those civil society initiatives.

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Local associations are a key vehicle for participation in civil society. They operate at a distance from the state, the market and families, with varying degrees of independence and dependence. They are sites of social action, expressing both solidarity and contestation. They bring groups of people together around common interests and shared activities. They may also articulate conflicts and issues of debate. Many are visible in terms of their organisation, membership and outcomes. Others are less visible, more loosely organised, or exist ‘below the radar’ (McCabe et al 2010). Associations are characterised by a diverse range of actors, repertoires and agendas. At the local level, they have a close identification with place, they depend largely on local social ties and operate mainly within the limits of local space. They are an important constitutive element in most understandings of civil society and its local expressions. But the boundaries between civil society, the state and market are not easy to draw. There are ebbs and flows in the voluntary and statutory sectors as funding fluctuates, partnerships form and dissolve, and as the contexts for voluntary action change. Lewis (1999: 268) concludes that the boundaries between state and civil society became increasingly blurred in the 1990s. In a parallel process, some voluntary associations have had to become more competitive, market-driven and business-like (Han 2017). As discussed in Chapter 1, conceptual debates about state dominance or marketisation of the third sector tend to prioritise the framework of the national state, and scales well above the local.

The impact of these processes below the level of local authorities is relatively under-researched.

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In theoretical discussions, civil society is conceptually distinct from economy and the state. Local empirical studies, however, show that civil society is shaped by the economic and political relations that determine the nature of participation and the direction of civil society actions, along with their organisation and impact. In other words, both state and economy are constitutive of the local environment in which civil society evolves and operates. In this final empirical chapter, we highlight the structural elements which link individual civil society participation with the wider context of economy and the state as we consider these structural aspects a vital part of empirical analysis. Continuing with the biographical approach, we broaden the analysis to discuss the civil society relations with the local economy and institutions associated with the state, their impact on individual lives as well as the wellbeing of local communities. This approach is focused on embodied attachments, such as individual accounts of participation over time and mutual understandings of the norms of civility and solidarity, which frame the unique balance between local community interests and individual understandings of what constitutes a ‘good and fulfilled life’. We point towards specific patterns of resource mobilisation and institutional support that can effectively support the action-field of civil society, or disrupt the balance of interests, thus harming local civil society initiatives.

We begin by discussing the role of embodied attachments that structure the field of civil society action, such as age, gender and social class. The second part then outlines four biographical cases from Rhos and Overton to illustrate the relevance of these embodied attachments in the analysis of links between local economy, institutions and civil society participation.

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Throughout this book we have emphasised the fundamental importance of both place and time to civil society and its operation across varied local socio-spatial contexts. By concentrating on two localities within the same frame of reference, we have been able to demonstrate how a sense of difference is constructed. While we have tried to avoid treating these places as fixed and bounded, we nevertheless observe how most people’s participation remains rooted and locally orientated, challenging the notion that local civil society is inevitably being hollowed-out by the global. Indeed, the overriding message of our work is the extent to which sustainability of local civil society in these two contexts rests upon lifelong and deeply held attachments to place. We conclude by summarising both the scholarly and policy significance of this analysis.

To begin with, the account of civil society we have provided goes far beyond the prevailing notions of volunteering, voluntary associations and third sector organisations – notions which dominate the policy and governmental understanding of civil society. Instead we have used the framework of local civil society in order to document a much broader material and symbolic sphere of situated forms of association, civility, participation and solidarity. Such a broad terrain, we have argued, cannot be adequately understood without reference to its localised setting or indeed to its biographical significance for individuals.

In exploring how the local world of civil society is sustained, we have focused on the lives of individuals who display strong emotional attachments to the places in which they live, and who invest considerable time and effort in establishing and supporting local groups and shared activities.

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Civil society is a term which seeks to capture that aspect of life in society where people meet outside the formal political arena to work together as individuals and groups to express their values and further their common interests. The motivation behind this book, and the research reported here, is a recognition that despite renewed interest and enthusiasm for the idea of civil society in general, the operation of civil society at local levels is not well understood. Theories of civil society are often unhelpful in providing a framework for the conduct of field research into its local constitution. In fact, many of the predominant definitions of civil society seem to omit the local altogether or come to view thickly rooted local attachments as antithetical to the generation of progressive civil competencies. Instead, civil society signifies primarily extraverted forms of action and interaction, which contribute to the capacity to act nationally and transnationally in order to challenge forms of economic and state power. But this leaves out of the picture forms of action and association of principally local reach, where membership is defined in more sociable, rather than political, terms. This is the stuff of local community, and there is, therefore, a critical debate to be had around how the terms of civil society, locality and community inter-relate. For this reason, we are drawn to the anthropological definition (for example, see Hann and Dunn 1996) in which civil society refers to a wider range of practices between state and private life, including informal social relations.

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Place, Time and Boundaries

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Drawing on place-based field investigations and new empirical analysis, this original book investigates civil society at local level.

The concept of civil society is contested and multifaceted, and this text offers assessment and clarification of debates concerning the intertwining of civil society, the state and local community relations. Analysing two Welsh villages, the authors examine the importance of identity, connection with place and the impact of social and spatial boundaries on the everyday production of civil society.

Bringing into focus questions of biography and temporality, the book provides an innovative account of continuities and changes within local civil society during social and economic transformation.

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