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Civil Society within Authoritarian Regimes. Cases of Russia and Turkey (Murad Nasibov)

Researcher: Murad Nasibov
First Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Andrea Gawrich
Duration: since 2018


This research establishes formal institutionalisation as a factor that matters for the relationship of civil society with the authoritarian state (cooptation by the state) and the former’s transnational relations (transnationalisation). For this, it deploys the civil sphere theory offered by Jeffrey C. Alexander and integrates it with insights from the neoclassical organisation theory, particularly Philip Selznick’s writings on organisational sociology. The developed theoretical account is consequently applied to the cases of Russia and Turkey through a structured survey with the most general/common type of civil society organisations – “общественные организации” and “dernekler” respectively. Finally, the results are embedded in the broader qualitative study on the development of the political and institutional frameworks in respective countries in the past two decades.

Although much has been written to establish a linkage between the organisation theory and social movements, this has not been done in a consistent way for civil society. Those studies that attract attention to the organisational qualities of civil society organisations by using terms such as NGOization and professionalisation remain far apart from filling this gap. The gap can be explained by the time periods these two strands of literature developed. The organisation theory emerged in the 1940s, drawing mainly on scientific management, sociology, psychology and political science, peaked in the 1950s and 1960s and subsided with the emerging new institutionalisation in the 1970s – exactly when the concept of civil society revived by movement intellectuals in socialist Eastern Europe and the Latin America as well as the new or second left movements of France and Germany.

By linking it with the literature of the organisation theory, this study makes, in a sense, a turn in the current literature of civil society, which digs deep into the informal and grassroots civil society organisations and attributes a pejorative quality to the formal institutionalisation. Swimming against the current, this study argues that formal institutionalisation – understood both as a historical-social process and as a quality in a given time – is underexplored and undermined in the literature of not only civil society but also that democracy and political regimes.

Thirdly, this study does not only deploy the civil sphere as such but also develop it by establishing its transnationalization and, again, bringing in it formal institutionalisation as a quality that matters.

The literature review part provides both grand theorising on civil society and an in-depth evaluation of empirical studies on civil society within authoritarian regimes discussing case studies, mainly but not only, on Russia, Turkey and China. It identifies major perspectives in these empirical studies and shows how their limitations originate from the current grand theorising. Thus, the literature review part suggests returning to grand theorising on civil society – something currently treated as mission accomplice in the current literature. The civil sphere theory, initially developed in the late 1990s but proposed in full in 2006 and only attracted the deserved scholarly attention in the late 2010s, offers new horizons in this sense – the major reason for its selection in this study. The empirical part, which shows the richness of the independent life of society, provides abundant food for thinking about grand theorising.