Working Together: The Workplace in Civil Society

71 Pages Posted: 27 Dec 1999

Date Written: December 1999


The burgeoning literature on democratic civil society, civic engagement, and associational life has focused largely on voluntary civic organizations in which citizens choose to associate on the basis of what they already share. Those groups serve important functions in a democratic society. But those groups, by definition voluntary and largely beyond the scope of antidiscrimination law, cannot be relied upon to bring individuals together across social cleavages of ethnicity and identity. In a diverse but still-too-divided society, that is an important mediating function, and it is one that the workplace is uniquely situated to serve. The antidiscrimination laws have had a significant impact on the workplace; for most adults, it is likely to be the most racially diverse place in which they spend much time. At work, individuals cooperate and converse day after day, and form ties of familiarity and empathy with individuals from different groups. Social science research confirms the tendency of this kind of cooperative interaction to foster more positive intergroup attitudes and relations. The workplace is thus a uniquely important locus of associational life in a diverse democratic society. This article makes the case for this proposition, links it to contemporary discussions of social capital, public discourse, and social integration, and contends with the problems of hierarchy and economic compulsion that might seem to disqualify the workplace from the domain of civil society, but that prove to be more ambiguous in their significance for the distinct mediating function of the workplace.

Suggested Citation

Estlund, Cynthia L., Working Together: The Workplace in Civil Society (December 1999). Columbia Law School, Public Law and Legal Theory Working Paper No. 3, Available at SSRN: or

Cynthia L. Estlund (Contact Author)

New York University School of Law ( email )

40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States
(212) 998-6184 (Phone)
(212) 995-4881 (Fax)

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