Social Networks, Civil Society, Democracy and Rule of Law: A New Conceptual Framework

32 Pages Posted: 26 Jan 2003

See all articles by Randall Peerenboom

Randall Peerenboom

La Trobe University - Faculty of Law and Management; Oxford University - Centre for Socio-Legal Studies


Although social networks exist in every society, they are widely believed to play a different and more prominent role in Asian societies, especially those with a Confucian heritage, than in Western states, particularly Western states with mature capitalist economies, liberal democratic political systems with robust civil societies, and well developed legal systems characterized by rule of law and a modern bureaucratic administrative system. This chapter article examines the role of social networks along two dimensions: political reform and the implementation and consolidation of democracy; and legal reforms aimed at establishing rule of law and a modern technocratic administrative system. Clearly there are wide variations in the nature and role of social networks in Asia, which is to be expected given the wide diversity in Asian societies in terms of religious and cultural practices, political systems, levels of economic development and legal systems. Rather than attempting a broad comparison of social networks throughout Asia, my main focus will be on China, with reference to the experiences of other countries where relevant.

In some Western states such as Poland and other former Soviet Union republics, social groups in the form of civil society played a central role in the transition to democracy; in more established liberal democracies, civil society serves important functions in monitoring the state, holding government officials accountable and counterbalancing state power. Buoyed by the experiences of the former Soviet republics, a number of China scholars turned their attention in the early to mid 1990s to the topic of civil society and whether the proliferation of social organizations in China would lead to democracy. Many scholars cautioned that the concept of civil society as understood in the West may not be applicable to China; some pointed out that civil society was mainly a topic among foreign scholars and Chinese living in exile, and that the idea of civil society has not become part of popular discourse in China; still others argued that state-society relations are better understood in corporatist terms, and that the corporatist nature of social groups in China may serve to bolster the authoritarian regime rather than lead to democracy.

I consider whether the concept of civil society is applicable to China and how civil society is best theorized given the differences between the liberal democratic social-political philosophies dominant in the West and alternative conceptions of the relations between the state, society and individual in China. To that end I develop four models for state-society relations: liberal democratic, statist socialist, neo-authoritarian and communitarian. These models combine social political philosophies with a corresponding set of institutions, practices and rules, thus redressing the relative neglect to date in theoretical treatments of civil society in China of the institutional basis of civil society, and in particular the nature of the legal system and its role in creating, structuring and shaping civil society.

I also take up the relation between conceptions of civil society and social networks. What do we gain by the change in focus to social networks? What do we lose? I suggest that in calling attention to horizontal relations between individuals and groups in contemporary society, the focus on (affective) social networks offers some insights into the space between the individual and the state missed by the more vertical conceptions of civil society and corporatism. However, social networks are themselves embedded in a vertical structure of state-society relations. Moreover, in many cases, social networks are themselves oriented toward the state in a vertical relationship, and thus constitutive of the vertical state-society structure. In short, attending to social networks enriches our understanding of civil society in China, providing for a form of civil society with Chinese characteristics as it were, rather than offering an alternative framework for analysis. Put differently, social networks studies and theories must still be placed within broader political theories and institutional accounts. The four models that I develop address both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of civil society, thus redressing on the one hand the failure of corporatism to pay adequate attention to horizontal relationships, and on the other the tendency of affective social networks analyses to emphasize the horizontal dimension at the expense of the vertical component or to fail to adequately link up a discussion of affective social networks to different political conceptions of state-society relations.

Keywords: Political reform, legal reform, rule of law, social network

Suggested Citation

Peerenboom, Randall, Social Networks, Civil Society, Democracy and Rule of Law: A New Conceptual Framework. In THE POLITICS OF RELATIONALITY: CIVIL SOCIETY, ECONOMICS, AND LAW IN EAST ASIA, Chair Hahm, Chaibong Hahm and Daniel Bell, eds., Rowan & Littlefield, 2003. Available at SSRN: or

Randall Peerenboom (Contact Author)

La Trobe University - Faculty of Law and Management ( email )

Department of Economics and Finance
Victoria 3552, 3086

Oxford University - Centre for Socio-Legal Studies

St. Cross Building
St. Cross Road
Oxford, OX1 3UJ
United Kingdom

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