Symposium: A Tale of Two Civil Spheres

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Spring 2020, Vol 32. Issue 1

Book Symposium: The Civil Sphere in East Asia (2019, Cambridge)

Yu Ching Cheng
International Research Fellow
Japan Society for the Promotion of Science 

It is the spring of self-quarantine, it is the season of contemplating the world. It is the worst of times for the civil sphere to advance itself, it is the best of times to advance civil sphere theory.

Jeff Alexander and David Palmer along with their co-editors Sunwoong Park and Agnes Shuk-mei Ku, have made The Civil Sphere in East Asia a necessary starting point, a volume urging us to re-think what the civil sphere is and is not.

Empirically, the volume has expanded the horizon of the civil sphere. Responding to a broader global south turn, it challenges the western/American model by looking into the particularity of civil spheres in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. Meanwhile, it showcases how the civil sphere may work differently in transnational or authoritarian contexts and suggests between-group differences in civil sphere participation. 

More importantly, the volume presents a window of opportunity to deepen civil sphere theory. After all, case studies without theory turn out to be area studies in disguise. It stimulates debates on whether civil sphere theory is applicable to non-western societies and post-colonial states and how it shall deal with methodological nationalism. It also raises an epistemological question of what counts the real civil sphere. 

This book symposium features three critical pieces on The Civil Sphere in East Asia from Ming-Cheng Lo, Sadia Saeed, and Lyn Spillman, followed by Jeff’s and David’s replies to their critics. 

Based on a session held at the Social Science History Association meetings in Chicago on November 24, 2019, hopes to awaken cultural sociologists’ imagination of the civil sphere between east and west, between particulars and universals, between theoretical explanation and case description.