Symposium: East Asian Political Cultures and Civil Sphere Theory

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)

Lyn Spillman
Professor of Sociology,
Univ. of Notre Dame

The normative and political significance of investigating “the civil sphere in East Asia” has been emphasized with every headline from Hong Kong in recent months, and this book is a pleasure to read even for the way it helps think about those news stories. But here, I leave a discussion of the understanding this book has to offer about contemporary events to area specialists. I want to assess what this set of expert empirical investigations tells us about civil sphere theory. What new insights do they offer? How is the theory extended? What might need to be revised?

The Project and its Contributions

This book is only one part of a much more ambitious project. Civil sphere theory is an innovative theory of political culture which puts cultural processes and conditions at the center of political claims-making. It focuses on the cultural categories, performances, and institutions which provide the essential infrastructure for democratic politics, and explain its outcomes. In my view, 

one important virtue of civil sphere theory is its macro-theoretical ambition. For too long now, cultural and political sociologists have been focused on meso- or micro-level analysis. A few decades ago, it was important to modify social science ambitions and overarching claims because macro-theoretical perspectives like reflection theory and modernization theory were failing. Now, though, we’ve done a lot to refine mid-range analytical tools and we need to build back out. Civil sphere theory is an important contribution to that task.

One important reason for redeveloping broader theoretical perspectives is comparative. If all our work is too “contextual” we have no transferable insights to offer other scholars.  A broader theory offers a basis for comparison. Civil sphere theory is now ambitiously comparative, too. Originally developed in the context of social movements and conventional politics in the U.S., its scope was sometimes thought to be limited to the west, or simply to the United States. Yet the potential analytic insights the theory offers extend far beyond as we see in this volume and its siblings on other regions.

But theoretical arguments with general comparative ambitions are too often empirically under-developed, and we never really know whether and how the ambition can be sustained. Here, though, the comparative leverage across the different regions and cases is almost unprecedented. And as a result, one of the unusual contributions of the project is the way it assembles many well-regarded area experts in a new conversation of general scholarly interest. And because of the unified theoretical principles underlying the research in these volumes, each is actually much more coherent and allows much more precise comparison than the typical edited volume.

Implications for Civil Sphere Theory

What are the implications for civil sphere theory of the studies in this volume? 

First, we see a number of claims about the cultural infrastructure of the civil sphere, and especially how the cultural codes constituting the civil and anti-civil are inflected or charged with additional meaning particular to the historical context. Choi shows how Korean influences like neo-Confucian codes affect coding of civil and anti-civil in Presidential scandals. Similarly, Yanagihara shows how “autonomy” develops different sorts of inflections– including anti-civil meanings– in Japanese debates about surrogacy. Chapters by Park, and by Lee, show in different ways how claims-making may rely on language related to other institutions, not just civil and anti-civil codes– language like “professionalism” in education scandals or “developmentalism” in credit crises in Korea. And David Palmer pushes the concept of civil and anti-civil codes even further beyond their original interpretation, analyzing different forms of generalizing solidarity in China (the “yellow,” and the “red,” as well as the “blue.”)

So when do different languages of claims-making about universalizing solidarity stop being civil sphere languages, and start being something else? Recognizing strong historical inflections seems like an important friendly amendment, but what about when the difference goes further, drawing on different institutions, or different  bases of solidarity? Should the line be drawn more precisely?

Second, the comparisons in this collection offer a lot to reflect on about civil sphere institutions. 

Lin points out that states may actively shape civil sphere institutions in his neat comparison of two processes of participatory budgeting in Taiwan (and he also adds to the evidence of how specific histories shape civil sphere languages). Moreover, institutions are not just passive supports of the civil sphere, they can actively shape civil sphere processes, as Shimizu argues in her interesting study of how policing in Japan promoted civil codes, or excluded the anti-civil. And Ku points out for Hong Kong that sustaining institutions like law are themselves an object of struggle, such as in conflicts between ideas about “rule of law” as opposed to “rule by law.”

So my second question has to do with institutions supporting the civil sphere. Some studies in this collection show the importance of active institutions with the power to shape, develop, or block the civil sphere.  I may be misinterpreting, but that seems like a significant revision to the original theory. What are the consequences for the theory when we go in that direction? Does it make it less distinctive as a theory of political culture?

Third, should the concept of the civil sphere  be stretched to cover all settings, from the micro to the transnational? David Palmer argues for the existence of localized civil spheres even in China’s authoritarian context, and Tian looks for prefigurative or incipient foreshadowing of civil claims in Chinese online fiction (though she doesn’t really find them.) Somewhat similarly, Eiko Ikegami (2005) argued that popular poetry circles in Tokugawa Japan pre-figured the later emergence of democratic political forms, because they modeled alternatives to hierarchical social order. But it seems important to distinguish more clearly, as she does, between prefigurative antecedents and real civil spheres.

Some studies in this collection examine settings in which transnational civil spheres seem to emerge. Pun and Ng suggest that a transnational campaign for Foxcomm workers in China was a movement for civil repair relying on civil sphere institutions like association and independent media (and certainly, if we are going to find a transnational civil sphere anywhere, it might be in labor activism, precisely because of the Marxist history of transnational social movements.) And we also see an incipient transnational civil sphere in Wang’s study of civil repair in the writing of a common history by scholars from China, Japan, and South Korea. Again, though, these cases raise the question of how broadly to define “the civil sphere.” Perhaps they call for further theoretical specification of where and how the boundaries are drawn when you’re identifying the civil sphere. More generally, should there be a stronger distinction between different forms of solidarity, prefigurative political culture, and real civil spheres?


Ikegami, Eiko. 2005. Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press.