In many languages, the concept of ‘Civil society’ has had an astonishing career over the last 10 to 15 years, in disciplines such as history and sociology as well as with the public at large. This article presents a short history of the concept, offers a definition and explores the reasons for its popularity by identifying its conceptual ‘opponents’, which have changed over time. It discusses the changing relations between civil society, the market economy, government and the private sphere. It deals with the affinity between civil society and the middle classes in some areas and periods. It finally explores the trends and limits of the emergence of a transnational civil society in Europe. It is an overview that deals with the present problems from a historical perspective.
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