This working paper clarifies the meanings of the concepts of civil society, public sphere and third sector in the light of TSI’s work on a conceptualization of the third sector in Europe.

First, the paper surveys the genealogy and different meanings of the concept of civil society and introduces the idea of a differentiated “civil sphere”, that is autonomous but inter-related with other social spheres (family, market, state, and religion). This allows conceptualizing civil society, public sphere, and third sector as analytical concepts emphasizing different dimensions of the civil sphere:

  1. Value pluralism, associative life and values and norms maintenance for the concept of civil society;
  2. Communicative action and values contention for the concept of public sphere;
  3. Value-oriented economic and social action for the concept of the third sector.

From the functions identified in the conceptual analysis, the essay turns, secondly, to infer the domains of impact and the social and causal mechanisms, linking dimensions and functions of the third sector to its expected impacts.