The Civil Sphere in Canada – bringing Canadian scholars into a truly global conversation

Posted on Wednesday, May 4th, 2022

Origins 8 by Morel Morton Alexander (2005)

This week, social scientists from across Canada come together at the University of Guelph for The Civil Sphere in Canada conference. Supported by academic partners in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology and the College of Social & Applied Human Sciences at the University of Guelph, and at Yale University, Profs. Jeffrey Alexander (Yale) and Mervyn Horgan (University of Guelph) aim to extend the discussion on the civil sphere across Canada. This SSHRC-funded initiative focuses on developing a cross-Canada network of researchers who draw on civil sphere theory to generate meaning-centred analyses of key historical and contemporary transformations in Canadian society.

Participants in the conference are working on case studies ranging from the movement for Indigenous self-government and Indigenous-Settler relations, to studies of controversies around racism in Quebec, migrant rights, and sexual misconduct in the Canadian cultural industries.

What is Civil Sphere Theory?

Civil sphere theory is a comprehensive and widely-influential social theory that advances understanding of how civil society actors – social movement organizers, activists and advocates, victims of injustice and ordinary citizens – draw upon morally charged ideals of solidarity and justice to advance social inclusion and civil repair. Rather than begin with the idea that social change is only a product of legislation or of institutional transformation, the civil sphere is the arena of social life wherein struggles for justice and solidarity play out. Civil sphere theory analyzes the meanings that groups and individuals attach to key actors, activities and institutions, and how these meanings can shift and be mobilized, in particular by historically marginalized groups, to expand the boundaries of solidarity.

What does it mean for social science around the world?

While civil sphere theory was initially developed in the US in the mid-2000s, using only US based cases, the theory now has global reach, with social scientists adopting and adapting this meaning-centered approach to a wide variety of national and regional contexts, from Europe to, east and south Asia, Latin America, and beyond. Despite this international reach, Canadian researchers' contributions to this global dialogue have been both fragmentary and isolated.

​Contributing to the conversation

This conference will not only provide critical contributions to this international social scientific debate, but it will also develop a sustained and cohesive set of interventions by researchers in Canada using Canadian cases, to identify and address core questions required to advance our understanding of how meanings are mobilized in Canadian civil society to advance solidarity and social justice. Profs. Jeffrey Alexander (Yale) and Mervyn Horgan (University of Guelph) will subsequently co-edit and publish The Civil Sphere in Canada with University of British Columbia Press. It is the conference organizers’ goal that this contribution will usher Canadian scholars into a truly global conversation.

News Archive