Two 50-minute class periods

Stitching Truth: What is Civil Society?


In this lesson, students construct a working definition of the term “civil society.”  This will prepare them to explore civil society more deeply in the next lesson, as they interpret arpilleras woven by women in Pinoche’s Chile.




  1. Create a definition of civil society as a class. Ask students to brainstorm all of the institutions, organizations, and individuals that influence their lives and the lives of people in their community. Record this list on the board. Students’ lists might include the names of government officials, judges, corporations, artists, athletes, religious groups, nonprofit organizations, and even family members. Next, ask students to cross off the list items that are part of the government and items that are part of business and commerce. Finally, ask students to cross off items that they consider aspects of their private lives. What is left is generally considered part of civil society.

    While engaged in this exercise, students might express confusion about when to cross off a particular item. Is the American Red Cross part of government because it receives funds from the state? Is an artist, such as a popular musician, part of the economy because she makes money selling her songs? Religion can be something private and public, depending on how it is practiced. These issues illuminate the complexity and connectedness of segments of society; roles do not often break down into neat and tidy categories in the real world. By discussing some of these situations, students have to think about the different functions institutions, individuals, and groups serve (for example, to administer laws, to exchange goods, to express ideas, to bring people together, etc.).

  2. Another way to help students understand the concept of civil society is to represent it visually. Share the handout What is Civil Society?, which contains two graphics that illustrate the relationship of civil society to other segments of society. You may also ask students to develop their own graphic representations of civil society.

  3. Ask students to spend a few minutes answering the following questions in their journals: Why do you think civil society is important? What might happen in a society with a weak civil society? What might happen in a society with a strong civil society?

    The purpose of asking these questions is not to reveal students’ well-developed answers but to serve as a pretest. After learning about life in Chile in the 1970s and 1980s, and in particular about the role of the arpilleristas, students should be able to formulate a more robust answer to questions about the role of civil life in a society, especially the importance of civil society in a democracy.


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