AskDefine | Define civics

Dictionary Definition

civics n : the social science of municipal affairs

User Contributed Dictionary



From a Latin root meaning having to do with a "city".


  1. The study of good citizenship and proper membership in a community.

Related terms


the study of good citizenship and proper membership in a community

Extensive Definition

Civics is the study of citizenship and government with particular attention given to the role of citizens, as opposed to external factors, in the operation and oversight of government.
Within a given political or ethical tradition, civics refers to educating the citizens about their obligations and rights within that tradition. When these change, so often does the definition of civics. Related education in history, religion and media literacy is often included. In the United States, this is the explicit rationale for public education—to ensure the United States Constitution is upheld by citizens who must, at least, know what it is.
When applied to cities and their organization, it is often very difficult to distinguish civics from theories of urban planning. When applied to rural areas, it is difficult to distinguish from theories of rural development. The history of civics dates back to the earliest theories of these by Plato in ancient Greece and Confucius in ancient China. These in general have led to modern distinctions between the West and the East, and two very different concepts of right and justice and ethics in public life.
Of special concern are the choice of a form of government and (if this is any form of democracy) the design of an electoral system and ongoing electoral reform. This involves explicitly comparing voting systems, wealth distribution and the decentralization of political and legal power, control of legal systems and adoption of legal codes, and even political privacy—all seen as important to avoid a dystopic carceral state or a lapse into some undesirable state of totalitarianism or theocracy. Each of these concerns tends to make the process of governance different, as variations in these norms tend to produce a quite different kind of state. Civics was often simply concerned with the balance of power between say an aristocracy and monarchy—a concern echoed to this day in the struggles for power between different levels of rulers—say of the weaker nation-states to establish a binding international law that will have an effect even on the stronger ones. Thus world government is itself properly a civic problem.
On smaller scales, modern human development theory attempts to unify ethics and small-scale politics with the urban and rural economics of sustainable development. Notable theorists including Jane Jacobs and Carol Moore argue that political secession of either cities or distinct bioregions and cultures is an essential pre-requisite to applying any widely shared ethics, as the ethical views of urban and rural people, different cultures or those engaged in different types of agriculture, are irreconcilably different. This extreme advocacy of decentralization is hardly uncommon, and leads to the minimal theory of civics - anarchism.

Civic theory

Most civic theories are more trusting of public institutions, and can be characterizing on a scale from least (mob rule) to most (the totalitarian) degree of trust placed in key public institutions. At the risk of extreme oversimplification, an historical view of civic theory in action suggests that the theories be ranked as follows:
  • Ochlocracy (aka: Mob Rule) — trusting of the instincts and power of large groups—no consistent civics at all.
  • Anarchism — no government or other hierarchy, a common ethical code enforced only by personal governance and voluntary association.
  • Minarchy — a minimal hierarchy—e.g. sometimes said to include eco-anarchism
  • Libertarianism — a philosophy based on the premise that in order to maximize personal freedom, society should value the acquisition of private property over the public good.
  • Direct democracy — decisions made directly by citizens without guidance or moral suasion, e.g. as advocated by H. Ross Perot, usually relying on multiple choice laid out by experts
  • Deliberative democracy — decisions made by locally-grouped citizens obligated to participate in consensus decision making process, e.g. as advocated by Ralph Nader
  • Bioregional democracy — a deliberative democracy regulated by a caste of highly-qualified scientific advisors (both ecologists and ethicists) who can use scientific method to challenge or veto major ecological decisions, means of measuring well-being or selecting criteria for moral purchasing by the entire bioregional state
  • Technocracy — reliance on castes of scientists, e.g. doctors to rule society, and define risk for the whole society - sometimes generalized into anticipatory democracy. Can be interpreted as leading to or including kleptocracy
  • Theocracy - government lead by religion, beliefs or culture. May be led by powerful religious figures such as the Pope and follows rules based on religious documents.
  • Aristocracy — general trust in one class in society to rule and protect, e.g. members of particular noble families that have worked for and/or defended the community across many generations (i.e. "old" money), upholding traditions, standards of living, art, culture, commerce, and defense. Not to be confused with plutocracy, where rule is based solely on financial wealth.
  • Constitutional monarchy — a monarch, possibly purely symbolic and devoted to moral example, avoiding vesting such popularity in any less trustworthy political figure—typically tied to at least some deliberative institutions, and making the monarch a tiebreaker or mediator or coach, e.g. Queen Elizabeth II and Tony Blair
  • Representative democracy — a political class of elected representatives is trusted to carry out duties for the electors - these may be responsible to any group in society, or none, once elected.
  • Absolute monarchy — a monarch who rules for life and can pass on this rule to his or her heirs, but is responsible to some social ideal or culture that has trained him or her to carry out these duties, e.g. Louis XIV, Hirohito, most dynastic Emperors, Augustus Caesar.
  • Dictatorship — a political or military ruler who has the powers of the monarch, but whose basis for rule is not hereditary, but based upon military or political power, or by popular election, e.g. Benito Mussolini, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, Julius Caesar, Josef Stalin, Mao ZeDong.
  • Socialism - a broad array of ideologies and political movements with the goal of a socio-economic system in which property and the distribution of wealth are subject to control by the community for the purposes of increasing social and economic equality and cooperation.
Note: examples are included only to help familiarize readers with the basic idea of the scale—they are not intended to be conclusive or to categorize these individuals other than the civics that they exercise or exemplify.
Civics refers not to the ethical or moral or political basis by which a ruler acquires power, but only to the processes and procedures they follow in actually exercising it. Thus, some figures, e.g. Napoleon, count as totalitarian because they instituted a legal code and altered rules of succession to favor themselves and their families. Meanwhile, other figures who were arguably more cruel or arbitrary are ranked as examples of lesser public trust, because in practice they followed clearer procedures.


See also

External links

civics in Spanish: Cívico
civics in Simple English: Civics
civics in Swedish: Samhällskunskap
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