Abstract This paper examines the concept civil society to see if it can help us to understand those social processes lying outside the realms of economy and state. It suggests that, despite increasing popularity, the use of the concept is hampered by conflicting and ambiguous meanings. This paper attempts to straighten these out, by looking at both analytical and political uses of the term. The analytical is examined with reference to recent developments in urban and regional studies in Britain, where the term has been increasingly, but rather unsuccessfully, used to conceptualise processes usually categorised under the labels of ‘community’, ‘culture’ or ‘consumption’. The political use of the term is examined with reference to recent events in Poland, where the concept has been applied to the emergence of independent self-governing social organisations lying outside the traditional state apparatus. Finally this paper attempts to move towards a synthesis between the two uses, by examining the ways in which each can inform the other.