The building of strong civil societies is a central pillar in current African state democratization, economic liberalization, and decentralization process. This represents a paradigm shift in African development efforts which has led to a restructuring of political, social, and economic opportunities and constraints for African citizens. Yet “civil society” itself is a polysemic concept, one which takes on different meanings for different actors. While most civil society research in Africa focuses on defining civil society, diagnosing deviations from a neoliberal ideal, and prescribing policies and preferred outcomes, this project focuses instead on the inherently protean nature of the idea of civil society and asks a different set of under-studied yet intimately related set of questions: How do different meanings of “civil society” get constructed, negotiated, and deployed by different actors? How and when are alternatives elaborated? What roles do “traditional” forms of counterpoint to political and economic power, social structure, and local history play a role in such contestation and, therefore, the effects of neoliberal civil society strengthening efforts on social inequality? To address these questions, I will construct a historical ethnography of civil society in Mali, a newly democratizing/decentralizing state considered by many scholars and practitioners to be a model for Africa. Combining historical, ethnographic, and organizational sociology methods, the project interrogates competing interpretations of the concept of “civil society,” how conflicts are negotiated, and who benefits and loses in these exchanges. Central to the study is an extended-case study of thirty-two villages in the Pondori flood plain, Djenne Circle, Mopti Region of Mali in which ethnographic methods are applied to both development agencies and communities in a single, interactive setting. The project incorporates a comparative component by a) contextualizing findings within civil society research elsewhere in Africa, and b) coordinating with a nationwide, multi-sited, anthropological study of state decentralization already underway in Mali. By so doing, this research will produce findings of wider relevance regarding civil society strengthening policies, state decentralization, and democratization in Mali, francophone West Africa, and other African countries.