Citizenship Research Paper

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Citizenship can be succinctly defined in terms of two component features. First, it constitutes membership in a polity, and as such it inevitably involves a tension between inclusion and exclusion, between those deemed eligible for citizenship and those who are denied the right to become members. In its earliest form in ancient Greece, the polity in question was the city-state. In the modern world, it was transformed during the era of democratic revolutions into the nation-state. Second, membership brings with it a reciprocal set of duties and rights, both of which vary by place and time, though some are universal. Thus paying taxes and obeying the law are among the duties expected of citizens in all nations, while the right to participate in the political process in various ways—by voting, running for office, debating, petitioning, and so forth—is an inherent feature of democratic citizenship. This leads to a final point: citizenship exists only in democratic regimes, for in nondemocratic ones people are subjects rather than citizens. In this regard, there are three crucial features that characterize the democratic political system: (1) the right to participate in the public sphere; (2) limitations on the power of government over the individual; and (3) a system based on the rule of law, not the arbitrary rule of rulers.

The principal fault lines used to define the boundaries of inclusion versus exclusion have historically been based on three major social divisions: class, gender, and race. And, indeed, though much has changed, these divisions remain significant—and in fact tend to be intersecting. During the formative period of all the modern democratic regimes, beginning in the eighteenth century, the privileged white, property-owning male citizens were intent on disqualifying a majority of their nation’s residents from citizenship rights. Confronted with a disjunction between the egalitarian ideals of democratic theory and the desire to exclude from full societal membership certain categories of persons who did not share their class, gender, or racial identities, they responded by creating justifications for social exclusion. For their part, the white working class, women, and nonwhites responded, always in difficult circumstances and with varying degrees of success, by creating social movements aimed at acquiring the political voice that had been denied them. The white working class had, by the late nineteenth century, succeeded in being included, though not as genuine equals. A similar inclusion would come slower for women and racial and ethnic minorities, where in many cases this did not occur until the later part of the twentieth century. Thus, American blacks did not overcome the barriers created by Jim Crow until the 1960s, Australia’s Aboriginal population did not receive the right to vote until the same time, and in some Swiss cantons women did not acquire the right to vote until 1990.

As with inclusion, the development of the rights of citizens entails a dynamic process. Analyses of this process are generally framed in terms of the thesis advanced by the British social theorist T. H. Marshall, who distinguished between three types of rights: civil, political, and social. In his view, these types are distinct not only analytically, but also historically. Civil rights refer to such aspects of individual freedom as free speech, freedom of religious expression, and the right to engage in economic and civic life. Political rights involve those rights that ensure the ability to actively participate in the realm of politics. Finally, social rights involve the rights to various welfare provisions designed to guarantee to all a minimum standard of living necessary for the other two rights to be meaningful. Included are guarantees of educational opportunities, health care, decent and affordable housing, pensions, and so forth. Marshall thought that civil rights emerged in the eighteenth century, political rights in the nineteenth, and social rights in the twentieth, with the birth of modern welfare states. The historical record calls into question the unilateral depiction of the evolution of rights, but it is the case that all of the world’s liberal democracies did develop welfare states guaranteeing various forms of social rights. In his view, whereas the other types of rights do not challenge capitalism’s production of unacceptable levels of inequality, social rights are intended to do so. Inequality does not cease to exist, but it becomes less consequential in shaping the life chances of individuals and impeding the goal of the equality of people qua citizens. The historical record indicates that welfare states have not actually managed to achieve this goal, and moreover, the neoliberal assault on the welfare state has resulted in an increase in levels of inequality.

Debates over the duties of citizens have pitted republican (and communitarian) theory versus liberal theory. The former position calls for an involved citizenry, while the latter is less inclined to ask or require citizens to be too actively engaged in politics. For example, republicans would be inclined to support universal conscription into military service or some alternative form of public service while liberals would not. Nevertheless, both positions believe that for democracies to succeed they need an informed and active citizenry. The distinction between the two traditions has much to do with differing perspectives on the levels of activity required. By the latter part of the twentieth century, a lively discourse emerged about the presumed tendency on the part of citizens in the United States, and to a somewhat lesser degree elsewhere, to withdraw from civic and political involvement, as evidenced, for instance, in the widespread interest in the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam’s “bowling alone” thesis. If in the past citizenship has been construed in terms of the individual, multiculturalism has raised the specter of the emergence of group rights. Although many, but not all, of the world’s liberal democracies have developed a multicultural sensibility, only two to date have implemented official state policies designed to promote multiculturalism: Canada and Australia. While some observers contend that the multicultural moment has ended, they fail to appreciate its novelty, specifically, as the scholar Jeffrey Alexander has argued, insofar as it signals a new form of civil society. Moreover, even without explicit multicultural agendas, there is evidence of a growing appreciation that difference and integration are not necessarily antithetical.

Finally, there is evidence of a growing interest in developments that suggest the world is entering a new era in which the nation-state’s monopoly on defining citizenship is being challenged. In part, this is due to the rapid expansion of people with dual or multiple citizenships and the growing willingness by governments to legalize or tolerate this situation. This increase is largely attributable to transnational immigration, which though not entirely new is more significant today due to new communications technologies and improved transportation networks. Whether or not transnationalism is largely a phenomenon of the immigrant generation, or will persist into the generations of their children and grandchildren, is an unanswered question in the early twenty-first century. Likewise, it is also unclear whether dual citizenship becomes merely formal, in which the citizenship of primary residence is the only salient one, or whether active involvements in two nations’ political systems persist.

Second, as exponents of postnationalist thought contend, supra-state entities such as the United Nations and the European Union (EU) are increasingly coming to assume some of the roles traditionally located solely with the nation-state. This is particularly the case with the issue of human rights, where there is evidence of the embryonic form of a global human rights regime. It is also relevant to environmental concerns, as the Kyoto Protocol makes clear, for these are matters that transcend existing political borders. Although the EU is unique, the fact that citizens of its member states can treat their social rights as applying outside of their national boundaries signals yet a new development of interest. In such a situation, social rights are portable within the EU, thus for example allowing German retirees to move to Portugal while collecting their German pensions, while at the same time permitting Portuguese workers free access to German labor markets. Much remains uncertain about where these developments might lead, but given the pace of change since the midtwentieth century many social scientists predict that the twenty-first century will see changes in the location of citizenship brought about by globalization. At the same time, some of the earlier enthusiasm about the prospects for the decline of the nation-state has been unrealized, and in fact in the so-called age of terrorism nation-states have reasserted themselves and in the process raised concerns about the erosion of some rights.


  1. Alexander, Jeffrey C. 2006. The Civil Sphere. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Kivisto, Peter. 2002. Multiculturalism in a Global Society. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  3. Kivisto, Peter, and Thomas Faist. 2007. Citizenship: Discourse, Theory, and Transnational Prospects. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  4. Marshall, T. H. 1964. Class, Citizenship, and Social Development. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company.
  5. Putnam, Robert. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  6. Turner, Bryan S. 1986. Citizenship and Capitalism. London: Allen & Unwin.

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