Unit 1 (What is citizenship?)

What is citizenship?

Citizenship is a continually evolving concept whose meaning has been debated for centuries. In its basic conception, citizenship refers to a type of membership to a group of people. One detailed definition is given by the sociologist, TH Marshall in 1950. Marshall describes citizenship has a status bestowed on those who are full members of a community. All who possess the status are equal with respect to the rights and duties with which the status is endowed. Marshall equated community with the nation, and viewed membership of that community as primarily an individual ownership of a set of rights and corresponding duties.

From a broader concept, we will attempt to understand citizenship from a Western philosophical approach:

(1). Republican citizenship (2). Liberal citizenship.

Republican citizenship-

Aristotle’s Politics (1984) conceives of citizenship as a status belonging to men (patriarchs) who participate in a political sphere with the goal of creating order in society (see J.G.A. Pocock 1995; Ulrich Preuss 1995; Christian Joppke 2010). For Aristotle, the act of politicking is considered a good in itself, i.e., to be a citizen meant that you are capable of escaping material possessions and free to engage in a political life outside of the private realm. Further, Aristotle’s conception implies that citizens display civic virtues by actively partaking in a governing role as well as passively obeying established laws (Michael Ignatieff, 2005). In general, the republican tradition stresses civic life, the act of politicking, and governance by citizens.

Liberal citizenship-

Citizenship became a legal rather than political identity beginning with Roman jurist Gaius, who defined the relationship between citizens as being one between material possessions such as property (J.G.A. Pocock 1995). Laws were set up in Roman communities to protect the possessions of its citizens, establishing a different form of citizenship via legal status. The liberal tradition departs from the republican traditions by stressing citizen’s rights, as opposed to civic virtues. John Locke’s (1998, 2003) notion of consent and contracts highlights the existence of an inter-relationship between the individual citizen and state. The state provides citizen’s access to certain privileges and protections, meanwhile the citizen is obligated to follow laws, pay taxes, or serve in the military if called on by their state. For the republican tradition, civic virtue highlights a concern for social order and the obligation to actively participate in political life. In contrast, the liberal tradition views citizens as atomized individuals who are self-interested. The protection of individual rights by institutions like the constitution explains why citizens engage in political life, not civic virtue as in the republican tradition. These two diverging views of who is considered a citizen, vis-à-vis a political being or person with legal rights, stem from the liberal tradition’s replacement of Aristotle’s public-private division with other criteria that are written into a legal framework and institutionalized.

(Primary source- Allan Colbern, immigration.ucr.edu)

Understanding citizenship from a new perspective-

One of the results of recent developments in the anthropology of citizenship has been a proliferation of new concepts which work by adding a qualifying adjective to the term citizenship. Scholars have studied biological citizenship, flexible citizenship, agrarian citizenship, insurgent citizenship, therapeutic citizenship, urban citizenship, pharmaceutical citizenship, formal and substantive citizenship, etc. The qualifying adjective is important, because it recognises the diversity of citizenship today and acknowledges that liberal citizenship is one form among many. However, in the proliferation of adjectives we still risk assuming that we know what citizenship itself is, that the key is the ‘biological’, ‘urban’, ‘differentiated’ aspect, and that citizenship does not require explanation as a concept in its own right. Indeed, we should be wary of all essentialisms and acknowledge that ‘liberal citizenship’ must itself be plural, as attested by the varieties of liberalism both in historical reality and political thought.

At its most elemental, a focus on citizenship is a way of approaching the political, and one of the most exciting anthropological contributions to the debate is the way that we come to put into question the normative formulations of citizenship and explore the languages and practices of political membership, agency, and constitution of varied political communities, without assuming Liberal parameters for either. However, we must be careful, for two reasons. First, although it is important to take a critical position to normative understandings of citizenship, we do risk ending up in an enclave of cultural relativism where the only argument we can make is that citizenship there is different from citizenship here. While this is undoubtedly an important argument, anthropology has significantly more to contribute to our understanding of citizenship. Second, we should not lose sight of the political implications of such a strategy. Studying citizenship as political practice often obliges us to take a political stand, whether that be alongside those advocating for rights at individual or group level, or critical of mainstream (or even counter-hegemonic) notions of citizenship.

Nonetheless, if we recognize that from time to time our view of what citizenship is can be heavily colored by a normative assumption about what it should be, we are then better placed to see how citizenship is configured in practice, and to explore the historical, material, and cultural reasons for that configuration.

(Primary source- Sian Lazar, citizenship- Cambridge encyclopedia of anthropology, 2016).


Task- What is your own definition of citizenship? Please share with us in the classroom/course forum.

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