Defining “Citizenship”

Since I’m taking a course which focuses on citizenship and its relationship with rights, I’ve been reading/thinking a lot on the topic. I’ve become increasingly aware that there has to be some recognition of fundamental differences types of citizenship. This is especially true if we want to retain some definitions which base themselves more on abstract political philosophy.

The abstract, ideal definition of citizenship goes more-or-less as follows,

In a world separated into distinct political communities, a recognized status of membership in at least one of these communities is a general precondition for individual autonomy and well-being. In Hannah Arendt’s well-known phrase, citizenship is ‘the right to have rights’ (Arendt 1967, p. 269). It specifies the primary addressee of a person’s claim to protection of her fundamental rights. Citizenship is, however, not only about passive entitlements, but also about active participation or representation in the making of laws.

— Rainer Bauböck, “The Rights and Duties of External Citizenship,” Citizenship Studies 13, 5 (2009), p. 478.

Bauböck’s definition, as I interpret it, reflects a connection with the notion that justice is developed through a network of relationships between different members of a community. Therefore, “citizenship” translates to “membership;” the citizen is a member of a community, which doubles as a polity. The polity is a political arena where these types of decisions are made. Usually, we might conjure an image of the State, but it really transcends these one-dimensional manifestations of politics, and involves multiple categories of interactions: moral, economic, et cetera (and these different categories reflect on each other, as well).

Based on the above, it seems pertinent to distinguish at least two different definitions of citizenship,

  1. The citizen as a member of a polity (whether equal or unequal);
  2. The citizen as someone entitled to a specific number of “rights,” provided by the State.

In a sense, the first definition suggests a degree of ambiguity between the citizen and the polity, where the polity is really just a network of the former. The second definition, on the other hand, clearly separates the citizen from the polity (which becomes the State), and makes the former dependent on the latter. This isn’t always reflected in the literature — Bauböck seems to mix the two —, but I consider this an error.

Maybe my division is too subtle. You can agree with definition #2 and still recognize the importance of participation; this is common in the theory of democracy. What I’m drawing attention to, though, is that participation doesn’t imply equality, and equality doesn’t imply participation. Different people can all belong to a community and actively participate in the development of law, yet relative to each other all members can be unequal. While modern liberal theory stresses equality in terms of political platform, this isn’t a necessary prerequisite of political involvement (if it were, there would be little chance for political evolution towards more inclusive institutions). Similarly, a definition of citizenship which emphasizes “rights” over participation takes away from what really defines a member of a polity: active participation in the decision-making process of justice.

For the sake of a universal definition of citizenship, I suggest sticking with the one which focuses on participation. Things like entitlements, et cetera, can be considered add-ons, as the political process unfolds. They help shape a mature, but temporary, concept of citizenship, but aren’t fundamental aspects of the idea. Otherwise, there is a risk that academics will continue to confuse temporary aspects of citizenship with timeless qualities. A good example is Yasemin Soysal’s Limits of Citizenship (reviewed here), which ascribes “post-national” citizenship with traits that are made possible only through institutions which Soysal describes as increasingly irrelevant. By acknowledging the “core” of citizenship, scholars can then better analyze its dynamic qualities, and recognize that some things are “anomalies,” or contingent on certain factors which exist at particular moments in time.