Historical Development of Citizenship Research Paper

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Citizenship means membership in a political community. As membership, citizenship confers the status of equality among all citizens with respect to the rights and duties that the status implies. Citizenship also signifies a form of active behavior towards the community, which constitutes the good and responsible citizen. These two basic meanings of citizenship apply to all of the historical phases that the formation of citizenship as subject and concept has undergone. The politico-legal status and the ideal of civic virtue constitute the two aspects of a historical concept that has taken on a variety of further meanings and functions over time.

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It has shifted between membership in ancient communities and legal membership in the modern state, between a concrete legal status and a wide-ranging concept within political theory. It has been used to describe substantive rights and obligations as well as to sketch a normative ideal of politics. While the theoretical claims of citizenship often tend to be universal, their meaning varies according to historical and national context. The concept of citizenship is rooted in social ethics and institutionalized by law. As such, it is an object of political theory. To analyze the historical development of citizenship means to combine the development of norms of conduct regarding good civic behavior with the legal institutionalization of citizen status and its theoretical conceptualization. It also means tracing the trajectory from a status of the city-state community to a key concept of modern democracy and global political theory.

1. Citizenship As A Historical Subject

Every human group has developed institutions by which to define its members and procedures for making new members. The Greeks, however, were the first society to combine the legal provisions of membership with a political theory of membership virtues and institutions in order to perpetuate their idea of citizenship. The legal status of citizenship established equality among Athenian citizens in terms of their rights and obligations. The status of equal membership marked privilege vis-a-vis nonmembers. The overall legal status of Athenian citizenship was defined by sharp boundaries, which distinguished Athenians from foreigners, resident aliens, and slaves. The minority of full citizens faced a majority of nonprivileged noncitizens whose rights were severely circumscribed. Apart from the legal framework, the concept of Athenian citizenship included a set of citizen values, behaviors, and communal attitudes. ‘Passive’ legal citizenship was not necessarily, but ideally and practically, linked to democracy by the civic virtues of an ‘active’ citizen, which permitted him to ‘share in the polis,’ a politically active and autonomous community (Manville 1990). Greek city-state citizenship and its dual construction as legal framework and civic ideal was conceptualized in the political philosophy of Aristotle as a model of ‘ruling and being ruled in turn.’ It became the model of citizenship as such.

Roman citizenship was more complex, expansive, and legalistic than its Greek counterpart. The history of Roman citizenship over eight centuries, from the end of the monarchy to the decline of the Roman Empire, reveals the stages of its development from an instrument for defining the city-state community to one for the legal integration of an extensive world empire. The Twelve Tables established the quality of Roman citizenship as a legal benefit and attractive political and social status. In the fourth century BC, with the territorial expansion of Roman rule over Latium, Roman citizenship was conferred upon annexed enemies and (Italian) allies alike as an instrument for promoting loyalty and political integration. By the first century BC, citizenship of the Roman Republic had reached its greatest ‘density’: the highest level of participatory rights in the government of the republic and equality before the law accompanied a golden age of civic education and virtues. This construction lost its balance in the Roman Empire. The largest territorial expansion of Roman citizenship, its conferral upon nearly all men within the confines of the Empire except for slaves, meant the erosion of its quality as a privilege and a proof of superior morality. With the decline of the Empire, the diminution in standards of citizenship corresponded to the degeneration of civic educational standards. Although the concept of citizenship did not necessarily depend on democracy, its development was most favored by the political conditions of a strongly participatory, republican order. A centralized, differentiated legal order within the city or state had, at least, proved to be the indispensable precondition for the development of citizenship. With the loss of a central, universal legal structure at the end of the Roman Empire, citizenship became obsolete as a political concept.

Christianity rejected the model of political order to which ancient philosophy, especially Aristotle and Cicero, had contributed. It developed a complete alternative system of social and moral values, which helped to establish a new institutional political order. The rise of Christian corporatism and its unlimited commitment to the Kingdom of God produced a dichotomous organization of the body politic. A dual system arose of metaphysically based allegiance to the Church and personal allegiance to the monarch. A system of multifaceted loyalty replaced the concentration of the citizen’s loyalty upon the state. The notion of citizenship was transferred to a spiritual ‘City of God’ (Augustine). Thus, the institutional point of reference for the ancient model of citizenship disappeared. In the Middle Ages, the term ‘citizenship’ (French: citoyennete) did not describe an Englishman’s (or Frenchman’s) relationship with his country. In keeping with its immediate etymological origins (‘city’), it referred solely to the rights and duties of a free city-or town-dweller, i.e., to a local, urban community.

The lack of a centralizing and nationalizing state power in parts of medieval Europe left room for the growth of a strong, urban citizenship, particularly in the city-states of northern and central Italy. Along with the weakness of the monarchy, a certain continuity of Roman law and civic responsibility formed the backdrop for the upsurge of a politically active municipal life with a high participation of the citizenry in decision-making. A vigorous philosophical revival of the Aristotelian concept of citizenship paved the way for a resurgence of the classical concept of citizenship during the Renaissance. The founding of universities, which promoted the development of Roman law, a vital communal life, and a rich theoretical literature on a rational and egalitarian order (particularly the work of Niccolo Macchiavelli) made the city-state world of Upper Italy a birthplace of modern citizenship.

The theory and political order of state sovereignty in European absolutism with its concentration of central state power and its unambiguous claim to loyalty prepared the ground for a national rather than local concept of modern citizenship. The personal and territorial delimitation of sovereign states and the ordering of their international relations increased the problem of defining membership in and allegiance to the state. The call for (individual) rights of religious freedom and self-government, strengthened by religious opponents of the state, and revolutionary efforts at founding government upon popular sovereignty, for example in England, were the predecessors to active citizenship. The institutional foundations for such participatory claims and rights remained narrow, however. They were often confined to the level of local government or socially privileged groups. The contrast between a basically oligarchic and a democratic political citizenship (Heater 1990) became evident.

The eighteenth century brought the breakthrough of citizenship on a central level of political theory and institutions. The word ‘citizen’—and its French equivalent citoyen—became a key concept in the legitimation of the political struggle against the feudal ancien regime (Gosewinkel 2001), as well as in the struggle for equality before the law, freedom from religious discrimination and arbitrary arrest, the extension of political rights and popular democracy. The decisive step from a political and educational program to a legal guarantee was taken by American constitutionalism, however. The revolution of the American colonies against the ties and obligations of subjecthood to the English Crown was accompanied by a decisive change in legal terminology. Within the decade before the enactment of the Federal Constitution (1787), the term ‘citizen’ came to replace previously related words such as ‘subject’ and ‘inhabitant’ in constitutional texts. The republican concepts of ‘citizen’ and ‘citizenship’ marked a political and terminological break with the feudal age. From this point onward citizen and citizenship became core terms of a state order based on democracy and constitutionalism. The American constitution introduced a revolutionary new type of legal instrument that firmly rooted any state power in the law, while simultaneously subjecting it to legal control. The constitutionalization of state power represented a fundamental development in early modern Western history: the subjection of social and political relationships to legal norms (Verrechtlichung). With the constitutionalization of membership status in a republican state order, the concept of citizenship gained new importance. It unified the claims to equality and political participation inherent in the classical concept of city-state citizenship, transferred it to the state level and gave it a new quality of legal efficacy. The constitutionalization of citizenship with its classical connotation of civil idealism and civic virtue represented a strong and permanent challenge to inequality and exclusion from rights in political practice. At the same time, the shift in scale from the small local community to the level of the abstract state risked attenuation in the practices and understandings of citizenship. The need for a new, expansive legitimation of citizenship to the state arose.

The French Revolution made citizenship (citoyennete) one of its key concepts (Waldinger et al. 1993). This new citizenship combined four traits that were to become essential for the development of citizenship throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: its egalitarian, antifeudal impetus, its confirmation as a key concept of the legal constitution, its association with extensive individual rights, and finally its nationalization. The modern concept of citizenship arose together with the concept of the nation-state (Bendix 1964) and became one of its central legal institutions. The age of revolution and constitutionalism in the Western world was also an age of an increasing delimitation of national citizenries. Extended citizenship law came to define membership in the nation-state as well as the rules of naturalization policy. Whether they were based on an inclusionary, territorial model (USA, France) or an exclusionary, descent-based model (Central and Eastern Europe), citizenship and citizenship law became key instruments for defining national identity and controlling migration in a modern world characterized by in- creasing transnational mobility (Brubaker 1992). The central function of citizenship in defining membership in the sense of nationality was supplemented by a second main function: that of conferring upon the citizen individual rights vis-a-vis the state. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Western constitutional states extended the range of civil, political, and, increasingly, social rights which were reserved mainly for their own citizens. The nationalization of citizenship as a membership status corresponded to a nationalization of citizens’ rights. Citizenship became an institution for distributing ‘life opportunities’ in a world of nation-states.

As the importance of citizenship as a legal entitlement increased, its extension to new members became more and more contested within the national citizenry. The struggle for inclusion, for example in American constitutional law, dominates the history of citizenship to this day. The gradual extension of equal civil rights to groups resident on American soil who had been denied citizenship rights and subjected to discrimination on the basis of ethnic or national origin, religious beliefs, social status, or gender determined the direction that citizenship was to take. The claims of discriminated groups to equality became the motor for full inclusion in the community defined by citizenship.

With the decline of liberal democracy, and the rise of radical nationalism, racism, and totalitarian dictatorship in the constitutional states of Europe and Asia, the period between the two world wars represented an interruption in the development of modern citizenship. The dominance of ascriptive national, ethnic, or racial criteria in admission to citizenship, the splintering of the citizenry through hierarchical classes of rights, the withdrawal of civil rights and massive expatriation of millions, destroyed the core of equality within the concept of citizenship. The rise of an army of stateless people deprived of rights and protection (Arendt 1951) revealed how dependent citizenship was on the liberal legal structures of the nation-state.

Developments after the Second World War were characterized by a dual tendency. On the one hand, the restoration of liberal democracy saw a reconstruction of citizenship. This was reinforced and extended to the global arena after 1989 with the end of ideological block confrontations and the adoption of democratic and constitutional patterns by most of the formerly communist states. On the other hand, there is also evidence of a tendency towards a certain ‘devaluation’ of citizenship. The weakening of nation-state structures, the trend towards transnational political unions, global standards and guarantees of civil rights as human rights have all diminished the importance of (national) citizenship for the conferral of individual rights. While formal citizenship is still crucial on the level of the right to full participation in the political arena, this no longer applies to economic and social rights. Citizenship as national membership status is of decreasing importance for the exercise of these increasingly relevant rights (Soysal 1994).

The historical development of citizenship from its beginning in the Greek city-states has been characterized by a multiple process of expansion. Citizenship expanded from a membership status in a local community to a central membership in the territorial nation-state. Citizenship as entitlement to individual rights was transferred from the level of the nationstate to that of supranational communities. From its inception in the Greek city-communities, the concept and ideal of citizenship has spread all over the world to states based on the principle of constitutional democracy. The substantive program of citizenship as a set of individual rights has expanded from political and civil to encompass social and economic rights, and ultimately cultural and environmental rights as well.

2. The Historical Conceptualization Of Citizenship

Two main features mark the conceptualization of citizenship. The first consists of the twofold structure of a legally defined status of membership and rights on the one hand and a philosophical and normative ideal of ‘good’ civic behavior on the other. The second feature depends on the basic structure of equality within citizenship. Its conceptual development may be interpreted as a claim for recognition as equal and a struggle for inclusion. In the classical age of citizenship, its inclusive function consisted of either defining a ruling oligarchy with precisely delineated privileges or expanding a low standard of rights to an extensive group for the purposes of political integration. The linkage between a substantively high standard of citizenship rights and its extension to a broad group of persons was the result of a change in politics and theory that began in the early modern period. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, the concept of citizenship lost its coherence and republican ethos (Riesenberg 1992). The classical idea of citizenship survived as a historical concept in education and political literature, however. It corresponded doubly with the era’s need for a break with old categories and concepts. First, the vision of an ‘active’ citizen fit well with the notion of a modern, visionary, and enterprising ‘polytechnic man’ as outlined in the political theories of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Second, the concept of citizenship was enlarged by bringing the terms ‘citizen’ and ‘subject of the monarch’ closer together, and indeed mingling them. The era’s most elaborate conceptualization of citizenship, undertaken by Jean Bodin, transferred citizenship from the local to the state level. According to Bodin, the citizen was a superior subject of the sovereign monarch. Citizenship denoted a direct, personal link between the individual and his sovereign. This conceptual transfer opened the way for a revolutionary, egalitarian view: from the perspective of the sovereign all citizens were equal qua subjection to the monarch’s sovereign authority. It was not until the eighteenth century that this kind of passive equality was transformed by the subject-citizen into a new, revolutionary call for active citizenship, i.e., for participation in sovereignty.

The concept that paved the way for this fundamental change of perspective was the revolutionary idea of ‘civil society.’ It emerged in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a result of a crisis both in the reality and idea of social order. In an age marked by an unprecedented commercialization of human relations, the growth of market economies and political revolution, the regulatory idea of the social order was no longer derived from a deity external to the temporal world, but from within it and its ethical values. The vision of an all-encompassing ‘society’ of human beings, equal, autonomous, and rational by nature, who defined their own political order, and challenged the traditional norms of monarchical order, ecclesiastical claims, and social hierarchy. Beginning with John Locke and the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, and passing on to Kant, Hegel, and eventually Marx, the idea of ‘civil society’ (in German: ‘burgerliche Gesellschaft’) laid the groundwork for a new idea of citizenship. Although not always developed systematically, the concept of the citizen and citizenship constituted the normative core of civil society (Haltern 1985). Out of Locke’s view of civil society as a system of individual rights and duties, Kant’s definition of the public arena in civil society as a sphere of juridical equality among citizens, and Hegel’s (Riedel 1972) and Marx’s vision of civil society as a field of conflicting particular interests, elements of a new understanding of citizenship emerged. It now referred to the central state, not the local community, and was based on individual autonomy, not obedience and subjection. It was legally constituted and based on the principle of legal equality, not oligarchic privilege. Finally, it was inclusive with regard to the principles of property and achievement. This new citizenship represented an ideal and became a key concept in the language of American and European revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century. It was not, however, the product of political revolution. Its achievement was the result not only of the conceptualization of ‘civil society,’ but also of its realization as a new formation of social and political order throughout the Western world. This process marked such a major caesura in the historical development of citizenship that it may be considered the rise of a ‘second citizenship’ (Riesenberg 1992).

In contrast to the universal and egalitarian concept of ‘civil society,’ the development of citizenship in the nineteenth century ran up against three fundamental obstacles to its realization in political practice. The first obstacle was nationality. Citizenship was conceptualized as membership in the nation-state. While the rights conferred upon citizens by the liberal constitutions of the nineteenth century grew in number and substance, they were increasingly confined to nationals. The universalist pathos of human rights, which was still inherent in the revolutionary declarations of the American and French Revolutions (e.g., The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen), was increasingly reduced to national entitlements and interpreted in this light by legal scholars. The pre-and transnational origins and impetus of ‘civil society’ gave way to a nationally restricted concept of constitutional citizenship, which had lost its universalist ethos of civic values.

The second obstacle was gender inequality. Citizenship was conceptualized in a seemingly genderneutral manner, although both membership status and the civic ideal of an ‘active citizen’ were based on rights and activities that were largely reserved for men. The construction of the state as a ‘male state’ was a challenge to the principle of equality by law which was proclaimed by the American and French revolutions. From its beginning, the revolutionary principle of citizenship did not imply equal rights for women. The traditional concept of citizenship of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century was deeply gendered. Thus it became a central issue of deconstruction in feminist critiques (Pateman 1988).

The third obstacle to democratic citizenship was criticized by Karl Marx in the 1840s. He demonstrated that the provision of equality in civil and political citizenship rights was merely a formal, legal one: it left untouched the practical inequalities in people’s abilities to exercise the rights or legal capacities that constituted citizen status. Moreover, even the exercise of the rights of membership could not influence the basic conditions of class inequality because of the purely formal nature of these rights. Marx interpreted bourgeois citizenship as an instrument of class rule, and thus as an institution of industrial society, which was particularly driven by class. Citizenship as a phenomenon of the modern industrializing world thus corresponded to the interest of the new social sciences. It was sociologists, beginning with Max Weber, who analyzed the origins and growing importance of citizenship in the modern social order. Because citizenship was imbedded in the ‘Western’ model of modernization and industrialization, it came to be identified as a specifically Western concept of political and social order.

During the first half of the twentieth century, though, intellectual interest in the concept of citizenship was mainly historical. As a political ideal it suffered both from Marx’s cutting critique and the crisis of the liberal-democratic idea between the world wars. Thus, only the restoration of a democratic political order after the Second World War and the significant success of the welfare states established at that time paved the way for the revival of citizenship as a key concept in both social analysis and politics. It was against this background that the 1950 article on ‘Citizenship and social class’ by the English sociologist T. H. Marshall attained its path-breaking influence over the entire debate on citizenship in the second half of the twentieth century. Marshall took up the interpretation of citizenship as a set of rights and analyzed its historical development as a successive creation of civil, political, and social rights. Marshall particularly stressed two conclusions that were crucial to the revaluation of citizenship as both an analytical instrument and a political ideal: his emphasis on the gradual expansion of rights and the ultimate undermining of class conflict by the achievement of social rights weakened the Marxist critique. At the same time, Marshall asserted that by challenging existing inequities and calling for their abolition as an individual right, equality (as the conceptual core of citizenship) was a dynamic principle that continued to exercise an emancipatory and inclusive influence.

By doing so, Marshall’s concept of citizenship attained the force of a universal claim to equality that was applicable to a virtually unlimited range of subject matters. Despite continuing Marxist skepticism, social citizenship was interpreted as a call for the stabilization and expansion of social welfare rights (Turner 1986). The lack of civil and political rights strengthened the call for citizenship as a key concept of opposition to dictatorships in the Soviet block. The idea of civil society was rediscovered in Central and Eastern Europe as a basis for citizenship rights and translated into a political program for restructuring post-Soviet societies after 1989.

This expansive conceptualization has had a dual effect. After the downfall of the Soviet block and the global expansion of democratic constitutionalism, citizenship was adopted globally as a constitutive element of the democratic order (Thompson 1970). New states in Asia, Africa, and South America used citizenship to integrate into the society of world democracy. At the same time, social conflict and cultural change within the states with citizenship traditions were often conceptualized as calls for equality and recognition expressed in terms of citizenship. Massive transnational migration and attempts to take account of ‘multiculturalism’ (Kymlicka 1995), the enforcement of gender equality and sexual rights (Lister 1997), the debates within liberalism and communitarianism surrounding the foundation and values of a ‘good’ civic life—all of these issues have been interpreted as struggles over citizenship rights. Ultimately, citizenship has become increasingly detached from its association with the nation-state and conceptualized instead as ‘transnational citizenship’ (Baubock 1994), culminating in the vision of ‘world citizenship’ (Heater 1996).

The global success and expansion of the term ‘citizenship’ has not, however, necessarily stabilized the underlying concept. As a political ideal, citizenship has been transplanted to states that lack the historical foundation of a ‘civil society.’ It may, therefore, prove inadequate for the social and cultural traditions of non-Western states. Historically, citizenship’s efficacy as a claim for rights was always based on political sovereignty—be it monarchical or popular. This was a prerequisite both for addressing individual claims and enforcing the corresponding civil duties. With the pluralist expansion of citizenship rights in a situation of declining nation-state sovereignty and a nascent world state order, citizenship as it currently exists may lack the requisite unifying force. As Roman history demonstrates, the global expansion of citizenship does not necessarily lead to its global achievement.


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