Political Citizenship Research Paper

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It may seem superfluous to subtitle a discussion of citizenship as ‘political.’ The term is at core ineradicably political: its oldest, most basic, and most prevalent meaning is a certain sort of membership in a political community. There are nonetheless good reasons to underline just how deeply political citizenship is, as this essay strives to do. The chief reason is that, precisely because citizenship is so profoundly political a term, there are recurrent pressures to depoliticize both its meaning and its accompanying practice. These pressures, and the understandings of citizenship they propagate, are best seen as confirmations of the political character of citizenship, not as alternative, apolitical conceptions.

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1. Four Meanings Of Citizenship

Perhaps the most familiar meaning of citizenship is in fact the seminal one. In both ancient and modern republics and democracies, a citizen has been a person with political rights to participate in processes of popular self-governance. Yet we also commonly speak of citizenship as a more purely legal status. Citizens are people who are recognized legally as members of a particular political community and who, therefore, possess some basic rights to be protected by that community’s government, whether or not those rights include rights of political participation. During the last century, moreover, many have come to use citizen as a way of referring to those who belong to almost any human association, whether a political community or some other group. I can be said metaphorically to be a citizen of my neighborhood, my fitness club, and my university as well as my broader political community. Finally, we often use citizenship to signify not just membership but certain standards of proper conduct, implying that only ‘good’ citizens are truly citizens in the full meaning of the term.

The word citizen derives from the Latin ci is, meaning a member of an ancient city-state, preeminently the Roman republic; but ci is was a Latin rendering of the Greek term polites, a member of a Greek polis. Innumerable scholars have told how a renowned resident of the Athenian polis, Aristotle, defined a polites or citizen as someone who rules and is ruled in turn, making citizenship conceptually inseparable from political governance (Aristotle 1968, p. 1275a23). Aristotle doubtless pleased many Athenians by arguing that such a status and activity, properly performed, represented the highest form of life available to most men. Yet this life was not available to Aristotle himself; he was not an Athenian citizen but a metic, a resident alien. He also suggested that the philosophic life he could and did pursue was in the end the highest of all; and the fact that he chose to pursue this life in a city that denied him citizenship may call into question how valuable he really thought citizenship to be.

His fulsome praise of the citizenship his Athenian hosts had created thus suggests how greatly definitions of citizenship have always been shaped by the political structures of power within which they have been offered. It clearly would not have been prudent for Aristotle to denigrate Athenian citizenship. The fact that neither Aristotle nor most of other residents of Athens, including aliens, women and slaves, were eligible for citizenship also underlines how citizenship originated not only as a way of structuring membership, but also as a way of distributing power within a particular political regime. That distribution disempowered far more Athenians than it enfranchised. Even so, the ideal of citizenship as self-governance that Athens and Aristotle established has often served since as an inspiration and instrument for political efforts to achieve greater inclusion and engagement in political life.

As such, this ancient idea of citizenship has often seemed politically threatening to many rulers, who have abolished or redefined the category. It was for this sort of political reason—because the regimes that had created citizenship succumbed to conquest by Alexander the Great’s monarchical empire—that ancient Greek citizenship disappeared. And it was for a similar political reason—because the Roman republic gave way to imperial rule generated from within—that Roman citizenship came to have a different meaning than the one Aristotle articulated. In principle, Roman citizenship always carried with it the right to sit in the popular legislative assembly that had been the hallmark of Athenian citizenship. But as participation in that assembly became increasingly meaningless as well as impractical for most imperial inhabitants, Roman citizenship became essentially a legal status comparable to modern nationality (Pocock 1995). It provided rights to legal protection by Roman soldiers and judges in return for allegiance to Rome. That status was less ‘political’ in the sense that it no longer evoked recurrent engagement in practices of self-governance, but it was quite plainly a politically crafted status that represented a new distribution of power of enormous political significance.

Citizenship was then eclipsed in the West by the various feudal and religious statuses of the medieval Christian world, but it did not vanish entirely. ‘Burghers’ or the bourgeoisie were citizens of municipalities that often had some special if restricted rights of self-governance within feudal hierarchies. Such burghers remained, however, fundamentally subjects of some ruling prince or lord, with their citizenship chiefly providing legal rights of protection in the manner of Roman imperial citizenship. In contrast, during the Renaissance some Italian cities achieved both independence and a meaningful measure of popular self-governance. They invoked ancient ‘republican’ ideals of participatory citizenship to define and defend their regimes. Their experiences in turn fed into the antimonarchical revolutions that created the first modern republics, including the short-lived seventeenth century English Commonwealth and late eighteenth-century French Republic, as well as the still-enduring United States (Pocock 1975).

In complex fashion, those revolutions inaugurated transformations ‘from subjectship to citizenship’ across much of the globe that are still ongoing today, when most of the world’s governments proclaim themselves to be ‘republics’ of some sort populated by citizens. It is in that context that we have come to use citizen ubiquitously for almost every kind of membership in every kind of organization, and to equate genuine citizenship with being a good, contributing member of those organizations. These pervasive popularizations of the term reflect, however, political developments that have in some respects diminished the significance of citizenship even as the term has spread.

2. The Politics Of Apolitical Citizenship

Men created the early modern republics in an international realm that had been organized by the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia into a system of mutual recognition among overwhelmingly monarchical nation–states. In gaining acceptance within that system, the new republics defined their citizens as having the same international status as national monarchical subjects. For international purposes, these citizens, too, were simply persons who owed allegiance to and could claim protection from particular governments. Thus, Westphalian international law treated modern republican citizenship as akin to the legalistic, protection-oriented version of Roman citizenship.

Furthermore, Americans especially forged their republic amid racial and gender hierarchies that few leaders sought to challenge. Hence they felt compelled to argue that, though free blacks and women might be citizens, citizenship did not in fact inherently entail rights of political participation. It guaranteed, once again, only more limited rights to certain judicial and executive protections (Smith 1997). For long stretches of time, then, both international and domestic politics worked to strengthen legalistic as opposed to the more participatory conceptions of citizenship despite the rise of modern republicanism.

Yet even though courts made the narrower, protection-centered view of citizenship legally authoritative, the notion that genuine citizenship involved rights of political participation remained a resonant rhetorical tool of legislative and constitutional reformers. Eventually both domestic protest movements and international pressures, including the need for broad support in wartime, converged to work for the expansion of the franchise to all adult citizens in the US and most of the western world. In America, blacks won both citizenship and voting rights after the Civil War, even though most came to be effectively disfranchised in the ‘Jim Crow’ segregation era; and women gained the franchise after World War I. In both cases, arguments appealing to their public service, especially in wartime, and to the idea that true citizenship must include the franchise, played key roles in their successes (Foner 1988, Flexner 1973).

In Britain and to some degree in other western European nations that had been politically configured essentially by feudal and industrial class systems, modern citizenship was wrought out via somewhat different struggles. As Marshall famously argued, first middle and then working class political pressures resulted in the expansion of civil rights of property and protection, then in near-universal rights of political participation, and finally and incompletely, in ‘social rights’ for all national citizens that included income, housing, medical, and educational guarantees (Marshall 1950). But even as the franchise has broadened in the US, Europe, and elsewhere, the notion of citizenship as active participation in meaningful self-governance has become more remote to many modern citizens. In part the logistics of large-scale modern societies make effective democratic participation very difficult. In part the economic and cultural developments that have led to a focus on ‘social citizenship’ make political activism seem less important. Engagement in one’s social and economic organizations can appear more pressing. Perhaps, then, the term citizenship has become common in such contexts because it is there that people find the memberships that mean the most and in which they can most actively participate. If so, then the inevitable corollary is that citizenship understood as political self-governance has become quite secondary to many modern citizens. Yet this, too, is a signal political development. It is probable that like their predecessors in other regimes, many who wield power in modern republics are content when those they govern think of citizenship chiefly in terms of subnational, often nongovernmental associations, and in terms of the ‘good citizen’s’ civic service rather than vigorous political participation. Certainly few policies within modern republics do much to enhance the feasibility and potency of such participation.

3. The Prospect Of Postnational Citizenships

Though some scholars and democratic activists lament this current circumstance, others stress that the heightened transnational economic, transportation, and communication systems that we call globalization are in any case making traditional notions of national citizenship obsolete (Soysal 1994). Regional associations, international legal institutions, and transnational economic, cultural, and political organizations are all said to be more likely to shape humanity’s future than existing national regimes. Hence membership in such bodies will represent the most important forms of citizenship in the twenty-first century.

That such globalizing trends exist is undeniable, though often national governmental actors remain major players even in transnational or international organizations and institutions. Despite advances in communication and transportation, moreover, meaningful participation in the governance of such populous and geographically far-flung entities seems even more chimerical for most people, deepening the eclipse of citizenship’s oldest meaning. Thus there is a real prospect that the idea of citizenship increasingly will be severed not only from engagement in traditional forms of self-governance, but even from membership in some titularly sovereign political community. It may become a term for membership and participation in a wide variety of human groups, often simultaneously.

There are, however, reasons to doubt this scenario. History suggests that the leaders of political communities rarely give up power willingly. Therefore, it is not surprising that efforts to resist globalizing trends and reinvigorate loyalties to existing nations and regimes are also visible players in modern ‘citizenship politics,’ particularly in regard to immigration policies. A truly all-encompassing global government, more- over, still seems a fantasy, so that memberships in particular political communities are likely to remain important features of human life, even if those communities come to be constituted in new ways. Under at least some conditions, moreover, many people may feel great concern over the decline in forms of citizenship through which they can exercise some genuine control over their collective lives. The fact that political and social reform movements have often gained wide support by insisting that citizenship means sharing in governance shows that such feelings can be politically powerful fuel driving quite important changes.

Thus, we cannot rule out the possibility that older notions of participatory citizenship may continue to play a role in the recrafting of political institutions and communities that the twenty-first century will inevitably see. But whatever forms of citizenship result, they will almost certainly be the products of political contests that result in distributions of powers and memberships to some people and not others, distributions that will convey to them certain rights and protections, and not others. Hence, citizenship will remain what it has always been, a fundamentally political status through which human beings partly order both their individual and their collective lives.


  1. Aristotle 1968 The Politics of Aristotle. Clarendon Press, Oxford
  2. Flexner E 1973 Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States. Atheneum, New York
  3. Foner E 1988 Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. Harper & Row, New York
  4. Marshall T H 1950 Citizenship and Social Class and Other Essays. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  5. Pocock J G A 1975 The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  6. Pocock J G A 1995 The ideal of citizenship since classical times. In: Beiner R S (ed.) Theorizing Citizenship. State University Press of New York, Albany, NY
  7. Smith R M 1997 Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
  8. Soysal Y N 1994 Limits of Citizenship: Migrants and Postnational Membership in Europe. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
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