The Concept of Citizenship

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Citizenship is the status of an individual within a society that gives them rights and responsibilities, and offers them protection. It is usually associated with the right to vote, to take part in politics and public administration, to receive education, health services and social care, to own land and to live within a certain territory (either a country or a community of nations). A citizen also has access to employment opportunities, to public facilities and to protection by the state in case of crime. A society with a strong civic identity is likely to have citizens who are highly committed and engaged in the political life of their community.

Differences between conceptions of citizenship centre on four disagreements: over the precise definition of each of the three dimensions (legal, political and identity); over their relative importance; over the causal and conceptual relations between them; and over appropriate normative standards. Throughout the history of political philosophy, different models of citizenship have been advanced, and have been found to be compatible with one another only to an extent. In particular, two models are dominant today: the republican and the liberal model.

The republican model of citizenship, with its roots in ancient Greek democracy, Republican Rome, the city-states of Italy and the French workers’ councils, envisages a civic identity which is central to an individual’s sense of self; and a strong civic identity can itself motivate him or her to engage actively in politics. By contrast, the liberal model of citizenship, with its roots in the 17th century and the writings of Locke, Rousseau and Kant, assumes that the private sphere of an individual’s life will leave him or her little time or inclination to engage in politics; thus he or she will entrust his or her participation in a constitutional democracy to representatives.

Both models are widely accepted and, in their different ways, have shaped contemporary constitutional democracies. However, the premise on which they are based has come under increasing scrutiny. As a result, the concept of a sovereign, territorial state as the necessary context in which citizenship can thrive is being challenged by those who argue that it is possible for citizenship to be exercised in a multiplicity of sites below and above the nation-state and who claim that the notion of the right to live anywhere in the world is compatible with the idea of the democratic nation-state.

Furthermore, recent discussions in the fields of disability rights and animal rights challenge a basic assumption on which many theories of citizenship have been built: the idea that discourse is an important medium through which law acts as a means of satisfying social wants, needs and expectations. This challenge is a fundamental one for the development of any theory of citizenship. A theory of citizenship must be capable of incorporating these new challenges and making the transition to a more diverse and multi-cultural society a reality. This is not an easy task, but it is essential if citizenship is to fulfil its vital political role in the modern world.