The Concept of Citizenship

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Citizenship is the legal status of a person, often associated with rights and obligations, within a nation, state or commonwealth. It can also indicate a social relationship of loyalty and reciprocity, as described by terms such as “belonging” or “shared cultural heritage.” Different nations define citizenship in different ways. For example, some allow citizens to vote in elections, while others require them to pay taxes.

Although the concept of citizenship is generally seen as a Western phenomenon, there has recently been an upsurge of philosophical interest in the subject. In particular, the relation between citizenship and the political is a topic of concern to scholars from diverse disciplines, including philosophy, history, sociology, and law.

In the classical and liberal traditions, the concept of citizenship is understood as a legal status that allows individuals to engage in politics on equal terms with others. This is the basis for the modern notion of a constitutional democracy in which all citizens are considered to be equal participants in the political process, even though they may not share all the same opinions about what is politically desirable.

From the 17th century onwards, other ideas of citizenship have developed, mainly in reaction to the absolutist monarchies that had become dominant in Europe and elsewhere. For example, the term citizen came to be used as a label for members of the middle class in urban societies. In the medieval period, titles like burgher (in Italian or German) or grand burgher were used to signify membership of a mercantile class and thereby privileges and protection from feudal overlords.

The modern understanding of citizenship has come to include both the idea that citizens have political rights and the idea that they have responsibilities to their community. In the latter case, the concept is sometimes referred to as the “rule of law” or the idea that citizens have duties to obey laws enacted by the government and that it is the duty of citizens to help enforce these laws.

It is widely accepted that the responsibilities of citizens are more important than their political rights, but this is an area where there are considerable differences in the interpretations of what constitutes these duties. For example, some countries recognize all adults as citizens who have a right to vote in elections and the duty to participate in civic activities; other countries consider only those born within the territory of the country to be citizens; and still others limit citizenship to those who can prove their parents were citizens at the time of birth.

In contrast, other political theories of citizenship have emphasized the role of an individual’s personal experience in shaping his or her sense of belonging and in defining what it means to be a citizen. This perspective has been most clearly articulated by the republican position, which asserts that citizenship is a matter of an individual’s participation in politics rather than a legal status based on inherited qualities such as race or religion.