The Concept of Citizenship

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Citizenship is a crucial social, political and economic concept. It denotes membership in a polity with definite territorial boundaries within which all citizens enjoy equal rights and exercise their political agency. It is the fundamental building block of a democratic state, an idea which has been at the core of political thinking for over a century and which underlies much contemporary political theory.

Contemporary republican and liberal theories tend to build their ideal pictures of citizenship around the idea that it presupposes a public sphere where citizens freely engage in debate with each other over public issues, e.g., by voting in elections, campaigning for politicians or demonstrating against government decisions or policies. These activities, however, all presuppose the capacity for a certain kind of rational agency – the ability to listen to others and debate their views in a constructive and respectful manner. This view of a public sphere is in tension with the fact that many people do not possess these capacities, and that this makes it very difficult for them to participate in democratic politics.

The liberal model of citizenship, in contrast, places greater emphasis on the democratic process and the deliberative opinions and wills of citizens as a way to generate civic integration and social solidarity. For Habermas, this democratic process can only work if it is free of cultural assumptions and, as a consequence, is responsive to changes in the sociocultural composition of the citizenry. It is also associated with the principle of popular sovereignty, which is based on the notion that democratic legitimacy is achieved through collective decision-making and the exercise of a public will (Habermas 2001a).

In both models, however, the link between citizenship and a specific territorial community is questioned by international migration, which produces what Baubock calls “a mismatch between citizens and the territory within which the law operates” (Baubock 2008, 321). The tight association between rights, citizenship and territorial communities has become blurred. For some, this raises questions about the nature of the democratic political sphere and the importance of the principle of public reason in a pluralist context.

Moreover, the policy of some states to recognize the voting rights of expatriates who have settled abroad over recent years raises other important questions. Normative theorists have largely been critical of this development, especially with regard to the tendency for such states to extend the definition of citizenship beyond its traditional geographical and legal boundaries to groups with common values and ethno-cultural traits (Pogonyi 2014). The question arises whether such a policy is consistent with the republican vision of citizenship as a form of civic integration. In any event, the extension of voting rights to migrants who do not live in their home country appears to undermine the public sphere and political participation and, more generally, the idea of a democratic process that is capable of generating appropriate levels of social solidarity.