The Concept of Citizenship

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Citizenship is a concept that lies at the heart of contemporary debates on multiculturalism, integration and equality. Despite its many different definitions, conceptions of citizenship are usually grounded in the idea that it presupposes membership in a sovereign, territorial state and the existence of a bounded political community that furnishes a shared source of identity. For the last century this has been a common theme in most theories of citizenship and, arguably, it has remained the central assumption underpinning most policy initiatives in this field.

The first section of this entry examines the main dimensions of citizenship – legal, political and identity – and shows how they are instantiated in very different ways within two dominant models: the republican and the liberal. It also considers the feminist critique of the private/public distinction, which is central to both models. This is important because it raises fundamental questions about the relation between personal life and politics, and about how laws and policies structure personal circumstances (e.g. abortion law, child-care policies and allocation of welfare benefits).

In the final section we consider the implications of social and cultural pluralism to conceptions of citizenship. The challenge that this poses is to determine how, if at all, to reconcile the demands of pluralism with the need for the state to maintain social cohesion and integration. In particular, the question arises of whether or not concepts of citizenship should recognize, rather than transcend, difference, and, if so, what are the implications for citizenship’s purported role in strengthening social cohesion? This challenge has brought to the forefront the debates about how to understand citizenship in a post-national context. It has also brought to light a number of debates about how best to construct processes of formal citizenship acquisition, including the introduction of various tests. While these measures ostensibly aim to promote citizenship and sense of belonging, they have also made it more difficult for those seeking citizenship, particularly migrants. As a result, they have been criticized as undermining the fundamental principles of citizenship. They are often seen as contradicting the principle of equality, and as reducing citizenship to mere entitlement to rights. Moreover, they have been criticised for failing to take into account the complex and diverse nature of communities and their relationship to the state. This criticism has a particular resonance in the UK where the coalition government has pledged to make settlement (and thus formal citizenship) more difficult by changing the requirement for migrants to undertake ‘active citizenship’. These changes are likely to have a significant impact on the number of people who gain citizenship, and therefore may affect the way that they engage with their local communities. In addition they may lead to a reduction in the numbers of migrant families who qualify for British citizenship. This will be an important test of the extent to which these measures can achieve their aims.