The Conceptualization of Citizenship

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Citizenship is the legal status of people belonging to a political community that gives them rights and responsibilities and serves as the focus of their identity. Throughout history, many different conceptions of citizenship have emerged, but they have shared the belief that the necessary context for this status is the sovereign, territorial state. This entry discusses how these ideas are being challenged, especially in the light of recent developments such as international migration and the debate over animal rights.

While some scholars have viewed the notion of citizen as an ancient phenomenon originating in city-states such as Ancient Greece, others view it as a recent development that was primarily a result of the development of modern nation-states. The latter, in turn, were the consequence of political upheavals and reforms that abolished privileges and created an idea of equality between citizens.

For the majority of the modern period, citizenship was understood as a set of civil and political rights granted to people who belong to a nationality by birth or choice of parents. As a social category, it was associated with an active participation in politics and in civic institutions and organizations. The idea of citizen was reinforced by the rise of the social sciences and political philosophy. In a world that was growing increasingly diverse, it became essential to establish a new form of social integration.

One of the central tenets of the concept was that citizens must be subject to the rule of law in order to maintain public order and protect their rights against violent social forces. This idea is still at the heart of most legal systems, although it has been criticized for its excessive emphasis on obedience and for its disregard of the role of conscience in the law.

Some political scientists and philosophers have argued that the traditional understanding of citizenship has become obsolete. They argue that in modern societies, the most important feature of citizenship is a negotiated commitment to democratic principles and practices. This is a commitment that must take into account both the varying cultural heritage of citizens and the diverse economic, political, and ideological views of individuals. This new definition of citizenship requires a new way of viewing the role of civil society and government, including a more active role for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Another key feature of modern citizenship is its recognition that the state is not the only legitimate source of legitimacy and that there are alternative sources of authority such as religious groups and communities. Some have even proposed that the concept of citizen be expanded to include a wider group of social actors such as nongovernmental organizations, charities, and volunteer groups. This idea challenges the prevailing assumption that the public sphere must be completely separate from the private sphere and that citizens must behave like automatons who obey without question the dictates of the authorities in charge. In addition, it reflects the growing recognition that human rights violations are often perpetrated by governments themselves and therefore must be dealt with in accordance with universal standards.