Citizenship is the legal status that grants a person full rights and responsibilities as a member of a nation or political community. It can be acquired through birth, nationality of one or both parents, naturalization or by other means such as a visa.
The relationship between citizenship and nationhood is a complex and ongoing process that has varied significantly throughout history and within each society. However, there are some common elements that have been consistent across societies.
In a very basic sense, a citizen is someone who lives in a particular area and has the right to be there. In a more complicated sense, a citizen is someone who has the right to vote in elections and has certain other rights.
This definition of citizen is rooted in the ancient Greek concept of polis citizenship, which was based on the way people lived in small-scale organic communities such as polis. It was not seen as separate from one’s private life in the modern western conception, where the obligations of citizenship were deeply connected to one’s everyday life in the polis.
It also had a high level of social integration, as a member of the polis had to be active in his or her community in order to be considered a true citizen. This kind of citizenship was a source of honor and respect, as well as a motivating factor in developing virtuous behavior.
While there has been much debate about how to define the concept of citizenship, there is agreement that it extends beyond simple kinship ties and family affiliations to signify membership in a political body or society (Rogers 1996).
As such, it is often associated with a form of political action, although it can involve token acts. It is a type of identity that has been widely used in history, both to demarcate different groups and to define the members of a group as members of a social order.
In contemporary British citizenship policies, there has been an increasing tendency to focus on active citizenship as a means to enhance the quality of social and cultural life. This has been a response to concerns about the ‘actively excluded’ and to the need to strengthen the ties between citizens and their political community.
At the same time, however, there have been concerns about the ability of these policies to improve social cohesion and integration. These concerns have been reflected in the policy of recent years and have led to the creation of a new coalition government that has emphasised the importance of citizenship and placed it in the context of a ‘big society’ (Gibney 2013, Macklin 2015).
The debate about immigration and citizenship is therefore situated within a much longer tradition of debates about the role of citizenship in strengthening social cohesion. It is also located in a larger debate about ‘national identity’ and how this relates to both the legacy of the British Empire and to Britain’s membership of the European Union.