What Is a Citizen?

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A citizen is an individual whose rights are protected by the law and whose responsibilities to society are upheld. A citizen’s responsibilities may be a commitment to participate in politics, to pay taxes or even to defend the community from attack by foreign forces. In democratic societies a citizen’s active participation is often seen as an essential part of the public sphere (cf. the stakeholder principle).

The word ‘citizen’ was first recorded in English in the 17th Century as a legal status in place of the ancient Greek concept of politê, which also included civic duties such as military service and payment of tax. However, the modern understanding of citizenship was established in the 18th and 19th Centuries with the American and French Revolutions. It was at this time that the idea of the democratic public sphere began to develop, with the acknowledgement that different groups within society have equal political relevance and deserve equal respect. This is the foundation of citizenship as it is understood today.

Contemporary discussions of citizenship focus on two main models. One, exemplified by classical republican ideas of citizenship (Aristotle, Tacitus, Cicero, Machiavelli, Harrington and Rousseau), takes the view that it is civic self-rule that makes citizens free and laws legitimate. This is reflected in practices such as the rotation of office and in Aristotle’s characterization of the citizen as a person capable of ruling and being ruled in turn.

This model of citizenship has become more or less the dominant one in modern democracies. The other, which is exemplified by the ideas of liberalism, emphasises rights and responsibilities as fundamental to citizenship. This approach is supported by an analysis of how laws and rights are justified. The main argument is that if laws are to be considered as legitimate, they must be justified by a ‘general will’ which is shared by the whole democratic community. The idea is that the law functions to establish standards, maintain order, resolve disputes and protect liberties and rights.

While this approach has gained broad acceptance in the modern world, it is increasingly being challenged by a variety of political developments. These include the increasing fluidity of the relationships between individuals and polities in a globalised world, the contested nature of the notion of ‘citizenship’ as a legal status in the context of globalisation and arguments that the idea of the democratic public sphere needs to be expanded to include the inclusion of the rights of disabled people and animals.

As these debates continue, it is important that students learn about citizenship and understand how they can play a role in their democratic societies. This will enable them to make informed decisions and engage with the world around them. It will also help them develop the skills they need to tackle complex issues such as international relations, climate change and global poverty.