What Is a Citizen?

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A citizen is a person who, by place of birth, the nationality of one or both parents, or naturalization, has full rights and responsibilities as a member of a nation or political community. Citizenship can also refer to the adherence to a certain code of conduct or way of life that is associated with being a citizen, such as laws against criminal activity or civic obligations. The concept of citizenship has been shaped by social, economic and political changes in the modern world. Many people have been made citizens of multiple countries, which can be a source of confusion and conflict. Citizenship can be a legal status with rights and responsibilities or it may imply a more subjective feeling of belonging to ‘the nation’, which is often expressed in terms of loyalty and values.

The modern notion of citizenship is closely linked to the development of nation-states and, more generally, the idea of a ‘civil society’. The term ‘citizenship’ is most commonly used to describe membership of the state, although it can also be applied to subnational entities such as a city, region or a canton in Switzerland. In ancient Greece, citizenship was usually defined by being a member of the polis and included responsibilities as well as rights. Aristotle argued that a ‘citizen of the polis is a man who understands that his own destiny is linked to that of the community, and that it is therefore virtuous for him to take part in running the community’s affairs.’

A person who is a citizen of a country can be considered to be an integral part of the social fabric of that community and, if the individual meets certain criteria, can be elected as a representative or participate in a referendum. Many governments provide a range of benefits to their citizens, such as healthcare and education.

Other important functions of a nation include keeping the peace, maintaining order, resolving disputes and preserving liberties and rights. Some nations have used military force to expand their territory and control other territories (e.g. Britain during its colonial rule).

In addition, there are often social and cultural aspects to being a citizen that may not be explicitly stated in laws or formal documents. For example, a person may be seen as ‘a good citizen’ by virtue of being polite and respectful, participating in community events and volunteering.

The idea of a ‘good citizen’ is an important aspect of the concept of citizenship, which can influence policy in many ways. For instance, if citizenship is viewed as an end point (a reward that grants access to resources), restrictions will be placed on it; however, if citizenship is seen as a means towards community cohesion, the aim should be to encourage and facilitate as much participation as possible. In this context, a concept known as ‘active citizenship’ is being promoted by some governments. This is the principle that individuals should contribute to the community through economic participation, public and volunteer work.