A person who, by law of a state or nation, is granted the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Most people in the world today are legal citizens of one or another national state. Citizenship confers certain privileges and obligations, but in general it also imposes a duty to participate in the political system. This is known as civic virtue, and it is thought to be essential for the smooth running of democracy. Citizenship can be inherited, and some states (especially in Europe) allow their citizens to claim descent from other nationalities through the principle of jus sanguinis. Citizenship can also be acquired through the exercise of naturalization, which involves being declared a citizen of a particular state by signing an application to that effect.
In the past, citizenship was defined as the right to take part in the government of a city-state or state, either directly or through freely chosen representatives. But the notion of citizenship has broadened considerably over time, and now most nations have some kind of citizen’s rights or citizens’ participation laws. These laws include requiring people to vote, and giving citizens a voice in the formulation of public policy. They also require that people be educated and informed enough to have an opinion about issues they are affected by.
Some theorists of the modern state view citizenship as a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back only a few hundred years. But others, such as the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, see a more fundamental relation between citizen and state, with an ancient origin in the concept of the besouled ‘animal’ that was the ancestor of modern biopolitics.
In everyday speech, the word citizen is often used to refer to a person who is a participant in society. It can be used to describe an active, engaged citizen – for example, someone who volunteers for charity work – or it can mean a person who has a professional interest in the operation of a city or country. The term can also be applied to a person who is a member of a club or other organisation. In law, a citizen is a party to an action that is brought against him or her by the police or by a private individual or corporation. A citizen may be called on to give evidence in court or produce documents such as a driver’s licence or passport. A citizen may also be asked to sign a document such as a contract or a lease. The word can also be used to refer to a judge’s charge to a jury, indicating which section of the law applies in a case. For further information on this topic, see Citizen: Law & Justice, and Law: Overview.