What Is a Citizen?

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A citizen is a member of a political community (polity). Citizenship confers rights and duties on a person which are not available to non-citizens, while those rights and duties depend upon the laws of the polity. Citizenship is an abstract concept, and the precise meaning of the term has varied over time and across cultures. It is usually contrasted with the related concepts of subject and nationality. The terms citizen and subjects refer to people who owe allegiance to a sovereign state, while the term nationals describes those who share the same ancestry and are entitled to the protection of that state.

There are several ways that a person can become a citizen. Some countries grant citizenship by birth or parentage; others confer it through a process called naturalization. In some cases, citizens must meet certain requirements in order to retain their status; for example, many countries require their citizens to participate in political activities and defend the state in war. Citizenship may also be restricted or withdrawn by the state.

The idea of citizenship is central to the philosophy of democracy and of the modern nation-state. It is an ideal which has long inspired philosophers, artists and writers. It has a complex relationship with ideas of identity and belonging, and it is often linked to notions of loyalty and responsibility that are expressed in words like ‘belonging’ and’shared values’. Citizenship is also used as a metaphor for membership of a community of people, which can be either a geographic or an ideological grouping.

Historically, the concept of citizenship evolved along with the development of city-states and the development of law. In ancient Greece, citizens were those who participated in the polis, the political assembly of the city-state. In the early modern period, political upheavals and reforms led to a more egalitarian concept of citizenship. Citizen is an important word in the context of legal theory because it refers to a person who has the right to live where he or she wants, and to be protected by the law of that place.

In the United States, a person acquires citizenship through a process known as naturalization. To qualify for naturalization, a person must have been in the United States or its territories or aboard a U.S. vessel for a specified period of time, usually five years. Some states have special provisions for military service members, or for those who obtain citizenship through marriage.

In the United Kingdom, debate on citizenship is taking place within a wider debate about Britishness and ‘national identity’. This has been accompanied by changes to the processes of acquiring formal citizenship, with the introduction of tests which ostensibly promote citizenship and a sense of belonging. However, these changes are sometimes criticised for making citizenship acquisition more difficult, especially for certain groups of migrants. The relationship between citizenship and the broader issues of cohesion, integration and equality remains unclear.