What is a Citizen?

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Citizenship is the legal status that entitles a person to live in a country and not be denied access or deported. In wealthy liberal democracies, it also entitles them to rights such as voting, welfare or education. Citizenship is often associated with ideals such as integration, cohesion and equality. However, the nature of citizenship is complex. The term is a social construct, and it is the product of a range of different cultural, political and economic forces that act upon it. It is therefore a key issue for both policy makers and academics.

The concept of citizen has been subject to numerous debates. In some cases it has been seen as a means to social control, while in others it has been seen as a vehicle for individual rewards and benefits. It is also used as a tool to foster a sense of belonging and community.

Ultimately, the definition of a citizen is a political one and it is in the hands of politicians and states to determine what type of citizenship they will offer. For example, some countries have historically restricted entitlement to citizenship on the basis of ethnicity, sex, land ownership status or whether a person was free (not a slave). This was to ensure that the nation remained pure and that people were committed to its values. Such exclusions have largely been replaced by requirements that a person demonstrate a positive attitude to the state and its values through their behaviour.

This has been combined with a growing emphasis on civic participation. This is a way to make citizens active participants in society rather than passive recipients of services. The recent British debate on citizenship has been framed within the context of this approach. It has been accompanied by a growing number of tests and other restrictions on gaining formal citizenship, such as the requirement to take part in the National Citizen Service.

These changes have been driven by concerns about integration and the impact of migrants. However, the extent to which these restrictions actually promote these ideals is unclear. There is evidence that they may be having the opposite effect and increasing marginalisation of those who do not qualify for citizenship, e.g. EEA nationals.

What is also clear is that the current debate about citizenship in Britain sits within a much wider debate about Britishness and the notion of national identity. It is also taking place at a time of ‘super-diversity’, where individuals move between countries for very different reasons and with very different lengths of stay.

The challenge is to understand how these different ideas are influencing the development of citizenship and how they interact with each other. This will require a much more holistic and nuanced understanding of the role of law in society than has been the case to date. In particular, the question is whether a policy of citizenship as an individual reward, with a wide range of rights and privileges attached to it, is going to be effective in building cohesive societies.