Citizenship as a concept

Jonathan Price

Notes from a COMPAS Debate Forum Meeting

Through contrasting the citizenships ascribed to business leaders and migrant workers, Brace reveals the commodification of this status. She reveals the symbolic boundaries that contest the notion of a citizenship in which all people are equal participants. She draws attention to the parallel between the way in which slavery in the 18th century and migration in contemporary society are discussed in the context of citizenship, with certain groups of people wholly excluded. Citizenship as a status defined in legal terms has limitations as it has social and moral underpinnings in which people are dependent and interdependent on one another. However, some people are ‘empty,’ in other words their state of belonging is meaningless and that they do not own themselves.

Ryan explores the requirements for becoming a citizen and identifies a trend towards more stringent criteria, justified on the grounds that this helps to promote integration. Citizenship is increasingly granted on the condition that it is ‘earned’, but what exactly that means is unclear. The Labour government in the UK from 2002 imposed English language requirements and the ‘Life in the UK’ test on the premise that this would enhance equality of opportunity, however these were originally ‘light touch’ measures. Over time, the requirements have become more exacting, such as doing voluntary work, however in many instances, the government has found these hard to operationalise. Nonetheless, the notion of ‘earned citizenship’ based increasingly on loosely defined ‘common values’ over and above equality of opportunity, has stuck. Whilst it is argued that it is legitimate for the state to demand basic language skills from migrants in order to encourage involvement, he does not specify how much involvement and therefore which level of language skills should be required.

Vink et al consider the determinants of those seeking particular citizenships, revealing a disparity between different groups of nationals. These are: the expected benefits of citizenship; the characteristics of individuals (such as their attachment to the host country, their length of residence there, whether they are married to a citizen and their ability to navigate systems); and the policies that facilitate or hinder access to citizenship (residence requirements, language, fees and tolerance of dual citizenship). Whilst those from developing countries are more likely to seek the citizenship of developed countries due to the expected benefits of this status, they are more likely to be negatively affected by those countries’ citizenship policies.

The notion of ‘earned citizenship’ is inextricably intertwined with ideas of deservingness and is an instrumental way for governments to select insiders and outsiders. When one’s deservingness is compromised, one’s citizenship is weakened, an example being citizens who have committed crimes abroad and are abandoned by their home country. It has been argued that deservingness can also be ascribed on grounds of similarity, that is, connected to that which is understood to be intrinsic, rather than that which is earned. The commodification of citizenship is often exposed through its links with private property, giving priority to those with a stake in a territory, or more explicitly through the purchasing of citizenship.

Citizenship ceremonies are a ‘spectacle,’ reproducing a ‘citizenship fantasy’ that has symbolic importance (at an individual level as well as for the state) while being premised on shaky foundations. In the UK, given the lack of Republican past, the exacting requirements on migrants in the process of acquiring citizenship can seem odd in contrast to the relatively ‘untouched’ UK citizen within a contested national discourse on citizenship. A discourse of British citizenship in which values of hard work, playing by the rules and of subjecthood vis-à-vis the monarchy, feature prominently, needs to be problematised. Only some people achieve this construction of a ‘citizenship fantasy’, which excludes those who are in precarious work or are subject to welfare sanctioning, for instance, limiting the ability to celebrate citizenship. As a status therefore, when unpacked, citizenship is made up of good citizens and failed citizens resulting as much from the relationship of the individual with capital as it does to its relationship with the nation.


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