Gypsies, tramps and thieves?

Published 14 March 2012 / By Rob McNeil

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The construction of migrants in the public imagination as outsiders, characterised by poverty, criminality and a threatening ‘foreignness’ was one of the key themes discussed at a major Oxford University symposium “Citizenship and its Others” organised by the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) this month.

The symposium was organised by Dr. Bridget Anderson, Deputy Director of COMPAS, to bring together prominent thinkers from a range of disciplines to consider the meaning of citizenship in both a contemporary and historical context.

The symposium, which ran from March 12th to March 13th, took place at a time when profound questions about the nature of citizenship are being discussed at the highest level of Government. Both the launch of new efforts by the Department of Communities and Local Government to encourage greater social cohesion and Government efforts to reduce net-migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ raise questions about what it means to be British and a citizen.

It featured important presentations from six eminent academics and a series of discussions considering the complexities of understanding the dynamics citizenship and exclusion.

Who talked about what?

The symposium’s major public lecture "The Criminal, the Pauper, and the Foreigner in the Production of Citizenship" was given on March 12th by one of the world’s leading sociologists, Loïc Wacquant from the University of California at Berkeley and Centre de Sociologie Européenne in Paris.

At the symposium the speakers were:

  • Professor David Theo Goldberg, Director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute, and Professor of Comparative Literature and Criminology, Law and Society at UC Irvine.
  • Dr. Bridget Anderson, Deputy Director and Senior Researcher, COMPAS, University of Oxford. She considered the “good citizen”, and how citizenship is not only about legal status, but also status in the sense of value, worth and honour. She will examine what the migrant tells us about the nation as a community of value with particular reference to the UK.
  • Dr. Eithne Luibhéid, Associate Professor of Gender and Women's Studies at the University of Arizona, who discussed how, in recent years, sexual and intimate norms have provided the basis for intense struggle over where to draw the line between regular and irregular migrant legal statuses; and explore the impact of these struggles not only on migrants’ possibilities, but also on constructs and practices of citizenship, which are highly gendered and sexualized.
  • Dr. Ben Rogaly, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the Sussex Centre for Migration Research,University of Sussex, who examined how class relations in England reflect and are sustained by hegemonic values that rank some residents and their offspring higher than others.
  • Dr. Laura Brace, Senior Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Leicester, who explored the meanings of ‘good citizenship’ in relation to ideas about property ownership and labour, and how these inform prevailing notions of freedom, belonging and ‘otherness’.

Bringing it all together

Taking in lines of thought from classical political philosophers Rousseau and Hegel to recent mouthings by David Starkey and Cameron, presentations by Laura Brace and Bridget Anderson laid out the groundwork for the symposium, including the key notions of ‘good citizens’ in a ‘community of value’.

The presentations and the discussion distinguished formal citizenship as legal status and membership of this more hazy and subjective ‘community of value’.  The two do not necessarily coincide, but the process of naturalisation attempts to map formal citizenship on the community of value, among other things through the notion of ‘good character’.

As Anderson argued, in order to get formal citizenship, newcomers have to demonstrate ‘super-citizenship’ to enter the community of value – something which most ‘ordinary’ citizens do not have to do. Not measuring up to the ‘good character’ criterion accounts for an increasing proportion of refusals for naturalisation applications.

The ‘good citizen’ equates with the ‘hard working family’ and ‘the taxpayer’, which have as their negative counterparts the illegal immigrant, the benefit scrounger and the criminal. As Brace put it, good citizenship requires its ‘unfortunate shadow’.

These were among the themes taken up by Loic Wacquant in his public lecture, ‘The criminal, the pauper and the foreigner in the production of citizenship’. He underlined the role of the state as a ‘classification and stratification machine’ that ‘realises’ citizenship.  Immigration law and regulation, welfare, and the criminal justice system were means by which citizenship is produced, and need to be considered in conjunction. Wacquant suggested that it was instructive to consider the state’s internal as well as external borders.

While the foreigner was located outside and ‘threatened to breach the membrane of national space’, the criminal and the pauper were located within and were held respectively to undermine civil society and the moral value of work.  Their positions were in some ways analogous: in particular imprisonment could be seen as analogous to deportation – both forms of removal from society.

Subsequent sessions took this broad framework as a point of departure, critically exploring state intervention into and struggle over sexuality and other forms of intimacy (Eithne Liubheid), the welfare dependent underclass and the ‘beleaguered native’ (Ben Rogaly), and the ambivalence of urban spaces, above all those on contested borders (David Goldberg).

Discussion ranged around notions of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ citizen and the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ migrant.  Fittingly the symposium concluded with reminder that citizenship is not just a nation-state matter, but is situated in a global system of governance.