Citizenship (Anthropology)

Anthropological work on the theme of citizenship tends to break open the classic version of citizenship as a legal status belonging to citizens of a particular nation-state. Now, ‘citizenship’ almost inevitably has one of a set of adjectives preceding it: biological, pharmaceutical, therapeutic, rural, differentiated, formal/substantive,insurgent, flexible, cosmopolitan, and so on. What the adjectives indicate is the recognition of the contingencies of political membership, and the nature of citizenship as a mechanism for making claims upon different kinds of political communities, in particular the state.

This is a significant development of the normative liberal definition given by the sociologist T.H. Marshall in the mid-twentieth century:

Citizenship is a status bestowed on those who are full members of a community. All who possess the status are equal with respect to the rights and duties with which the status is endowed.

He equated community with the nation, and viewed membership of that community as primarily an individual ownership of a set of rights and corresponding duties. From Locke onwards, liberal citizenship has been seen as a status of the individual. The rights associated with this status in theory allow individuals to pursue their own conceptions of the good life, as long as they do not hinder other’s similar pursuits, and the state protects this status quo. In return citizens have minimal responsibilities, which revolve primarily around keeping the state running, such as paying taxes, or participating in military service where the state is threatened.

Anthropologists are not alone in arguing that the constitution of any given community requires a considerable amount of work, and that meaningful membership is more than the possession of rights and responsibilities. James Holston distinguishes between formal citizenship status and substantive citizenship, which he understands as the ability that citizens have in reality to claim rights that they possess formally. Substantive citizenship does not even necessarily require formal citizenship status, as in the case of illegal Mexican immigrants in California who have successfully claimed some social and civil rights even when they lack political rights (Holston 2001). However, formal citizenship is essential for the full set of political rights in most political regimes. These analyses lead us to view citizenship as a set of practices especially related to participating in politics. This is not new: political theorists have also approached citizenship in this way, in the civic republican version of citizenship that goes back to Aristotle, and that can be traced through the work of Alexis de Tocqueville and Hannah Arendt, among others.

One of the main focuses of ethnographic study of the practices of citizenship has been on how people frame and make claims of the state — for example for disability benefits for those affected by the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor (Petryna 2002), or for regular-ization of land titles in the peripheral neighbourhoods of Sao Paulo (Holston 2008). This in turn brings out the relationship between people and state bureaucracy, and between people and law. For the concept of citizenship to have meaning, it must refer in some way to membership of a political community. In Marshallian terms, that community is the national one, but the scale at which we perceive a given political community has also been open to anthropological question. In another theoretical breaking-open of the category, anthropologists have complemented the discussion of national citizenship with studies of cosmopolitan, transnational or global citizenship articulations and disarticulations (Ong 2006) and of local, city-based formations (Holston 2008; Lazar 2008). Citizenship can therefore be analysed as a complex bundle of practices that constitute encounters between the state and citizens at different scales or levels.

Citizenship regimes are the means by which societies have historically organized political participation and exclusion (of workers, women, illiterates and children), and, importantly, challenged that exclusion. For Saskia Sassen (2003), citizenship is an ‘incomplete’ category, which develops through a dialectic whereby the practices of those excluded from full citizenship come to define and/or influence the terms of their subsequent inclusion. This process is especially pertinent in Latin America, where social movements have for a long time framed their claims in terms of citizenship. It is not enough for excluded groups such as indigenous peoples, or the urban poor, to be included in a given political system. Instead the social movements desire to change the political system itself. Indeed, often the struggle for inclusion (or against exclusion) is what changes the nature of the political system, by creating new laws or constitutions,new categories of people and political subjects, or by changing public opinion. Hence Holston’s (2008) characterization of this kind of struggle as one of ‘insurgent citizenship’.

In part because these struggles change people’s own sense of their political agency, as previously marginalized groups of people come to consider themselves a subject of rights, then studying citizenship ethnographically can also explore exactly how political subjectivities are produced in the interaction between state and non-state actors and histories. That in turn requires a consideration of notions of the self operating in a given sphere. So, for example, where collective organizations mediate the relationship between individual citizen and the state, their generation of a collective sense of self and subjectivity demands investigation (Lazar 2008). This then informs understandings of the self within political theory. Liberal citizenship theory presupposes a particular form of subjectivity for those subject to liberal political structures, that of an abstracted, autonomous (implicitly male) individual. This is for anthropologists an obviously problematic category, but has also been criticized from within political philosophy by both feminists and communitarians. They have highlighted the various ties that bind individuals to collectivities and that might make them think differently than the ‘unencumbered self (MacIntyre 1981) about what the ‘good life’ looks like. Yet the tendency of this argument has been to invoke a similarly possessive and individual model of the person as owner of responsibilities in contrast to rights. How to speak of the relationship between individual and collectivity in a different way is a challenge which anthropologists are peculiarly well placed to answer.

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