two conversations about citizenship

(Detroit) I’m delighted to be at Wayne State University for my second visit to the Center for the Study of Citizenship’s annual national conference. I have just arrived, but the titles and abstracts reinforce my view that there are really two discussions about citizenship.

In the first discussion, citizenship basically means membership in some kind of political entity or regime. The opposite of a citizen is an alien or outsider, but there are various possible conditions between belonging and being fully alien–states that Elizabeth Cohen calls “semi-citizenship.”  Questions arise about who does or should belong to which kind of regime, what rights and obligations membership brings or should bring, and what members feel or should feel (subjectively) about themselves and their fellow members.

In the second discussion, citizenship means civic engagement, or taking action of some kind in the public sphere. One opposite of a citizen, in this sense, is a bystander or a consumer. Another opposite is a policymaker or officeholder, if we choose to divide the state from civil society. (In Harry Boyte’s view, it’s important that policymakers are citizens.) In this second discussion, the issues that arise include: who engages, what makes them engage, whether civic engagement is good, and what active people achieve.

The two conversations do relate to each other. For instance, you cannot engage as an active citizen by voting if the state deems you ineligible to vote by virtue of age, a felony conviction, or immigration status. But even then, you can act in many other ways. Overall, I would say that the two discourses of citizenship are pretty separate.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.