Magazine article Liberal Education

Citizenship Destabilized

Magazine article Liberal Education

Citizenship Destabilized

Article excerpt

PRECISELY BECAUSE IT IS AN INSTITUTION deeply articulated with the national state, citizenship is a useful lens through which to understand the particular issue I want to address in this talk. How do some of the major changes in our world, such as globalization and the human rights regime, affect the relationships between national states and their citizens? To what extent are these major global changes actually affecting this most national of institutions? Are they signaling the possibility of an emerging political subjectivity that partly lodges itself outside the national, but also changes the meaning of the national?

From a general perspective, one might say that not much has changed about citizenship. It remains deeply connected to the national state. As citizens we thrive in the national domain; it is where we can exercise the powers we have been formally granted. Not that we exercise those powers enough, but we have the option. And while there is a whole literature on post-national citizenship, on transnational citizenship, and on transnational identities that is beginning to map transformations, there is little disagreement that citizenship as a formal institution is still largely national.


I want to focus on micro-transformations in the institution of citizenship that affect the relation between citizens and their national state. Let me do this through three arguments. One of them is that citizenship is embedded. It is not a purely formal institution unaffected by its place and time. Citizenship is actually partly shaped and reshaped by the conditions that rule and mark a period, a time, and a place. Today we have globalization and a human rights regime. Do these become elements within which citizenship is partly embedded? And does this embeddedness alter some of the features about citizenship?

The second argument is connected to the first. Citizenship is an incomplete institution, and, importantly, it is not meant ever to be complete. It needs to be able to respond to new conditions, new claims, and new ideas about what citizenship entails. Being complete would mean closed, and hence a dead institution. It would then cease to be embedded and responsive to the environment. This incompleteness is multivalent: There have been times when it has led to enormous injustices and abuses. But overall, the strong trend historically has been to expand the domain of citizen's rights, as the amendments of the civil struggles of the 1960s show us. I want to show you some of the micro-elements that capture the incompleteness of this institution. I am reminded of an intriguing phrase coined by one of my colleagues at the University of Chicago, Cass Sunstein: "incompletely theorized agreements." I think of citizenship as a kind of incompletely theorized agreement between the state and its citizens.

The third element is that globalization has the effect of partly unbundling the unitary character of citizenship. Globalization makes legible the extent to which citizenship, which we experience as some sort of unitary condition, is actually made up of a bundle of conditions. Some of them are far less connected to the national state than the formal bundle of rights at the heart of the institution of citizenship. There are citizenship practices, citizenship identities, and locations for citizenship that are not as inevitably articulated with the national state as is the formal bundle of rights. And to the extent that I map these micro-elements, I can actually detect transformations, among them a weakening of the relationship of citizenship to the national state.

Let us start with these micro-elements that alter the citizen/subject. Although citizenship is highly formalized as an institution, one can see changes in our recent legislative constitutional history. The best-known changes are the 1960s Civil Rights Acts. That is, in many ways, a very recent event. It was quite an extraordinary event and accomplishment that these changes could be incorporated at the highest level of our formal political system. …

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