Toward an Actor-Centered Political Sociology of Citizenship

By Winter, Elke | Canadian Review of Sociology, August 2016 | Go to article overview

Toward an Actor-Centered Political Sociology of Citizenship


Winter, Elke, Canadian Review of Sociology


IN JUNE 2014, A NEW CANADIAN Citizenship Act deliberately made Canadian citizenship harder to get and easier to lose. It cemented earlier changes, such as longer mandatory residence times, stricter language rules, expanded citizenship testing, and most controversially the possibility of revoking Canadian citizenship of those with dual nationality if convicted of treason, espionage, or terrorism (Winter 2015). This last provision is currently being repealed. All these new rules of membership in the Canadian polity raise an issue that is at the core of political sociology: the ubiquitous power of the state.

Interestingly few political sociologists have engaged the change in Canadian citizenship rules. On the one hand, this is surprising because the Canadian sociology of immigration and interethnic relations is extensive, diverse, and vibrant. On the other hand, as Irene Bloemraad (2014) reminds us, "scholars of social movements and politics rarely interrogate the hard 'outside' boundaries of citizenship faced by would-be migrants or non-citizen residents" (p. 751). Indeed, even internationally, sociologists have long been criticized for practicing methodological nationalism and failing to theorize the role of the state in regulating immigration and emigration. Take, for example, T.H. Marshall's ([1949] 1973) essay Citizenship and Social Class, which is certainly one of the most cited sociological works in the field. Marshall ([1949] 1973) analyzes the successive vertical extension of civil, political, and social rights (to white working-class men in Great Britain), but ignores citizenship's horizontal limitations. The theorization of citizenship as a process of increasing (read: deepening) social inclusion is fruitful because it reveals that, from a sociological understanding, substantive citizenship rights imply more than formal status (e.g., Rocher 2015). However, we must not forget that internal inclusion is often premised by external exclusion. State-controlled conditions of entry (and exit) afford newcomers with a status that intersects with other markers of "difference" such as gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, and class.

Drawing upon Max Weber's concept of social closure, sociologists have long studied the processes of relative group closure and the selective conditions of admission. But they have rarely applied this to society and the nation-state as such. A famous exception is Rogers Brubaker's study Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany (1992). Brubaker (1992) theorizes citizenship as an instrument of social closure that enables modern states to regulate conditions of entry; these conditions are shaped by ideals and traditions of elite-driven "idioms of nationhood." The nation-state becomes a giant status group a la Weber (i.e., infused with economic, political, and social honor) where relative openness or closure of citizenship to newcomers is determined by (conflicting) interests and ideals of those in power within.

More recently, another political sociologist, Christian Joppke (2010), has left his mark on the field by making a strong claim that increasingly "de-ethnicized" citizenship rules across Western liberal-democratic states are converging. For Joppke (2010), citizenship is first and foremost a status of membership in a state, which trumps all other dimensions--such as equal rights and identity--by "providing elementary security and protection" (p. 3). This fundamental characteristic of citizenship is at stake in Canada's aforementioned experiment with citizenship revocation for dual nationals. But then, Joppke (2010) also holds that citizenship in the twenty-first century is becoming increasingly "light" with a thinner national identity bestowed upon it and fewer rights tied exclusively to status. Is the conditional membership of dual nationals in the Canadian context related to the "inevitable" lightening of citizenship?

At the international level, the literature on citizenship is thus well and alive, and contributions by political sociologists figure prominently in it. …

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