Historically (or at least for the last 200 years), citizenship has been tied to a nation-state: to be a citizen is to be a member of a nation. It is a legal status of membership.

As we think about citizenship historically, there are two main sets of questions:

FIRST, we need to ask who gets to count as a citizen and who doesn’t. Like in the United States, in much of Latin America citizenship was not initially extended to women, children, and racial minorities — instead, it was a special status reserved only men of European descent. Not infrequently other criteria, such as property ownership and literacy, also had to be met. Much of what we will be studying this semester is how disenfranchized groups of people fought for and won the benefits of citizenship over the past 200 years of Latin American history. In our times, citizenship is still about both inclusion and exclusion. Presently, approximately 11 million people who are part of our social fabric are “undocumented”: they do not garner the benefits of citizenship (despite paying taxes) and instead are persecuted by the US government. Citizenship, in this case, is a weapon of exclusion.

Even after officially gaining citizenship, immigrants often still have to prove their American-ness. Moroccan immigrant and novelist Laila Lalami, for instance, describes her status as “conditional citizenship”; because of anti-Muslim sentiment in the US, she must hide or tamp down this part of her identity to enjoy the benefits of US citizenship.

SECOND, we need to consider what citizenship meant and included in different times and places. Traditionally, political scientists identify two primary legal sides of citizenship:

  1. Rights and protections: Citizenship promises protections, such as free commerce, trial by jury, free movement, etc. (This is usually referred to as “liberal citizenship”)
  2. Responsibilities: Citizens have static responsibilities, like paying taxes, but also civic responsibilities, such as participation in the political process and contributing to the common good. (“Republican citizenship”)

Over the past several decades, however, these senses of citizenship have come under criticism for the way they are inadequate or even inherently unjust in a globalizing world. How can a society justly decide who is in and who is out when people are in constant movement and their lives have global connections? How can citizenship protect people’s rights and provide them with meaningful suffrage (voting) when decisions made by (for instance) a corporate executive in a foreign country can have such drastic domestic effects? When we are all tied together in a global economy, how is it fair that some people are born with citizenship in a poor country and others citizenship in a rich country?

In response to these and other critiques, activists of many sorts have supplied alternative ideas and levels of citizenship, such as global citizenship, urban (city-based) citizenship, regional citizenship, multiple citizenship, and plurinational citizenship. There are also ideas about non-geography-based kinds of citizenship for a world in which our internet-assisted lives connect us in transnational communities.

For now, discuss with your group what citizenship means to you personally and how you think it ought to change in the decades to come.