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What Is Citizenship?

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What is Citizenship?

What Is Citizenship?

- an introduction to the concept and alternative models of citizenship
by Claus Haas, The Danish University of Education


Since the late 1980s citizenship has become a key concept in the discourse on social science, education, and “top politics”. This revived interest in the concept is striking because for several decades after a period immediately after the Second World War where the meaning of the concept was widely discussed, it was more or less forgotten or ignored as a field of research and public deliberation. The concept of “active citizenship” has been implemented during the 1990s in the UK, Australia and Canada as cross-curricular themes in the political education of the primary school. In many other educational fields, for instance in lifelong-learning, the concept has gained a central position.
The popularity and wide-spread use of the concept might lead to the conclusion that it is well-defined and easily understood. However, just beneath the apparent consensus that it is a progressive and necessary aim of education to foster “active citizens”, profound disagreement and conflicts are to be found. Because, when the issue is to give a more explicit and accurate description of the aims of citizenship education, the clarification of the concept is involved in the past, present and future political struggles: What it means to be a citizen or not within a community, this is the normative aim of citizenship education and so forth.
From the perspective of social sciences, citizenship can be interpreted as both a political and a sociological concept. From both angles, the idea of citizenship is what it means for individuals and groups to belong to or be a member of a political and/or a socio-cultural community. Individuals and groups belonging to a community are connected to two, often interrelated dimensions. In the first place this deals with the formal status of the citizens, constituted by the legal framework of citizenship rights and duties. According to this dimension individuals and groups are bound together by the institutionalisation of rights and duties on different political levels. Secondly, citizenship is closely linked to the creation and reproduction of the political and socio-cultural identities of the community members.
In a democratic context the maintenance of both dimensions, formal rights/duties and identity, is of crucial importance and, compared with the politics of living within despotic or authoritarian communities, also of a special kind. Charles Taylor, the Canadian political philosopher, formulates this perspective in describing what the key element of a democratic society is,
”The nature of this kind of society (…) is that it requires a certain degree of commitment on the part of its citizens. Traditional despotism could ask of people only that they remain passive and obey the laws. A democracy, ancient or modern, has to ask more. It requires that its members be motivated to make the necessary contributions: of treasure (in taxes), sometimes in blood (in war); and it expects always some degree of participation in the process of governance. A free society has to substitute for despotic enforcement with a certain degree of self-enforcement. Where this fails the system is in danger” (Taylor, 1997: 39).
However, an active citizenship cannot be practised in a political or cultural vacuum, whether thought within the perspective of the legal status of rights and duties or within the perspective of policies concerning community identity and the feeling of belonging to this community. If the intention of active citizenship is to involve the struggle for community coherence and identity, it is of outmost importance that the subjects of a certain democratic community feel loyal towards and reproduce a sense of belonging to this community, of course in a more or less intensive way. If this is not ensured, for instance through education for active citizenship, the link between democracy and citizenship is being questioned, too.
There are many reasons why citizenship has been revitalised since the end of the 1980s, below I intend to elaborate on several of them. However, a crucial reason concerns the problem of deciding in which community the two dimensions of an active democratic citizenship can be located and practised. In other words, which community forms the basis for rights/duties and identity/loyalty at the present time in European history?
Since the end of the 1980s Europe has met with two tremendous challenges. The break-down of the Soviet Union and Communism in the Eastern and Central Europe states has resulted in the disintegration of the dominant bipolar Cold War political space of Europe. On the other hand, the political development within the EU has meant an intensification and expanding of European integration. In both cases new and old national and ethnic communities and identities have been mobilised, on local, sub-nation-state, and regional levels, in the search for political power and cultural autonomy. The more or less violent ethno-national reconfiguration of the political space of former Communist regimes (e.g. former Yugoslavia, Hungary, The Czech Republic) and within some Western European nation-states, expanding regional autonomy and self-determination (Scotland and Catalonia), has resulted in the fact that national and ethnic politics has gained new importance. At the same time several of these communities are already, or are on their way to be integrated in the EU.
It is a paradox that we notice a resurgence of ethnic and national policies of identity and feeling of belonging concurrently with the fact that European processes of integration may become a main vehicle in undermining the power of national and ethnic politics. Cultural globalisation and global processes of migration and decolonization since the Second World War could be added to these simultaneous and partly contradictory tendencies. These developments have led to the establishment of ethnic enclaves and minority cultures within the boundaries of the European nation-states. The old “naturalised” affinity between citizenship and national culture, and between the making of a nation-state and homogenous, unified national cultures is eroding.
Thus Europe is becoming a multicultural political space in a way unseen in the history of the modern European notion of citizenship. This may be opposed by the fact that Europe has always consisted of many national, ethnic, and religious communities. But unlike former periods of European history, the impact of an expanding economic and cultural globalisation is so immense, that it has become still harder for both majority and minority cultures to maintain their political, social, and geographical boundaries and undisputed cultural hegemony. And not least, thanks to the “universalisation” or world-wide spread of modern notions of democratic citizenship and human rights, the political climate within Europe has changed radically since the end of the Second World War in the aftermath of the collapse of the Western and Soviet empires. Minority cultures, whether territorially concentrated, as in many places in Eastern Europe, or in the form of ethnic enclaves, do not accept political and cultural inferiority, and claim to be recognised as equal members of society.
In other words, the European population are facing a historically unique political and multicultural situation, in which the two dimensions of citizenship are being expressed and struggled for on local, national, regional, and supra-national levels. This situation has reinforced the fact that citizenship is an “essentially contested concept”. Therefore, my theoretical approach to the concept is anchored in two interrelated premises. In the first place, citizenship is considered to be an ambiguous and contested cluster concept, viz. that the meaning and uses of the concept are connected to a changing repertoire of complementary concepts, such as community, rights, identity, the feeling of belonging, democracy etc, which, by closer inspection, in themselves are ambiguous and contested, too. Secondly, the meaning of citizenship and citizenship education is regarded as a historically changing phenomenon, inscribed as it is in the ongoing struggles and conflicts about the politics of the feeling of belonging. When the clarification of the meaning and use of the concept of citizenship is integrated in a context of a European institutional network, the Folk High Schools, adult education are becoming part of those practises, through which a democratic society is created, maintained, or restructured. If citizenship is incorporated in the basis of adult education, it has to be accepted that adult education is being part of ongoing and complex political and cultural processes and conflicts, through which the vitalisation of a democratic community is ensured.
In this paper I shall go deeper into exploring the consequences of the development and tendencies briefly outlined above, taking the starting point in the following questions,

  • Why has citizenship gained a revival since the 1980s in the discourse of politics, culture, and education within the Western nation-states and political culture?

  • What political and socio-cultural developments and conflicts can explain the renewed interest?

  • What political and cultural challenges are connected with the concept of active citizenship as political and educational thinking?

  • How is citizenship education to be imagined within the historical time of globalisation, cultural diversity, and European integration?

I shall try to clarify citizenship from historical, political, sociological, and educational angles in order to pinpoint the complexity and contested nature of the concept. The paper is divided into three parts. From political and historical-sociological viewpoints, part one seeks to explore the meaning and uses of citizenship, in order to trace its complexities and contested character. This is also the intention in part two, however, with a specific focus on the challenges deriving from the present processes of globalisation, and the emergence of a post-Westphalian and multicultural political order in Europe. Part three seeks to explore three possible ways of envisaging the education for active citizenship in relation to the perspectives and challenges outlined in part one and two.

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