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Social psychology and politics
Social psychology and politics

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4.1 Constructing contemporary citizenship

This section will focus on social psychological work on the concept of citizenship.

Activity 7 Pause for thought

Before you start exploring academic work on citizenship, you should have a think about what citizenship is, and what it means to you. Write a list of all of the things that you think citizenship is and some examples of what you think citizenship looks like.

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Many people think of citizenship as a status: being a member of a nation-state and having a set of rights and duties in relation to that specific national community. The list you just made could include such rights, for example, the right to hold a particular passport, being able to vote, and the ability to travel. Or, you may have outlined duties such as obeying the law, being a member of a jury, and paying taxes. This focus on rights and duties is a conventional understanding of citizenship, however, it is not the only way in which contemporary citizenship can be understood. Your list may, for example, contain ideas about what it means to belong, e.g. that we should share values, common ancestry, or a language. Citizenship is determined by such sets of shared assumptions and expectations about what it means to be a ‘good’ or ‘normal’ citizen.

To unpack the meanings of citizenship further, you can think about British citizenship and, in particular, the changes to the rules that allow migrants to formally become British citizens. During 2004−2005, the British government introduced two new processes for all migrants wanting to remain in the UK indefinitely and become citizens: citizenship tests and citizenship ceremonies. The stated aim of these new procedures was to instil new British citizens with a sense of belonging and commitment to the United Kingdom, and to evaluate their knowledge of British culture in order to assess their potential to integrate. These citizenship regulations have been controversial because they draw on ideas of cultural similarity, rather than on political values. In other words, critics argue that this model of British citizenship departs from a civic understanding of citizenship (i.e. based on common political values, such as respect for the rule of law) to a more ethnic understanding of citizenship (i.e. based on common ancestry and cultural traditions).

This example shows that ‘what citizenship is’ is not static or neutral. On the contrary, it is dynamic and politicised. In this example, changes to British citizenship law can be said to be in line with specific political projects, such as addressing presumed problems of social cohesion. Therefore, while citizenship may appear to be a simple matter of one’s legal status, this example shows that defining the boundaries of citizenship is based on assumptions about what holds communities together and therefore who is included and excluded from these communities (Andreouli and Dashtipour, 2014; Barnes, Auburn and Lea, 2004; Gray and Griffin, 2014).