Liberal Education

Citizenship Destabilized

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. To me it signals the possibility of additional changes. That is what I mean when I say it's an "unfinished institution." Changing conditions, human rights, globalization: all these signal the possibility of additional transformations. In this sense, citizenship can never be a completed institution. It is, in its nature as a political form, an incompletely theorized contract between the state and the citizen, subject to amendments.

I have my own ideas as to what some of these changes might be. For instance, as a citizen I would like to have some say about how the budget is allocated, especially when it can allocate vast amounts to go to war or enormous tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the rich. One of my questions is whether, in this broader frame of the incompleteness of the institution, a time might come where we will have a much greater and direct say without going through legislators with their own agendas and, frequently, obligations to major donors. If we look at the Civil Rights period, these changes did not fall from the sky. It took enormous mobilizing. It took citizenship practices to get these changes instituted. And this citizens' work started on the street, so to speak, in the domain of non-formalized politics.

In this first point, one of the issues is the fact that we had in the past, and we have today, what I think of as authorized subjects, i.e., citizens, who, however, might not be fully recognized. This is what some of the Civil Rights legislation addressed: They were authorized, but they were not fully recognized. Discrimination captures this mix of being citizens yet not fully recognized. With certain components of immigration, especially in the case of the undocumented immigrants who are long-term residents of a community and participate in the daily routines of the community, we can see the opposite mix: unauthorized, yet recognized, at least partly, by the members of the community. We see a condition that we might describe as an informal social contract between these long-term, undocumented residents and the rest of the community.

A second change in the formal institution of citizenship is the growth of dual nationality. Dual nationality represents a far more significant transformation than one might think. For many people, having two or three passports is akin to a fashion accessory or a freedom of choice as to what passport they want to travel on. But for a Mexican immigrant, having dual nationality makes a lot of difference, as it does for others in our society.

At its deepest this growth of dual nationality reflects a major historic transformation whereby citizenship goes from exclusive allegiance to what Kim Rubenstein, a legal scholar, has called "effective nationality." Some of the elements of exclusive allegiance are beginning to erode. It repositions the question of patriotism. We know that even though it's a minority of people, more people than ever before today have dual nationality.

Finally, very significant is the constitutionalizing of the right to sue one's government. In the U.S. we have had this right for a long time, and, practically speaking, have made a national sport out of suing our government. Some of these are frivolous lawsuits, others absolutely not. But in many countries of the world, including Europe, this is a right that has emerged only in the last two decades. Why do I talk about this in the context of citizenship? Because it produces a certain distance between the citizen and the state. It contests the notion that the sovereign is the people and the people are the sovereign-- sovereign being the term for national state in the language of international law. This right produces distance between the national state and the suing citizen. Therein lie a series of political micro-histories whose future development is unknown.

Third, very importantly, we have the emergence of human rights. In one way or another we have had human rights built into our Constitution, but the formalizing of human rights as a distinct kind of right is significant. One way of putting it is that the body is the site for rights, rather than the rights being granted by national states. One crucial issue here is that for us to have human rights respected, we need national states to enforce those rights. There are potentially significant implications in the combination of a distinct international regime for human rights and the fact that the national state needs to be a key player in this regime. It is the kind of combination that I would describe as a partial denationalizing of some of the functions and work of state institutions (see Sassen 1996, chapter 1).

Undocumented immigrants

I want to look briefly at undocumented immigrants to create and bring to the fore some contrasts. In modern societies the foundational institutions for membership are citizenship and alienage. There are other instances of it, but immigrants who are permanent residents (rather than naturalized citizens) constitute the main component. The main unauthorized subject in our country is the undocumented immigrant. In Europe after WWII, it was the stateless person. There are many different versions of the undocumented. There are citizens who don't have documents, as in many poor countries where there are masses of citizens, native born--but they don't have documents (see in this regard the extraordinary research by Kamal Sadiq on India, Documentary Citizenship).

The case of the undocumented immigrant makes clear the ambiguity of citizenship, the extent to which it is an incomplete institution. In the 1960s, supported by wonderful pro bono lawyers, undocumented immigrants whose employers had kept their wages would have judge after judge grant them the right to their wages for work done. In so doing, these judges locate partial legalities in the subject that is the undocumented immigrant. They are creating or constituting a legal persona, a very elementary legal persona, but one that blurs the line between the legal resident, the citizen, and the undocumented. National courts where judges use international human rights instruments either for interpretation or adjudication, similarly have granted rights to refugees and undocumented immigrants. In cases that are decided in international human rights courts, over half concern immigrants and refugees. The other largest share mostly concern women--often they are immigrants and refugees--and female abuse issues, notably genital mutilation. International courts are another location where rights are being granted to undocumented immigrants, producing a kind of partial legal persona and blurring the clarity of the distinction between undocumented immigrant, immigrant, and citizen.

Secondly, and as I already indicated earlier, we see the emergence of "informal social contracts" among long-term undocumented residents and the members of the community wherein they live and whose daily routines they partly share. Two legal scholars at Yale law school developed the notion of the "informal social contract." We know that undocumented immigrants who are long-term residents in communities develop a variety of informal social relations with the members of the larger community. A long-term resident takes kids to school, gives them their shots, engages in all kinds of routines of daily life. We can see these as a type of "citizenship practice" that is part of the obligations of citizens, some formalized, some not. A short-term undocumented resident who has not established relationships with the community has not had the chance to develop such an informal social contract.

Citizenship practices in some settings, especially in large cities, can actually evolve from daily routines to street-level politics even among undocumented immigrants, always in a vulnerable position. I have been on picket lines with undocumented Salvadoran immigrants during the civil war in Salvador. If these Salvadorans would have been deported, they would probably have been severely punished, including abusive treatment and, at the limit, torture and death, given that they were regarded as enemies of the regime in place in Salvador at the time. Yet, there they were picketing. They felt entitled because they were part of a community. I remember particular cases in Long Island where there are factories with many immigrant workers, and the immigrants felt enabled because they had developed relationships with the members of the community.


I would like to address the question of immigration. It is a lens through which we can understand the strains and contradictions in the system. At some point we are going to have to ask ourselves what we mean when we use the term immigrant and immigration. They are words that we have made into solid realities, and as words they are charged with content. But what is it we are trying to discern in the complex processes we group under the term immigration? Who are these people in movement? What is it that we're naming when we say immigration?

In my research, I have sought to situate immigration in a broader field of actors by asking: Who are all the actors involved in producing the outcome that we then call immigration? My answer to that question is that it's many more than just the immigrants, whereas our law and our public imagination tends to identify immigrants as the only actors in this complex process.

I think it is important to identify the key actors because we are going to have to develop and invent better immigration policies. In the future we are likely to see even more of a blurring of the immigrant vs. citizen subject. Immigration is here to stay with us. Demographic declines are forecast, especially for Europe--a 75 million loss of people over the next sixty years in the European Union as it is constituted today--and even sharper for Japan. In the United States, the forecast is of 34 million fewer by the end of this century. So, either we adjust our major social systems to much smaller populations, or immigration is the likely solution. We have to rethink our current policies. I'm one of those who think that our current way of thinking and of making immigration policy is not working, and in that sense, we really need to do some more thinking about this.

Blurred subjects

If we bring together the discussion of micro-transformations in the formal citizen subject with this discussion about the micro-elements that destabilize the notion of illegality, as in illegal immigrant, we get the possibility of an emergent blurred subject. The blurring of both the formal citizen and the undocumented immigrant as formal subjects destabilizes narrow readings of legality and illegality. We have, at one end, the notion of effective nationality, i.e., a toning down of the question of exclusive allegiance and patriotism in the narrow sense of those terms. At the other extreme, we have informal citizenship, as in the case of the long-term undocumented immigrant resident (typically a family). To use the images used earlier, we have a range of blurred subjects: the citizen who is authorized yet unrecognized due to discrimination and racialization, and, at the other extreme, the subject who is unauthorized (i.e. the undocumented immigrant) but recognized in some way or another.

Let me say again, that I am focusing on micro-transformations; one could stand back and say, nothing much has changed. I am interested in understanding what the institution of citizenship reflects today about the major transformations that surround it.

There is an emerging category of denationalized subjects linked to globalization both at the top of the system and at the bottom. When I say denationalized subject, I do not mean that we're not attached to a country or that we don't care. Rather, for certain kinds of global activists--human rights, environmental, anti-globalization, etc.--there is a sense of a partial denationalizing. I also think of the global financial elites as being partly denationalized. These are conditions that can lead to the formation of transnational identities. In brief, within the solidity and the weight of the formal institution of citizenship, there are micro-transformations that signal to me the possibility of future changes in that institution. Hopefully these will go in the direction of an expansion of the domain of formal rights and entitlements and an emphasis on persons, rather than a narrowing of the definition of citizen.

When we talk about the citizen, we are referring to a highly variable subject: the low-wage worker, the international businessman who is barely in the country, a mother who might not be in the labor market. By the way, there is also a category of citizen I refer to as the IMF citizen. (I'm always amazed that people are not familiar with this type of variant.) This is an individual who works for one of the large international institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, or WTO, who falls under a special international regime of protections and entitlements. When a high ranking member of one of these institutions gets called back to his or her country to serve in high, often political, positions, s/he can actually choose to stay under this international regime rather than exit and become a "national" again. To the people in the country where they are serving, they are citizens. But, in fact, they are under a very special regime of rights, entitlements, and protections that comes with their affiliation with the IMF or other international association. This is a very particular subject; I call it, partly as a provocation, the IMF citizen. Although the countries to which they return to serve in high political appointments are not aware of it, they can escape certain obligations, certain forms of accountability, and so on. Basically, they are accountable to the IMF.

Then there are the sans papiers; they are undocumented. But in Europe the sans papiers has emerged as a very thick subject, with certain recognizable "rights" that have come about through custom and practice. They are not simply the government classificatory category of the illegal.

And there is what can be called "documentary citizenship"--a citizen that is such because s/he has the papers, though may not have been born there or hardly lived there. I have a graduate student doing a dissertation on the whole region of South Asia, and he finds that among the poor--not among the rich, that's a totally different story--many of the people who have documents as citizens are actually illegally there. Because of the construction of national state borders often being much more recent than older ethnic histories, an ethnic "nation" can be living in two neighboring countries. Colonialism created many such borders separating a given tribal or ethnic people. The political parties in one country may want to have more of those ethnics now living in the other country in order to win their elections, and so they facilitate the illegal entry of same-group members living on the other side of the border and give them documents. Kamal Sadiq calls that "documentary citizenship," where the only thing that makes one a citizen is the fact that he or she gets this document.

One way of thinking about all of these transformations, the impact of globalization, and the impact of the human rights regime, is to think of citizenship as partly denationalized. I emphasize partly, because I'm interested in micro-transformations. If we consider two countries as different in terms of immigration as the United States and the Netherlands, we actually see two trends. One is a renationalizing of certain components of citizenship and immigration policy, an ascendance of nativism, a shrinking of the rights and the entitlements of immigrants. This is a very strong trend. The second trend, however, is the partial unbundling of citizenship I described earlier, whereby it becomes clear that citizenship is much more than the bundle of formal rights, and that some of its components, such as practices and identities, may well loosen their connection to the national state.

Let me develop this a bit. We can identify four components in the institution of citizenship that can be thought of as distinct in terms of their relationship to the national state. One is the bundle of formal rights that I alluded to earlier; it remains deeply articulated with the national state. That is not where the major changes are happening today. Secondly, there are citizenship practices that can be enacted by non-citizens as well; this is to me a very important differentiation. Third, there are citizenship identities that may not be deeply connected to the national state at all. There is an extensive literature, familiar to most of us, about the ascendance of transnational identities. It is particularly evident among immigrants who maintain transnational households or are members of transnational households, and among activists in a variety of increasingly globalized struggles such as human rights, the environment, and certain cross-border feminist struggles. Increasingly, these activist begin to think of themselves as global citizens.

Finally, a fourth bundle is the locations for citizenship: Where is it that citizenship gets enacted? It can be local, it can be translocal, it can be supranational. For instance, anti-globalization activists who travel to protest at meetings of the IMF or the WTO. They typically travel on the formal status of tourists. But they go as citizens to do citizens' work. They engage in informal citizenship practices, as they protest in Melbourne or Prague or Genoa. The effect is a blurring of the weight of the national in this component of citizenship.

Until quite recently, we have experienced these four elements as one. But while they may have been tightly bundled up, they are, nonetheless, four distinct bundles. With globalization, and a growing consciousness about globality, and with the human rights regime providing a separate basis for rights, the fact that these are actually separate elements becomes legible, becomes part of the experience of a growing number of people--albeit still a small minority. Insofar as we recognize these separate bundles, there is also a weakening of the relationship to the national state. The first bundle, that of formal rights remains tightly connected to the state. But the others begin to have multiple institutional attachments—to the national state, but also to transnational domains, and to supranational institutions.

Saskia Sassen is the Ralph Lewis Professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and Centennial Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics. This article is excerpted from a transcript of a lecture given at the pre-conference symposium of AAC&U's 2003 Annual Meeting.

The text is based on a lecture of March 7, 2002 Conference of the Berkeley Journal of Sociology.

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