The Varied Geographies of Citizenships

The concept of citizenship has demonstrated a profound capacity for reinterpretation, reformulation, and nuancing over time. This said, it has often been linked to specific scales of place or types of places, which tend to coincide with the dominant political territories of certain eras. Should this be regarded as an evolving search for a geographic optimality for citizenship?

To view states as the terminus of a linear, historical process linking identity to territory gives short shrift to the various political geographic structures that have emerged, submerged, and re-emerged in the spatiality of political belonging throughout world history. Moreover, conceiving of citizenship as evolutionary risks ignoring the alternative notions of socio-political membership, sometimes territorialized and sometimes not, that have existed and continue to coexist within and in opposition to the nation-state system. This article considers various manifestations of human socio-spatial organization, including the polis, the empire, and the nation state, to demonstrate how other definitions of citizenship have manifested in conjunction with varied modes of political territorial organization and, equally importantly, at times rejected geographic limitation.

Placing the Earliest Citizenships
The earliest forms of human socio-political organization involved small, nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers. The groups would occasionally coalesce into larger tribal associations, adopting systems of chiefdom governance and limited degrees of social stratification. Membership in such bands was rather fixed, and the demands of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle placed severe restrictions on the scale and duration of these arrangements.

The Neolithic Revolution (circa 10,000 BCE) involved not only the advent of agriculture and the domestication of plants and animals but also social stratification and specialization. These developments combined with technological innovations to catalyze new and more durable institutions of political organization, namely small-scale states or poleis. Poleis manifested as relatively small urban cores and their immediate agricultural hinterlands in a variety of regional settings (for example, the Indus, Mesopotamia, Nile, and Yellow river basins, Mesoamerica, and the Northern Andes). The integrated economic systems they supported have compelled scholars to refer to them as city-states, initiating a long-standing relationship between urban settings and concepts of citizenship.

Though emerging in clusters within an area of linguistically related people, the city-states of the Greeks, Phoenicians, and Sumerians were regularly embroiled in inter-polity warfare. Subjugation of one polis by a stronger neighbor gave rise to ethnic states in which the governing elite and other privileged classes — merchants, priests, scribes, warriors, and so on — shared common cultural traditions. In circumstances where ethnic states extended their scope of conquest beyond an immediate and readily accessible territory, the term ‘empire’ may be applied. Although ruling elites were generally drawn from the dominant ethnic group, an imperial concept of citizenship acquired a relatively multi-ethnic character.

The sustained appeal of empire formation is evinced by the political histories of the Tigris-Euphrates and Nile basins, in which the succession of Achaemenid, Akkadian, Assyrian, and Babylonian empires, and millennia of Pharaonic dynasties, perpetuated complexly inclusive but still stratified socio-political memberships. Beyond the broader Fertile Crescent region, however, tribal, city-state, and ethnic-state variants of socio-political organization held sway.

While city-states, ethnic states, and empires had distinct advantages and proved remarkably durable under the right circumstances, they were embroiled in a dynamic ebb and flow between centralization with direct territorial control and systems of decentralization and vassalage. The latter were, therefore, common. Those living outside of poleis and ethnic states and on the frontiers of empires (hunter-gatherers, mobile pastoralists, and small-scale agriculturalists) were in complex relationships with the ‘citizens’ of political territorial entities for resources, land use, and power. One may contend that state citizenship requires an ‘other’ against which membership may be defined and that the geographic imaginary of citizenship is founded on bounded spaces of responsibility and limitations of moral concern. But should this be regarded as an innate aspect of human behavior or as the choice commonly enacted by elites?

Though the history of citizenship is overwhelmingly linked to specific places, an alternative is articulated in Diogenes the Cynic’s proclaiming himself a “citizen of the world” (kosmou polite, or citizen of the cosmos) and thereby defying the polis as a source of identity construction by embracing an ideal of cosmopolitanism. The Stoics also put forth a mode of moral responsibility based on concentric circles of compassion, in which larger webs of mutual obligation extend from self and family to community, region, and ultimately the world.

Places of Belonging in Classical Antiquity
As material technologies moved from bronze to iron, human pre-history moved to human history, and chroniclers emphasize the rise, fall, and churn of successive empires on a global scale. From the Mediterranean basin to the plains of Eastern Central Asia, the concept of the state as empire came to dominate broad swaths of land and commensurately afforded large numbers of people status as ‘citizens’. But where Rome and the Han Dynasty are often credited with forming clear divisions (Hadrian’s Wall and the Great Wall) between their territories and those of ‘others’ (citizens and non-citizens), in practice they relied on a range of territorial and social strategies that often produced ‘fuzzy boundaries’. Nevertheless, for later generations, these empires came to represent the epitome of territorially integrated, centrally administered states, while citizenship claimed a new status through the concept of ‘rights’. One prominent example of leveraging this power of belonging is Paul the Apostle’s claim to Roman citizenship and the right to a trial in Rome as a way to evade flogging at the hands of his captors in Judea.

While the idea of the state as empire and citizenship as ‘right-based belonging’ appeared well on its way to becoming an irresistible logic and the defining characteristic of ‘civilization’, its status as the natural order of things was nonetheless questioned by advocates of cosmopolitanism. When Plutarch, for example, said, “We should regard all human beings as our fellow citizens and neighbors”, he indicted the practice of ‘othering’ and the circumscription of moral responsibility inherent to political territorialization.

Destabilizing the Natural Order of Citizenship
The ‘natural order’ ideal in which empires were commonly couched in conjunction with notions of a monarch’s ‘divine right’ to rule was also challenged by a variety of alternative concepts of political organization and standards of group membership (the Hanseatic League, the Turkic Khaganates and other nomadic confederations, papal authority, and so on). For reasons that remain the subject of much debate, this period witnessed large-scale migrations out of the Eurasian Steppe region by semi-nomadic groups governed through tribal lineages, personal oaths of loyalty, and cavalry-warrior ethea. The Germanic, Hunnic, Mongol, Scythian, Slavic, Tatar, and Turkic tribes, to name a few, seemed the antithesis of sedentary states as empires.

Through a series of both accommodative and conflictual interactions with these groups, the seemingly ascendant imperial structure of the period was shown to be fragile. Imperial sustainability was undermined also by internal strife that resulted in many empires fragmenting into a loose and shifting assortment of petty states and feudal systems. While the pretense of imperial authority persisted, new spatialities of power and belonging emerged. Catholic Popes, for example, claimed universal sovereignty over religious matters, which were invariably entwined with secular affairs. Other types of feudal arrangements often manifested in complex networks of allegiance between empires, lords, and vassals. These allegiances were hardly unique to medieval Europe, so there was little to suggest that the groundwork was being laid for a new manifestation of the state and the ideal of communal membership.

Towards Modern Citizenships and the Nation State
While claims of divine mandate for absolute rule can be found throughout history and in a variety of regional settings, European monarchs proved adept at coupling them with capacities to establish and maintain more direct rule over their subjects. Monarchical alliances with a burgeoning urban-based merchant class incrementally garnered power from the lesser nobility and the Church. In European medieval and Renaissance cities, modern notions of citizenship took shape, wherein an urban elite (burghers and bourgeoisie) gained limited local rights and powers. But it was the growing capacity to precisely demarcate land and identify people as belonging to one state or another that laid the socio-territorial foundations of modern states.

International agreements, most notably the Peace of Westphalia treaties of 1648, gradually codified a system of statehood. These agreements mutually affirmed territorial sovereignty, which accorded the right to govern free from outside interference, and the status of states as equals and the only legitimate actors in international affairs. Violations of these precepts were common, but this specific scale of statehood and its commensurate ideal of membership gained standing on practical and normative grounds. This served to naturalize a system of socio-spatial organization that ultimately became the international system we know today.

While a qualitative shift occurred with the French Revolution and its precept that sovereignty lies with the people and their consent to be governed, the territorial scaffolding of citizenship remained the same. The state’s role would nevertheless be recast in service to the nation rather than the opposite. Once again, despite voices calling for more universal conceptions of human community (for example, philosophers Christopher Martin Weiland and Immanuel Kant, and the founder of the Bahá’í faith Báhá’u’llah), the notion of citizenship coalesced around a group of people with a shared cultural identity, usually embodied by a primary language. ‘Nationalists’ posited that the political borders of the state should be congruent with the cultural-linguistic borders of their nations, thereby giving rise to the ideal of the nation state. While various forms of citizenship and/or rights emerged under different political, legal, and/or socio-religious systems, jus soli (right of the soil) and jus sanguinis (right of blood) were the most common.

Jus soli was usually associated with multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, imperial yet territorially cohesive states within Europe (such as France), while jus sanguinis was associated with territorially fragmented ethnic states (such as Germany). Both forms of citizenship coalesced through different processes, highlighting the distinct role of state-building and territory. Although there are variations, mixed or blended forms (such as the USA) and local distinctions (such as Switzerland — jus domicile), both became international norms and remain predominant today.

Colonialism and the Homogenizing of Citizenship
The status of national citizenship and territorial sovereignty was enhanced by Europe’s wars of the 19th and 20th centuries and the colonial ventures preceding and during these centuries. Wars united populations around ideals of the ‘sacred nation’, and colonies manifested as territories operationally and institutionally imbued with the sovereignty of their patron societies. It should, however, be noted that the benefits of full citizenship were rarely extended to the non-European populations.
Variance in the methods of European colonization resulted in direct rule and an influx of settlers in some cases, while indirect rule through local clients and a negligible European presence was prevalent in others. In line with the largely unheeded advocates for less circumscribed ideals of belonging and morality in earlier eras, voices promoting the rights of non-European peoples existed throughout the colonial era. For example, the 16th-century Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas spoke on behalf of Native Americans and against Spanish genocidal practices. Europeans nevertheless almost universally privileged economic gain and pursuit of imperial advantage in colonial ventures over the enlightened ideals gaining traction at home.

Indigenous territorial practices and political structures were circumvented, marginalized, or plowed under to make way for Europe’s modernist preferences for bounded space and fixed citizenship. These preferences reached an apex during the so-called Scramble for Africa (1881–1914), when European negotiators superimposed a map on the continent that resulted in the dissection and division of groups possessing long-standing ideals of community and membership. A similar process unfolded across much of Asia.

In the aftermath of the First World War, international law sought to reconcile, however imperfectly, the basic principles of Westphalia with the new realities of nationalism. Beginning with Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points but also in subsequent iterations of international law, including the UN’s founding charter of 1945, nation-state principles were affirmed as a global norm. By the 1970s, most colonies had transitioned, sometimes through revolution and sometimes by attrition, to sovereign states.
This process should not, however, be viewed as natural or as an inevitable evolution to an optimal stage of socio-spatiality. Efforts to enshrine this norm have always met with the protestations of anarchists, Marxists, certain religious groups, and internationalists, and, though this point is overlooked in much of the scholarly and policy literature, they have continually coexisted with trans- and sub-national economic, political, and communal practices. More so today than at any point in history, such dynamics are conspicuous and considered threatening to the nation-state norm. A variety of processes under the broad category of globalization (neoliberal capitalism, mass migration, communication technology, transnational human rights regimes, and so on) challenge national citizenship in important ways.

While standard political maps continue to portray the world as a collection of discrete territorial units and naturalize national ‘circles of we’, it is important to consider how they obscure the complexity of supra- and sub-state citizenships, cross-border relationships, and the daily practices of integration that pervade the contemporary processes of human life.

The 21st Century’s Changing Geographies of Citizenship
Many people are familiar with the idea that globalization challenges long-standing ideals of national-territorial citizenships. But have those territorializations of identity ever been as robust or as explicit as commonly perceived? Just asking this question throws an ironic light on contemporary efforts of countries such as India, the UK, and the USA for example, to return to more restrictive citizenships, and their attendant bordering practices designed to cloister the ‘national we’ from a variety of ‘others’. These others are characterized by differences in economic status, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, and so on.

In the 21st century, citizenship seems to highlight the contradictions and global variations in multi-scalar, globalized, political processes. We witness emergent forms of citizenship, such as citizenship that can be acquired by investment, and e-citizenship for the highly dispersed. At the same time, pressures on jus soli (“the right of the soil”, in other words, the right to citizenship in the country where a person was born) rise to the point of wall-building, separating children from migrant parents and revoking citizenship as a mechanism of social control. These policies speak to how complex it is to manage neoliberal capitalism, increasing global mobility, and revolutions in transborder communication technology within still-territorialized ideals of national exclusivity. How can one reconcile these policies to transnational human rights regimes, let alone moral edicts (whether based on religions or not) for compassion toward one’s neighbor and care for the poor and hungry? This essay approaches citizenship through the lens of territory, exploring existing processes of re-scaling political belonging, applying legal rights, and considering civil beneficence.

Transitioning Citizenships of the 21st Century — Scaling Up
There are scores of challenges, alternatives, and prospects of citizenship amid post-modernity and its globalizing dynamic. Some would say that technological innovations (such as better roads) and subsequent geographic extensions of authority inspired the Stoics’ varied realms of compassion, Kant’s discourse on universal ethics in the era of Enlightenment and colonialism, and state-centered integrative dynamics of nationalization during the 19th century. However, Benedict Anderson1 famously argues that specific technologies of power (newspapers, political parties, national currencies, national bureaucracies, and services like postal systems, education, and standing armies) produce the dynamics of nationalization. This enables ‘imagining’ communities horizontally across space and vertically through social class within a bordered homeland.

Yet the prospects for scaling up communities of belonging are greater now than at any point in history. New communication technologies — mobile phones, the internet, and social media — combine with foreign investment, transnational firms, and international mobility to form networks that transcend space–time and, to a greater or lesser extent, the human constructs of national citizenship and state territoriality.

Scaling up governance takes shape in new regional organizations to which many states have conceded a measure of sovereignty. The EU is at the forefront of this new regionalism by hybridizing national identities with a supra-state European identity. Not many would have considered the ideal of European citizenship to be possible in centuries past, even though in practice it is imperfect and people question how sustainable it would be in a crisis — think Brexit.

Efforts in the 20th and 21st centuries to establish a global legal infrastructure also constitute an expanded ideal of citizenship. For example, the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights’s attempts to prevent creating stateless populations, the UN intervening in various humanitarian situations, and the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court being established. In practice, all of these attempts are limited, but they depart substantially from Westphalian or state sovereignty and the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man, which held that: “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.” Today, global civil society often supersedes the Westphalian view of rigidly bounded communities of belonging, compassion, and responsibility, for example by transborder charities, environmental groups, religious or professional or non-profit organizations, human rights advocates, and trade unions activists.

Transitioning Citizenships of the 21st Century — Scaling Down
Nevertheless, one should remember that the 21st century began with the gradual stabilization of imperial collapse. Former socialist states of the Eastern Bloc and Soviet Union coalesced around their new national territories, thereby scaling down citizenship. In this process, global cities and sub-state regions have carved out unique transborder economic links while they augment cosmopolitan identities similar to those that once existed in medieval free cities. These identities are commonly distinct from the politico-territorial ideals of the states in which they are located. In line with this, and partly in response to international trade and business being steadily more competitive, governments around the world have given extra-territorial privileges to the businesses and workers they favor. Export processing zones and other liberalized economic spaces give essential workers special citizenship statuses within sub-state spaces.

These elite workers, sometimes called the new Argonauts,2 include certain corporate executives and professionals of various global industries such as education, resource extraction, development, music, and sports. Members of this thin stratum resist restrictive definitions of national or state citizenship. However, non-elite diasporic communities share a more common experience of transnationality; these communities include guest workers, visiting students, refugees, remittance communities, and immigrants.

The relationship between citizenship and territory is therefore manifold and sometimes contradictory. Data from the World Values Survey in 2000 suggests that more than 20% of the world’s population self-identifies with the global community as a primary or secondary identity. But this same data reveals that citizenship’s dimensions are commonly regarded as relating to local and national territorial scales. Although everyday spatial behaviors and patterns of interpersonal encounter may explain why the local is so prominent, it seems that at least 200 years of venerating the national has made it the norm for belonging, rights, and access to civil beneficence.

Sustainability of State Citizenship
Although some consider that de-territorialized democracy, neoliberal capitalism, global environmentalism, and broad-ranging applications of justice and human rights herald a universalizing cosmopolitan citizenship, currently only 3% of people change their citizenship from their place of birth. Even the most internationalized corporations and institutions are staffed by people for whom communities of local belonging and ideals of nation-state citizenship are still significant. Most people continue to feel that these ideals are sacrosanct, despite resounding critiques of patriotism and nationalism in certain circles.

Contemporary headlines are full of nationalism’s continuing role in politics, rather than chronicling its sweep into the dustbin of history. Demands by minority groups for nation-statehood may challenge the sovereignty and territorial integrity of some states, but do not systemically undermine the assumptions and structures of the system. Instead, many minority nationalist efforts aim to revise the territorial framework of states better to reflect the ideal of national self-determination (for example, independence movements in Catalonia, Euskadi, Kurdistan, and Scotland). The concomitant rise of majority, exclusionary, or populist nationalisms may relate to this. These populist nationalisms try to buttress identities that are feared to be eroding under pressure from global culture and un-assimilating resident others. Here again, rather than erecting a new ideal of identity territorialization, the present system is sustained as people try to secure their place within it.

Given the trend to recalibrate territorial scale so that it coheres better with the capacity for social control and the ability to provide civil beneficence, one can reasonably suggest that the nation-state appeals partly because it can achieve particular ends and can operate responsive institutions that citizens can access. The nation-state’s construction of sameness is another facet of its appeal. The optimal territorial scale of any institution is at the juncture of commitment between leadership, populace, and the process of self development. In other words, expanding and contracting territorial scales link to instrumental ways of defining belonging and geographic attachment, since citizenship has political, economic, and social aspects.

These elements are embodied in the notion of imagining community, which advances the Lockean premise of state rule made legitimate by the citizen consenting. Public institutions and symbols (flags, statuary, maps, and so on) channel the national imagination towards a political form and territorial scale. Well-founded interventions by feminist, post-modern, and other political theorists punctuate the elite-driven nature of such citizenship, signaling its common failure to integrate social groups that are marginal because of ethnicity, gender, race, or region. Moreover, a historical perspective in conjunction with these critical lenses reveals how attributes considered necessary for citizenship have changed according to contingent criteria. The Statue of Liberty’s inscription welcoming the tired, poor and huddled masses would seem less relevant in today’s economic and political environment sewn with populist nationalism.

Fear — whether justified or concocted — engenders securitization and protectionism. But legal innovations, enhanced by biometric technologies, make the individual’s body the site of the border. They also enforce security throughout national territories, rather than solidifying the margins and fomenting interior spaces of true acceptance, or at least tolerance. In short, borders of citizenship are everywhere — at the physical boundary of the national territory, in political practices and policies, and in social norms (gender, sexuality, and so forth). These borders are embodied in all individuals, non-citizens and citizens alike.

Novel Spatialities of Citizenship
But what alternatives exist? As Lynn Staeheli argues, to date “post-national, transnational, cosmopolitan, and global citizenships…are not alternatives to citizenship-in-the-state but instead are constructed through and in relation to it”.3 This said, re-scaling citizenship is and always has been part of the human effort to organize political space and set limits on the scope of civil beneficence, rights, and responsibilities. Concepts of territory do not rigidly delimit ideals of belonging now, nor have they ever. Rather they are socially assigned in relation to a series of contingent processes, events, technologies, and shifting values that are multi-valent and polylocal.

Above: Catalonia, with a population of roughly 7.5 million, accounts for 16% of Spain’s population and 20% of its GDP, making it one of the leading economically active regions in the country. Should Catalonia gain independence, it is reported that it will have a GDP that surpasses Finland’s

Increasing mobilities that extend well beyond tourism and guest worker migrations will re-scale citizenship in the 21st century. Advances in communications technology facilitate connections between individuals, families, and groups across space in a manner unprecedented in human history. The result is, for lack of a better term, hybridity of belonging — perceptions of personal and group investment within different polities.
Polylocality is normal across the jurisdictional geographies of states (for example, living in one municipality or province but being employed in another), but it is now increasingly common across international borders. Long-term migrant communities often possess a sense of investment in and belonging to a neighborhood, or even their city of residence, but lack allegiance and a sense of responsibility to the host state. In this sense, their citizenship ideal jumps scales according to conceptions of homeland that tie the locale of a transnational destination to a locale of origin in another state.

Rather than ignoring scale-jumping, states are creating institutions to support polylocal citizenships. More than 90 countries have embraced dual or multiple citizenship, and in 2006 more than 40 states allowed non-citizen voting. In addition to age-old processes of naturalization, states try to accommodate recent globalized realities, such as non-nested identities, by innovating policies such as citizenship-by-investment, citizenship deprivation (or revocation), jus domicile (residence citizenship), jus nexi (earned citizenship), and e-citizenship (or residence).

Many would argue that borderland identities, dual citizenries, and scale-jumping, while problematic to nation-centric citizenship ideals, are mounting realities to which systems must adjust. Vesting people in place at different, not necessarily nested, scales of political authority allows affective and communal bases for citizenship through elemental facets of social familiarity and everyday spatiality. That said, legitimizing extra-territorial belonging feeds many people’s concerns that dual citizenship could become treble citizenship or more. Can democracies function without the defining structure of territorial citizenship? How would that work?4

Endnotes and References
1 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983)
2 Annalee Saxenian, The New Argonauts: Regional Advantage in a Global Economy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006)
3 Lynn Staeheli, “Political Geography: Where’s Citizenship?”, Progress in Human Geography 35 (August 26, 2010): 393–400,
4 This essay suggests that the search for an optimal scale of citizenship is ongoing, being complicated by historical transitions from religious–monarchial sovereignty to popular–territorial sovereignty. An imagined unity of peoples and their sanction of the state to represent them facilitated the latter. The way that this framework rapidly proliferated over the last 200 years — though it was often split with gendered, ethno-linguistic, and/or temporal-occupancy privilege — solidified the relationship between democracy and territory at the same time as it demarcated the borders between contemporary nation-states. These linkages are so embedded that critiques of territorial sovereignty are often depicted as challenging the rule of the people. The way that the world is portrayed on maps — as a collection of discrete territorial units — makes these two-century-old circles seem natural. This cartographic portrayal also obscures how complex cross-border relationships are, and how daily practices of integration initiate new supra- and sub-state citizenships.

Register to receive the digital version of each edition of the Global Citizenship Review