Theory of the value of political participation.

People are citizens when they participate to the fullest possible extent in the politics and government of their societies.

Ideally all citizens are available for public office, though this is not feasible in large modern states. Citizens engage in political discussion and participation not as means to some other end such as the protection of their interests, but as a form of intelligent social activity worthwhile for its own sake.

Arguments for citizenship frequently draw on aristotelianism.

Geoff Andrews, ed., Citizenship (London, 1991)

Determining factors

  • Citizenship by birth (jus sanguinis). If one or both of a person’s parents are citizens of a given state, then the person may have the right to be a citizen of that state as well.[a] Formerly this might only have applied through the paternal line, but sex equality became common since the late twentieth century. Citizenship is granted based on ancestry or ethnicity and is related to the concept of a nation state common in Europe. Where jus sanguinis holds, a person born outside a country, one or both of whose parents are citizens of the country, is also a citizen. Some states (United Kingdom, Canada) limit the right to citizenship by descent to a certain number of generations born outside the state; others (Germany, Ireland) grant citizenship only if each new generation is registered with the relevant foreign mission within a specified deadline; while others (France, Switzerland, Italy) have no limitation on the number of generations born abroad who can claim citizenship of their ancestors’ country. This form of citizenship is common in civil law countries.
  • Born within a country (jus soli). Some people are automatically citizens of the state in which they are born. This form of citizenship originated in England, where those who were born within the realm were subjects of the monarch (a concept pre-dating citizenship) and is common in common law countries. Most countries in the Americas grant unconditional jus soli citizenship, while it has been limited or abolished in almost all other countries.
    • In many cases, both jus soli and jus sanguinis hold citizenship either by place or parentage (or both).
  • Citizenship by marriage (jus matrimonii). Many countries fast-track naturalization based on the marriage of a person to a citizen. Countries which are destinations for such immigration often have regulations to try to detect sham marriages, where a citizen marries a non-citizen typically for payment, without them having the intention of living together.[6] Many countries (United Kingdom, Germany, United States, Canada) allow citizenship by marriage only if the foreign spouse is a permanent resident of the country in which citizenship is sought; others (Switzerland, Luxembourg) allow foreign spouses of expatriate citizens to obtain citizenship after a certain period of marriage, and sometimes also subject to language skills and proof of cultural integration (e.g. regular visits to the spouse’s country of citizenship).
  • Naturalization. States normally grant citizenship to people who have entered the country legally and been granted permit to stay, or been granted political asylum, and also lived there for a specified period. In some countries, naturalization is subject to conditions which may include passing a test demonstrating reasonable knowledge of the language or way of life of the host country, good conduct (no serious criminal record) and moral character (such as drunkenness, or gambling), vowing allegiance to their new state or its ruler and renouncing their prior citizenship. Some states allow dual citizenship and do not require naturalized citizens to formally renounce any other citizenship.
  • Citizenship by investment or Economic Citizenship. Wealthy people invest money in property or businesses, buy government bonds or simply donate cash directly, in exchange for citizenship and a passport.

Whilst legitimate and usually limited in quota, the schemes are controversial. Costs for citizenship by investment range from as little as $100,000 (£74,900) to as much as €2.5m (£2.19m)[7]

  • Excluded categories. In the past there have been exclusions on entitlement to citizenship on grounds such as skin color, ethnicity, sex, and free status (not being a slave). Most of these exclusions no longer apply in most places. Modern examples include some Arab countries which rarely grant citizenship to non-Muslims, e.g. Qatar is known for granting citizenship to foreign athletes, but they all have to profess the Islamic faith in order to receive citizenship. The United States grants citizenship to those born as a result of reproductive technologies, and internationally adopted children born after February 27, 1983. Some exclusions still persist for internationally adopted children born before February 27, 1983 even though their parents meet citizenship criteria.



Many thinkers point to the concept of citizenship beginning in the early city-states of ancient Greece, although others see it as primarily a modern phenomenon dating back only a few hundred years and, for humanity, that the concept of citizenship arose with the first laws. Polis meant both the political assembly of the city-state as well as the entire society.[8] Citizenship concept has generally been identified as a western phenomenon.[9] There is a general view that citizenship in ancient times was a simpler relation than modern forms of citizenship, although this view has come under scrutiny.[10] The relation of citizenship has not been a fixed or static relation, but constantly changed within each society, and that according to one view, citizenship might “really have worked” only at select periods during certain times, such as when the Athenian politician Solon made reforms in the early Athenian state.[11]

Historian Geoffrey Hosking in his 2005 Modern Scholar lecture course suggested that citizenship in ancient Greece arose from an appreciation for the importance of freedom.[12] Hosking explained:

It can be argued that this growth of slavery was what made Greeks particularly conscious of the value of freedom. After all, any Greek farmer might fall into debt and therefore might become a slave, at almost any time … When the Greeks fought together, they fought in order to avoid being enslaved by warfare, to avoid being defeated by those who might take them into slavery. And they also arranged their political institutions so as to remain free men.

— Geoffrey Hosking, 2005[12]

Geoffrey Hosking suggests that fear of being enslaved was a central motivating force for the development of the Greek sense of citizenship. Sculpture: a Greek woman being served by a slave-child.

Slavery permitted slave-owners to have substantial free time, and enabled participation in public life.[12] Polis citizenship was marked by exclusivity. Inequality of status was widespread; citizens (πολίτης politēs < πόλις ‘city’) had a higher status than non-citizens, such as women, slaves, and resident foreigners (metics).[13][14] The first form of citizenship was based on the way people lived in the ancient Greek times, in small-scale organic communities of the polis. Citizenship was not seen as a separate activity from the private life of the individual person, in the sense that there was not a distinction between public and private life. The obligations of citizenship were deeply connected into one’s everyday life in the polis. These small-scale organic communities were generally seen as a new development in world history, in contrast to the established ancient civilizations of Egypt or Persia, or the hunter-gatherer bands elsewhere. From the viewpoint of the ancient Greeks, a person’s public life was not separated from their private life, and Greeks did not distinguish between the two worlds according to the modern western conception. The obligations of citizenship were deeply connected with everyday life. To be truly human, one had to be an active citizen to the community, which Aristotle famously expressed: “To take no part in the running of the community’s affairs is to be either a beast or a god!” This form of citizenship was based on obligations of citizens towards the community, rather than rights given to the citizens of the community. This was not a problem because they all had a strong affinity with the polis; their own destiny and the destiny of the community were strongly linked. Also, citizens of the polis saw obligations to the community as an opportunity to be virtuous, it was a source of honour and respect. In Athens, citizens were both ruler and ruled, important political and judicial offices were rotated and all citizens had the right to speak and vote in the political assembly.

Roman ideas

In the Roman Empire, citizenship expanded from small-scale communities to the entirety of the empire. Romans realized that granting citizenship to people from all over the empire legitimized Roman rule over conquered areas. Roman citizenship was no longer a status of political agency, as it had been reduced to a judicial safeguard and the expression of rule and law.[15] Rome carried forth Greek ideas of citizenship such as the principles of equality under the law, civic participation in government, and notions that “no one citizen should have too much power for too long”,[16] but Rome offered relatively generous terms to its captives, including chances for lesser forms of citizenship.[16] If Greek citizenship was an “emancipation from the world of things”,[17] the Roman sense increasingly reflected the fact that citizens could act upon material things as well as other citizens, in the sense of buying or selling property, possessions, titles, goods. One historian explained:

The person was defined and represented through his actions upon things; in the course of time, the term property came to mean, first, the defining characteristic of a human or other being; second, the relation which a person had with a thing; and third, the thing defined as the possession of some person.

— J. G. A. Pocock, 1998[18]

Roman citizenship reflected a struggle between the upper-class patrician interests against the lower-order working groups known as the plebeian class.[16] A citizen came to be understood as a person “free to act by law, free to ask and expect the law’s protection, a citizen of such and such a legal community, of such and such a legal standing in that community”.[19] Citizenship meant having rights to have possessions, immunities, expectations, which were “available in many kinds and degrees, available or unavailable to many kinds of person for many kinds of reason”.[19] The law itself was a kind of bond uniting people.[20] Roman citizenship was more impersonal, universal, multiform, having different degrees and applications.[20]

Middle Ages

During the European Middle Ages, citizenship was usually associated with cities and towns (see medieval commune), and applied mainly to middle class folk. Titles such as burgher, grand burgher (German Großbürger) and bourgeoisie denoted political affiliation and identity in relation to a particular locality, as well as membership in a mercantile or trading class; thus, individuals of respectable means and socioeconomic status were interchangeable with citizens.

During this era, members of the nobility had a range of privileges above commoners (see aristocracy), though political upheavals and reforms, beginning most prominently with the French Revolution, abolished privileges and created an egalitarian concept of citizenship.


During the Renaissance, people transitioned from being subjects of a king or queen to being citizens of a city and later to a nation.[21]:p.161 Each city had its own law, courts, and independent administration.[22] And being a citizen often meant being subject to the city’s law in addition to having power in some instances to help choose officials.[22] City dwellers who had fought alongside nobles in battles to defend their cities were no longer content with having a subordinate social status, but demanded a greater role in the form of citizenship.[23] Membership in guilds was an indirect form of citizenship in that it helped their members succeed financially.[24] The rise of citizenship was linked to the rise of republicanism, according to one account, since independent citizens meant that kings had less power.[25] Citizenship became an idealized, almost abstract, concept,[11] and did not signify a submissive relation with a lord or count, but rather indicated the bond between a person and the state in the rather abstract sense of having rights and duties.[11]

Modern times

The modern idea of citizenship still respects the idea of political participation, but it is usually done through “elaborate systems of political representation at a distance” such as representative democracy.[10] Modern citizenship is much more passive; action is delegated to others; citizenship is often a constraint on acting, not an impetus to act.[10] Nevertheless, citizens are usually aware of their obligations to authorities, and are aware that these bonds often limit what they can do.[10]

United States of America[edit]

Portrait of Dred Scott, plaintiff in the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford case at the Supreme Court of the United States, commissioned by a “group of Negro citizens” and presented to the Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, in 1888

From 1790 until the mid-twentieth century, United States law used racial criteria to establish citizenship rights and regulate who was eligible to become a naturalized citizen.[26] The Naturalization Act of 1790, the first law in U.S. history to establish rules for citizenship and naturalization, barred citizenship to all people who were not of European descent, stating that “any alien being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof.”[27]

Under early U.S. laws, African Americans were not eligible for citizenship. In 1857, these laws were upheld in the US Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sandford, which ruled that “a free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a ‘citizen’ within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States,” and that “the special rights and immunities guarantied to citizens do not apply to them.”[28]

It was not until the abolition of slavery following the American Civil War that African Americans were granted citizenship rights. The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified on July 9, 1868, stated that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”[29] Two years later, the Naturalization Act of 1870 would extend the right to become a naturalized citizen to include “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent”.[30]

Despite the gains made by African Americans after the Civil War, Native Americans, Asians, and others not considered “free white persons” were still denied the ability to become citizens. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act explicitly denied naturalization rights to all people of Chinese origin, while subsequent acts passed by the US Congress, such as laws in 1906, 1917, and 1924, would include clauses that denied immigration and naturalization rights to people based on broadly defined racial categories.[31] Supreme Court cases such as Ozawa v. United States (1922) and U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923), would later clarify the meaning of the phrase “free white persons,” ruling that ethnically Japanese, Indian, and other non-European people were not “white persons”, and were therefore ineligible for naturalization under U.S. law.

Native Americans were not granted full US citizenship until the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924. However, even well into the 1960s some state laws prevented Native Americans from exercising their full rights as citizens, such as the right to vote. In 1962, New Mexico became the last state to enfranchise Native Americans.[32]

It was not until the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 that the racial and gender restrictions for naturalization were explicitly abolished. However, the act still contained restrictions regarding who was eligible for US citizenship, and retained a national quota system which limited the number of visas given to immigrants based on their national origin, to be fixed “at a rate of one-sixth of one percent of each nationality’s population in the United States in 1920”.[33] It was not until the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that these immigration quota systems were drastically altered in favor of a less discriminatory system.

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