Focus: Re-Thinking Noncitizenship

Focus: Re-Thinking Noncitizenship

Katherine Tonkiss and Tendayi Bloom

This special section of Discover Society with articles on the topic of ‘non-citizenship’ has been edited by Katherine Tonkiss and Tendayi Bloom. ‘Citizenship’ has long provided a useful language with which to think about how people live in societies and their relationships to States. However, it has also obscured another form of membership, which is referred to here as ‘noncitizenship’.

In this Focus piece, we argue for the need to look beyond citizenship if we want to fully capture the lived realities of membership in contemporary societies. We show that understanding noncitizenship itself as a foundational concept in social science offers fruitful new avenues for research and opens up the possibility of an urgent and crucial rethinking of the relationship between individuals and the States in which they live. We call for a ‘critical noncitizenship studies’ to take forward this project.

The desperate situation of the millions of people fleeing Syria and other war zones, a phenomenon which has increased over the past twelve months, indicates the inadequacy of citizenship as a means of organizing the protection of vulnerable individuals. Faced with the horrors of war, millions of people have found no other choice but to leave their homes in order to seek safety elsewhere. Yet each border they seek to cross sustains, through force, the regimes of citizenship within which they must prove some status in order to access even basic rights. The constellation of citizenship regimes can make it difficult to account for their rights, sometimes even to recognise their presence, and as such they fall through the gaps between regimes of membership, unwelcome travellers in a system of States ill-equipped to understand and respond to their situation.

In the absence of an adequate appreciation of what it means to be a noncitizen and how the international community should respond, people such as the millions leaving Syria and other war zones find themselves in situations of unnecessary vulnerability and insecurity, deprived of the rights and protections of citizenship they must prove eligibility for some humanitarian status and are often treated as a problem in themselves, rather than as a population exposed to harm through the problems created by exclusionary citizenship regimes.

Addressing the challenges posed by noncitizens is, as such, a critical contemporary challenge for policymakers and social scientists alike. Yet, as we will explore in this article, we currently lack the tools to conceptualise and therefore to respond effectively to these problems. Our aim in this collection of articles in Discover Society on the theme of noncitizenship is twofold: First to argue that noncitizenship should itself be seen as a foundational concept in social science; and secondly to suggest some ways in which noncitizenship can be understood. These objectives are developed further in the special issue of Citizenship Studies, entitled ‘Theorising Noncitizenship’, upon which the articles here draw. We argue that noncitizenship should not only be seen as a passive – as simply the absence of citizenship – but also as an active category of membership, or an active relationship between an individual and a State. Further, we argue that this conceptualization of noncitizenship offers a lens through which to reveal, understand and theorise the contours of inclusion and exclusion in contemporary societies, in order to prescribe policy solutions directed at building a more just world. This doesn’t mean that we reject the notion of citizenship, but we do argue for a decentring of citizenship as a core concept in social science in order to better capture the complex role of noncitizenship in contemporary societies.

 Decentring Citizenship

Scholars are increasingly questioning ‘national citizenship’, or citizenship of a nation-state, as the dominant model of citizenship in the world today. Several factors are driving this. For example, new thinking about migration, influenced by new experiences of migration in some regions, makes it difficult to maintain a focus on nationalism in increasingly diverse contexts. The emergence and development of the international human rights regime also changed the way in which citizenship was understood, such that a State no longer has complete discretion over how to treat those within its territory. As the realm of human rights has expanded, the consequences of this for the State-citizen relationship has also changed, with internationally recognized claims of noncitizens impacting on the ability of States to control both status and presence. As a result of these and other factors, national group membership is playing a less central role than it once did in determining place of residence and access to rights, and as a result, States have less control over membership.

This emergent questioning of the national model of citizenship has led some working in the field of citizenship studies to ‘decentre’ traditional theories of citizenship. Nira Yuval-Davis, for example, argues that people participate in multiple different forms of citizenships at different levels (local, national, and international) and that these citizenships intersect with different forms of social divisions such as gender, class and race. Engin Isin and others have argued that citizenship is something which is practiced or performed in everyday life, rather than being just a legal status.

Such developments have challenged traditional understandings about those to whom justice and rights should apply. In a mobile and interconnected world where citizenship is increasingly decentred, theorists are asking: how should we conceive of the rights of those without access to citizenship or for whom existing citizenship regimes are not working, and how should citizenship be transformed as a result? Often, they have argued for the extension of citizenship beyond its traditional limits at the border of the nation-state, and propose more inclusive forms of citizenship. Luis Cabrera, for example, has argued for a global citizenship regime, while Joseph Carens has proposed opening up existing national citizenship regimes to those born outside of the State.

While it is important to think critically about the existing limits of citizenship, in these approaches it seems that noncitizenship is only thought about in relation to the conceptualisation of citizenship and its relationship with justice and rights. Moreover, noncitizenship is seen only as an absence, and a deficiency. It is difficult, within this discourse, to construct an understanding of noncitizenship as chosen and politically powerful in the ways shown in some contributions to this collection of essays. Seeing noncitizenship only as the absence of citizenship is of course logical, but we think that this is too simplistic.

Noncitizenship and Citizenship

As this collection of essays shows, noncitizens have diverse experiences and belongings which are shaped through a complex network of intersections with other social categories. A definition of noncitizenship as simply the absence of citizenship overlooks these dynamics and pacifies the noncitizen in so-doing. By exploring these in detail, noncitizenship could itself be seen as a category of membership or individual-State relationship in its own right, capable of shaping how we understand States, societies, and indeed how we construct membership and rights in contemporary societies. In other words, before we can think about how to extend justice and rights to noncitizens, we need an accurate understanding of the category that goes beyond simply treating noncitizenship as the deprivation of citizenship.

Historically, various attempts have been made to conceptualise statuses beyond citizenship. For example, ‘denizen’ was a legal status quite like ‘resident’ in medieval Britain, and more recently has applied to members of certain groups viewed as ineligible for full citizenship in their societies. Similarly ‘dhimmi’ has had similar uses to denizen in Islamic political theory and practice. But these words seem to act as ‘stand-ins’ for full citizenship, rather than a way of understanding noncitizenship as a distinct category of membership or relationship with a State. As such, these concepts don’t quite capture what we intend ‘noncitizenship’ to achieve.

Understanding noncitizenship properly is important for two reasons. Firstly, the current focus on citizenship means that it is just not possible to develop a full theory of States and membership or to understand the ways in which processes of inclusion and exclusion affect individual lives. Failing to offer a terminology of noncitizenship, let alone a strong theorisation of noncitizen-State relationships, means that a significant population are excluded from such considerations, that made up of those whose primary relationship with the State in which they live is one of noncitizenship. We argue that scholars have been unable to respond to this problem because the tools available to them for talking about membership and relationships with States are completely dependent on citizenship.

Secondly, this lack of a full conceptualisation of noncitizenship means that the academic community is less able to speak to the kinds of real world problems that noncitizens face. In particular, those with non-national memberships, people who are members of diasporas networks, temporary workers, those seeking protection on humanitarian grounds (like refugees), and members of nomadic groups will remain inadequately understood within the work of theorists unless a more rigorous understanding of noncitizenship is developed.

Conceptualising Noncitizenship

In bringing together this collection of articles, and in editing the special issue of Citizenship Studies to which they correspond, our purpose is to suggest a way in which the process of conceptualising noncitizenship as a core concept in the study of society could develop. The articles in the collection show why it is crucial to develop a way to understand noncitizenship without relying on citizenship as a core concept, and offer their own distinct accounts of how to do so. They argue that citizenship should not be seen as the only foundational concept in the study of membership or individual-State relations, and that noncitizenship is not simply an absence or a lack of that citizenship. In turn, we aim to support theorists and policymakers in responding to the changing landscapes in which it is becoming more and more important to address directly the needs of noncitizens.

Luin Goldring and Patricia Landolt’s article, ‘Assembling noncitizenship through the work of conditionality’, shows how noncitizenship is much more complex than its traditional definition has allowed, and shows how noncitizens have been pushed into simplistic categories for the purpose of academic study. Through detailed analysis of case studies, they argue that noncitizenship can be defined by the ways that individuals and institutions, laws and policies interact. This is developed further in the current collection.

These themes are also taken up in David Weissbrodt and Michael Divine’s article, ‘Unequal access to human rights: the categories of noncitizenship’. They argue that a noncitizen’s legal status may in practice exclude him or her from basic human rights protections granted by international law. Again in their discussion, the way in which noncitizenship is experienced depends on the social context in which it is enacted. Crucially, they show the importance of a full understanding of noncitizenship in international law in order to better allocate and enforce responsibility to protect individuals unable to prove a citizenship status. Michael Divine then brings this to bear on contemporary political.

Tendayi Bloom’s article, ‘The business of noncitizenship’, explores how the private sector is involved in noncitizenship-construction. Through an analysis of privatised migration control, she presents a commodification of noncitizens in their relationship with States and provides a taxonomy of the migration control industry in order to offer a new way of understanding the role non-state actors in shaping the nature of noncitizenship. She presents the private sector as an often overlooked mediator in migration control but a key presence in defining the parameters of noncitizenship.

Analysis of noncitizenship often focuses on processes of migration, but this risks overlooking noncitizenship in situ. Kristy Belton’s article, ‘Rooted displacement: the paradox of belonging among stateless people’, offers some reflections on a context in which a State has explicitly excluded residents from a citizen relationship, which in this case leaves them stateless. She presents a particularly troubling form of noncitizenship arising from becoming a noncitizen without migrating, demonstrating the need to look beyond the traditional focus on the migratory context of noncitizenship in order to understand how it is experienced more broadly.

Landolt and Goldring, Weissbrodt and Divine, Bloom and Belton all focus on instances where the primary construction of noncitizenship is by others – by states, societies, lawmakers and private sector entities. Shanthi Robertson and Heather Johnson’s articles look at the role of noncitizens themselves in shaping the meaning of noncitizenship. In Robertson’s Australia, noncitizenship is almost a non-status, not recognised even by noncitizens themselves as important. It is a temporary step on the road to formal status and any mobilisation which does exist is focuses upon access to citizenship. Johnson’s Australia, on the other hand, is the reverse. By examining noncitizen solidarity movements on the ground, she finds that noncitizens are mobilising around the notion of noncitizenship and that this is a mobilisation of noncitizenship as a status in itself, for rights to be allocated to noncitizens and not withheld until they make a transition to citizenship.

Across the papers in this collection, points of conflict and disparity are intentionally highlighted, not as problems for the project but as crucial to it. The collection brings together theorists who share the commitment to developing a new way to understand noncitizenship and, for the most part, share the reasons why this is necessary. But they differ with respect to how this ought to proceed. As becomes particularly apparent from the contrast between the final two papers, the truth is that noncitizen experiences are diverse and that individuals understand and experience their relationships with States and their memberships in a variety of ways. In order to develop a useful understanding of noncitizenship, it will be necessary to make a space that is equally valid for those in Robertson’s Australia as well as those in Johnson’s Austria.

An Agenda for Noncitizenship Studies

The essays in this collection (and in the volume which inspired it) provide a multi-disciplinary analysis of noncitizenship in theory and in practice. Their insights highlight some particularly central features which we think should form a basis for the future study and theorisation of noncitizenship as a foundational concept in social science:

  1. Noncitizenship is best understood as heterogeneous and complex. It isn’t a single neat category but rather an amalgamation of different categories according to status, and cutting across different social divisions and relationships.
  2. Noncitizenship is best understood as constructed by multiple actors, in different places and through different modes. Rather than simply being defined by law, both State and non-state actors as well as noncitizens themselves play a role in constructing the meaning of noncitizenship.
  3. The relationship between noncitizenship and citizenship should be seen as complex and multi-faceted, rather than dichotomous. The diverse nature of noncitizenship means that there are many different points at which noncitizen and citizen categories intersect with one another.
  4. Noncitizenship is associated with vulnerability and powerless in society – but also with a challenging of that vulnerability and powerlessness to develop new forms of power and new modes of political activity.

These four key ideas to emerge from the collection of articles form the basis of a future agenda for a critical and interdisciplinary noncitizenship studies. This project will involve two key and inter-related immediate tasks in order to build on this work. The first of these will be to continue the project of conceptualising noncitizenship. The collection has brought together a range of different approaches and we suggest that building on this work from a greater diversity of geographical locations and theoretical frameworks and taking into account a greater emphasis on the impact of other social divisions is pressing. The second key task is the production of accounts of the rights of noncitizens grounded in noncitizenship, rather than citizenship, as a foundational concept, drawing on the conceptualisation of noncitizenship as a category of membership in its own right to offer new accounts of the relationship between membership, justice and rights in contemporary societies. Through these accounts, we hope that such a movement could begin to address the real world concerns of noncitizens more directly and effectively.

This article, together with those discussed as part of the same collection, are based on research published as a special issue of Citizenship Studies entitled ‘Theorising Noncitizenship’.

Further reading
Abizadeh, Arash (2002) “Does Liberal Democracy Presuppose a Cultural Nation? Four Arguments.” American Political Science Review 96 (3): 495–509.
Bloemraad, Irene, Anna Korteweg, and Gökçe Yurdakul (2008) “Citizenship and Immigration: Multiculturalism, Assimilation and Challenges to the Nation-State.” Annual Review of Sociology 34: 153–179.
Bloom, Tendayi (2015) “London’s Ghosts”, in Kershen, Anne J. (ed.) London the Promised Land Revisited. London: Routledge.
Carens, Joseph (2013) The Ethics of Immigration. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Isin, Engin, and Bryan S. Turner (2007) “Investigating Citizenship: An Agenda for Citizenship Studies.” Citizenship Studies 11 (1): 5–17.
Isin, Engin (2008) “Theorising Acts of Citizenship.” In Acts of Citizenship, edited by Engin Isin and Greg M. Nielsen, 15–43. London: Zed.
Joppke, Christian (2007) “Transformation of Citizenship: Status, Rights, Identity.” Citizenship Studies 11 (1): 37–48.
Kaldor, Mary (2003) “The Idea of Global Civil Society.International Affairs 79 (3): 583–593.
Kofman, Eleonore (2005) “Citizenship, Migration and the Reassertion of National Identity.” Citizenship Studies 9 (5): 453–467.
Lister, Ruth (2007) “Inclusive Citizenship: Realizing the Potential.” Citizenship Studies 11 (1): 49–61.
Tonkiss, Katherine (2013) Migration and Identity in a Post-National World. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Yuval-Davis, Nira (2007) “Intersectionality, Citizenship and Contemporary Politics of Belonging.” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 10 (4): 561–574.


Katherine Tonkiss is a Lecturer in Sociology at Aston University. She is interested in noncitizenship particularly in terms of identity and belonging, and has explored these issues from both theoretical and applied perspectives in scholarly journals including Citizenship Studies and the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. Katherine’s book, Migration and Identity in a Post-National World, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2013. In it, she explores the implications of open borders migration rights for the negotiation of identity and belonging. This analysis has gone on to underpin her collaborative work with international colleagues on the theoretical conceptualization of noncitizenship. She is also interested in political and policy-oriented perspectives on migration, and is currently researching the policy narratives of migration charities in the UK and Australia as well as exploring the implications of ‘superdiversity’ for policy and governance in Europe. Tendayi Bloom is a Postdoctoral Associate in the Global Justice Program of the MacMillan Center, Yale University. She works on questions of noncitizenship, migration, statelessness and justice. The material in this post derives from work presented in a Special Issue of Citizenship Studies entitled ‘Theorising Noncitizenship’, which she recently co-edited with K. Tonkiss. A more detailed treatment of Tendayi’s own position on the nature of the noncitizen-State relationship is developed in the monograph she is currently completing on this subject.