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What is citizenship? And who is a citizen? See also the optimism for and challenges with virtual citizenship.


  • Democracy, Citizenship and Empowerment

What is citizenship? And: Who is a citizen?

There are many definitions of citizenship, all sharing a common core: being part of a community where 'common human affairs are negotiated and decided' (H. Arendt, The Human Condition).

Citizenship, in other words, presupposes the existence of a sphere for the exchange of meaning and decision-making, a political or public sphere that is accessible for participation. Being a citizen, therefore, is related to having rights and freedom, and is thus the opposite of being a subject.

Citizenship as status and role

The next question is: What are the prerequisites for being a citizen? Is it sufficient to be in a territory or live in a society, or do you need a formal status, such as citizenship?

describes a distinction between citizenship as status and role. The former involves formal rights, such as those associated with citizenship. The latter is about actual participation in democratic processes, not limited to the formally political.

You don't need a passport from the country you live in to engage in democratic processes, local initiatives, or organizations working at the national and international levels. Here, citizenship is something practiced. Being a citizen is something one becomes when engaging in the practices that create and sustain democracy as a system and as a culture.

This broad understanding of being a citizen is about seeing oneself as part of a whole or a community and taking responsibility for more than one's own affairs. From this perspective, citizenship can not only be learned but also practiced in schools.

Local, national, global citizenship

A broad understanding of citizenship, as outlined in the previous paragraph, is also part of the concept of local citizenship. "Local" can mean a neighborhood or a municipality. Here, the relationship between formal democratic aspects and the participation aspect, informal action, and participation forms can vary. Such local processes can give participants an experience of real democratic interaction and direct influence. Local citizenship can also be exercised without formal citizenship status.

Currently, the nation-state is the most important framework for the exercise of citizenship. The emergence of the nation-state from the 19th century is a crucial turning point for the modern understanding of citizenship and how citizenship is defined until today. Citizens are defined as those who live within the territory of the nation-state and fall under the laws and regulations of that state.

When the nation is also defined by common cultural traits (language, traditions, religion) and possibly a common ethnicity, the definition of the people becomes narrower: Only those who share the culture and belong to the same ethnic group constitute the "people" and can be (full-fledged) members of the nation. It is evident that this demarcation is more exclusive – making it difficult or impossible for minorities or newcomers to become part of the nation and, thereby, full-fledged citizens.

In light of globalization and the migration it entails, one may question whether the nation's borders should be the limits of citizenship. Osler ; suggests that the focus on nation and citizenship should be expanded with the dimension of cosmopolitan, or global, citizenship. This means, on the one hand, that the challenges that need political solutions do not limit themselves to the nation-state. Furthermore, such an expanded focus implies that belonging to humanity should define a person's rights at all times and in any place they may find themselves. Here, we see a clear connection between democracy and human rights, aiming to prevent abuses in the name of popular sovereignty.

The notion of global citizenship is expressed in the statement 'Think global, act local.' The slogan expresses awareness that today's challenges and possible solutions transcend national borders, while the solutions must be anchored and created locally, by those affected. Global citizenship is a central concept in education for sustainable development and also touches on Dembra themes through questions about migration and identity, the causes of today's global differences, and the roots of racism in colonial times.

"In an inclusion perspective, the idea of local and global citizenship can help mitigate and correct the exclusionary effects inherent in a narrowed understanding of citizenship linked to citizenship and/or belonging to a nation."

Different degrees of citizenship

Practicing or exercising citizenship can be limited to voting every other year, or it can be the main focus of someone's life.

In research literature, different forms of democratic participation are distinguished. Active citizenship ranges from joining a party and taking political positions, to forming or joining political associations and organizations, or actively participating in political debate and political demonstrations. This can be done continuously or sporadically.

Research on political youth participation in Europe shows that a young generation is quite politically informed and has the ability to express themselves and participate in political processes. Many young people do not see much point in engaging in 'politics' in the form of parties or organizations but engage more in 'issues' and events they find important. An 8th of March demonstration of girls in 2019 under the slogan 'I go to school, don't call me a whore' or youth striking for climate are examples of what researcher calls 'stand by' citizens.

In a democratic society, we talk about a wide range of political expression, debate, and mobilization. It is important to emphasize again that democratic participation and the exercise of citizenship are not limited to the formally political. For individuals, participation in local initiatives such as organizing volunteer work or neighborhood associations can provide valuable experiences of participation and co-determination.

"For both informal and explicitly political forms of citizenship, a person's socio-economic and cultural background has a lot to say about the opportunity to be heard and have an impact. Here, the minority's own political initiatives and organizations are important. But it is essential to ask how open and inclusive the small local initiatives and the large political organizations and parties are to people with different backgrounds."

Virtual citizenship

The vast reach and influence of the Internet and social media have, at times, led to great optimism about extended opportunities for everyone to exercise citizenship. The free flow and accessibility of information and communication beyond national borders – so the hope was – would contribute to an informed global public conversation.

However, hate speech, trolling, and fake news put a significant damper on this optimism. The Internet has also become an arena for manipulation and, notably, an arena where those who 'stick their heads out' and try to participate are frightened and threatened, causing many to withdraw after a while. This, and the so-called echo chambers, where participants only confirm the opinions and the worldview they had before, have become significant democratic problems.


Amnå, E. and Ekman, J. (2014). Standby citizens: diverse faces of political passivity. European Political Science Review, 6, pp 261-281 doi:10.1017/S175577391300009X

Lenz, C. (2020) Demokrati og medborgerskap i skolen. Pedlex

Osler, A. (2014) Identitet, demokrati og mangfold i skoler: nasjonale og internasjonale perspektiver, i: J. Madsen, J. & H. Biseth (eds) Må vi snakke om demokrati? Om demokratisk praksis i skolen. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget. pp. 46-62.

Osler, A., & Starkey, H. (2015). Education for cosmopolitan citizenship: A framework for language learning. Argentinian Journal of Applied Linguistics, 3(2), 30-39.. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/289127683_Osler_A_Starkey_H_2015_Education_for_cosmopolitan_citizenship_A_framework_for_language_learning_Argentinian_Journal_of_Applied_Linguistics_32_30-39 [accessed Nov 15 2019].

Stray, J. (2011) Demokrati på timeplanen, En pedagogisk innføring. Fagbokforlaget

Se også podcast med Claudia Lenz i Lektor Lomsdalens podcast http://lektorlomsdalen.no/2019/03/ll-144-claudia-lenz-og-medborgerskapsbegrepet/