Skip to content

Citizenship Versus Denizenship

June 3, 2015

PhalanxWhat is the difference between people who live in a nation state as members with rights and responsibilities, and those who live there without accepting such rights and responsibilities?

The former is a citizen, the latter a…denizen?

One of the best lessons in citizenship I ever got came from sitting in on a lecture by Dr. John T. Swanson, Egyptologist, classicist and associate provost at American University in Cairo.

John described the way that Greek citizen soldiers–hoplites–fought during the Archaic and Classical periods (ca. 750–350 BC) in a formation called the phalanx.  The hoplites would line up in ranks in close order and lock their shields together, while the first few ranks of soldiers would project their spears out over the first rank of shields. The hoplites thus presented to the enemy a shield wall with a mass of spear points projecting from it, which made frontal assaults against the phalynx difficult.

John pointed out that the structure of the hoplite shields was such that they partially covered the soldier holding them, but also the weapon-holding arm of the next soldier in the formation. Safety required close cooperation and the complete assurance that no man in the phalynx would cut and run.

Citizenship thus required intense loyalty to one another. Your ability to rely on your fellow citizens was thus a matter of life and death.

Citizenship was, of course, gendered. Only adult men could be citizens and enjoy the rights–and fulfill the responsibilities–that came with citizenship.

Conceptualizing Citizens

This concept of citizenship became incorporated into 18th and 19th century concepts of the nation state.

For most of the Twentieth Century political and legal scholarship has been dominated by the “liberal-democratic conception of citizenship.”  In this model, national citizenship affords legal equality and protection to all citizens who reside within a national territory.

On the one hand, these citizens are granted equal access to civil, political and social rights. In exchange, however, these citizens are expected to meet particular obligations, such as paying taxes and showing loyalty and allegiance to the nation-state as a political community.

This particular conception of citizenship generally assumes a person is a citizen of only one nation-state.

In fact, of course, citizenship is, like all human cultural constructions, a symbolic tool whose exact meanings and uses are continually being negotiated and renegotiated. Much of the anthropology of citizenship has involved ethnographic descriptions of the meanings of citizenship at the margins, where it is being contested, challenged and negotiated.

In the public sphere, there is a lot of concern with this notion of citizenship being undermined by the processes we collectively gloss as globalization.

What, for example, of expatriates? I lived for five years in Egypt as an expatriate, without any intention of assuming the responsibilities of citizenship.

And what, for example, do we make of migrants who dwell in communities in which they do not wish to be members of the states in which they dwell?

And what of the many Egyptians I write about in Chapter Four of Connected in Cairo who struggle with notions of citizenship and identity as they attempt to create cosmopolitan class positions for themselves, often through travel to, and residency in, foreign countries?


So I was intrigued by a recent argument by James Rosbrook-Thompson that we need a broad notion of ‘denizenship’ to describe people–whether or not they are citizens in the formal sense (for example, second and third generation descendants of immigrants) who reject nationhood  and its attendant dutiesand obligations.

He writes:

In effect, denizens occupy the interstices of the liberal-democratic model of citizenship – the spaces opened up by the contradiction between the universal and the particular, the egalitarian and the statutory. But whereas some city dwellers have used this contradiction to bolster claims for their incorporation into the body politic, denizens do their utmost to resist degrees of entrance to citizenship. …[T]hey share spaces of the city with citizens who also possess this mind-set – a substantive notion of denizenship – in the case of the latter expressed by the pursuit of degrees of exit from national citizenship. Rather than call the bluff of the liberal fiction, those living in urban denizenia would prefer to be left out of the story altogether.

The distinction between citizen and denizen doesn’t actually explain anything. It just gives us a useful tool for broadly distinguishing between those who accept, and those who reject, the classic liberal notion of citizenship.

So we’ll still need ethnography. I remember many students from my days as a middle school teacher in Los Angeles who would describe themselves as”Mexican” or “Salvadoran” or “Korean” even though they had been born in the U.S. (and so had US citizenship) and may have never even visited their putative “homeland.” And Rosbrook-Thompson’s article is based on interviews with migrant communities in London–again including second and third generation individuals–who don’t see themselves as British.

Ethnographic study of the details of how people define themselves in relation to the nation-states within which they dwell will remain crucial for understanding how citizenship works on the ground.


Rosbrook-Thompson, James. 2015. ‘I’m local and foreign’: Belonging, the city and the case for denizenship. Urban Studies 52(9): 1615-1630.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: