Citizenship and Nationhood

Earlier this year we saw that citizenship can mean different things in different contexts. Conceptions of citizenship can be thick and thin and citizenship has at least three dimensions, namely 1) membership/status, 2) rights and 3) identity or citizenship as a practice. We also showed how the State and the Nation differ, discussed Ernest Renan’s famous lecture What is a Nation?, and we explained the historical development of citizenship and nationality.



In his chapter in the Oxford Handbook on Citizenship, Chaim Gans clarifies this matters further by pointing out that


Citizenship means membership of a State. Nationhood means membership of a “nation”, which is a particular type of cultural and/or ethnic collective. A third term, ‘nationality’ is equivocal, sometimes meaning citizenship, sometimes nationhood.

The FCI has also discussed the two forms of nationalism (ethnic and civic) which have characterized the “nation-state” since its creation. An important question has always been to what extent nation-states demand full congruency between their citizenries and (civic or ethnic) nationhood. Gans concludes that such congruency had indeed been demanded from 1648 (the Peace of Westphalia) and the mid-20th century – a period that was characterized by essentialism, moral collectivism and particularism. Collectivist and essentialist versions of nationalism became discredited after WW II, but the idea of nationalism remains very much alive, witness the debate on state secession in Europe (e.g. the Catalan call for their own nation) and current nationalist tendencies in India. We also see this in the rise of populism.


The issue is also very much alive in Africa. Nathalie Raunet Robert-Nicoud shows that in the lead-up to general elections in Ghana in 2016, issues surrounding cross-border voting came up against the backdrop of a battle between different Ghanaian political parties. Thus, doubt was cast by some parties on the citizenship status of voters who were registered both in the neighbouring country of Togo and on the Ghanaian voters’ register. The elections raised questions about who is the electorate, and who decides who belongs to the nation. Raunet feels these are especially important questions in the African context given the many porous borders on the continent, the highly mobile populations, and the need for elections to encompass neighbouring borderlands and diasporas. In addition, Raunet argues that the dispute about the electorate and cross-border voting is “indicative of conflicting notions of belonging between legal criteria pertaining to identity such as the date/place of birth and the citizenship of one’s parents, and the performance of belonging at a local level such as through financial contributions and return visits for migrants” (our emphasis).


Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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