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Noncitizenship: a membership category in its own right?

Updated: Apr 15, 2019

While citizenship has been called an elusive phenomenon, Katherine Tonkiss and Tendayi Bloom have argued that – surprisingly – the term ‘noncitizenship’ is equally elusive. Instead of simply defining it as the absence of citizenship and rejecting the idea that noncitizenship needs to be theoretically derivative from citizenship, they view both as foundational concepts implying a positive relationship with a State. Perceiving of noncitizenship as a membership category in its own right and not as a migratory category, they emphatically reject the traditional hyphenated terminology of ‘non-citizenship’.

The backdrop to the concept of noncitizenship is that international migration and the international human rights regime, simultaneously triggering a questioning of the national model of citizenship and introducing multiple and overlapping memberships, have led to a situation where ‘membership of a national group is playing a less pronounced role than it once did in determining place of residence and access to core rights’. The decreasing relevance of a homogeneous national identity to citizenship and the increasing relevance of other markers of citizenship has led to citizenship being recognised as a practice or ‘act’ in addition to a legal status. It that connection, Tamara Caraus has spoken of noncitizen migrants protests as acts of cosmopolitan citizenship.

The Future Citizen Institute previously speculated what cosmopolitan citizenship might look like, doing so from the perspective of a global community of citizens. However, Caraus looks at this phenomenon from a noncitizen perspective, arguing that the framing of migrant activism such as the ‘No One is Illegal’ protests as acts of cosmopolitan citizenship ‘could already be a form of pre-institutionalizing cosmopolitanism, and migrant activism could be seen as instituting new forms of acting beyond the nation-state … The citizenship enacted by migrants is not the traditional [Marshallian] one, associated with membership and legal status in a territorially bound political community of the nation-state’. Caraus chooses not to start from the secure position of non-naturalised permanent legal residents, but from the precarious position of undocumented migrants. She also emphatically excludes migrant activism of long-term irregular migrants aimed at obtaining citizenship (for example the DREAMERS movement in the US) from her definition because they ‘reproduce the traditional concept of citizenship and its exclusionary structure’. By contrast, ‘acts of undocumented migrants challenge radically these movements’ understanding of citizenship and call for the transformation of the legal framework of citizenship itself’.

The noncitizenship concept can be further illustrated with reference to cities as sites of belonging. As Tonkiss and Bloom note, ‘if persons can effectively be citizens of cities, without having that status on the national level, this enables a more complex understanding of citizenship’. Another example is the non-migrant status of many noncitizens, sometimes in the context of in situ statelessness – that is, people who are stateless in their ‘own’ country. We will discuss this in a separate contribution on statelessness in the Dominican Republic, against the backdrop of the longstanding ius soli tradition in the Americas in general and the recent debate on birthright citizenship in the United States in particular.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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