Citizenship: the Self and Political Agency

5 November 2010 - 6 November 2010

Clare College, Cambridge


Dr Sian Lazar (Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge)
Dr Monique Nuijten (Social Sciences Department, Wageningen University)

Conference Summary

This conference aims to explore the potential of the recent flourishing of anthropological work on citizenship, both in its own right and as a contribution to political, sociological and philosophical discussions of the concept. By gathering together papers from leading anthropologists of citizenship the conference aims to assess the current state of play in the field, encourage interdisciplinary debate, and provide the space to explore collectively ways to move our discussions of citizenship forward. As a focal theme, we propose to consider what a peculiarly anthropological approach to citizenship brings to our understanding of the relationship between political claims-making and the formation of subjectivity and agency.
A coherent body of anthropological work explicitly on the theme of citizenship can be said to have coalesced now. Anthropological analyses lead us to view citizenship as a set of practices especially related to participating in politics, and ethnographic focus on political claims-making as a practice of citizenship (e.g. Holston, Petryna) has yielded crucial insights into the relationship between people and the state, and between people and the law.
Now, ‘citizenship’ almost inevitably has a set of adjectives preceding it: biological (Petryna, Rose and Novas), pharmaceutical (Ecks), rural, differentiated, formal/substantive, insurgent (Holston), flexible (Ong), cosmopolitan, and so on. What the proliferation of adjectives indicates is the recognition of the contingencies of political membership, and of the nature of citizenship as a mechanism for making claims upon different kinds of political communities, in particular the state. Anthropologists have also questioned the assumption that the primary political community operates at the national level, with discussions of global, transnational or cosmopolitan citizenship (Ong) and local, city-based formulations (Holston, Lazar).
The citizenship agenda has also been embraced by a wide range of policy-making institutions, from national governments to NGOs and the World Bank. In these policies the (target) population is now expected to behave as worthy citizens who take an active part in democratic governance through a variety of pre-defined models and participatory procedures. Yet, the target population often feels completely alienated from these externally imposed citizenship projects (Lazar). Thus, creating a gap between citizenship projects from above and people’s actual experience of their citizenship. Accordingly, the conference also looks into the political use of the citizenship agenda.

So, at this important conjuncture in the development of an anthropology of citizenship, this conference seeks to take stock and ask where might anthropological study of citizenship take us from here?
One possibility that the conference aims to explore is the experience of citizenship as about the formation of subjectivities and senses of self, and here anthropology might profit from interdisciplinary engagement with psychoanalysis and psychology. We know that struggles of political claims-making tend to change people’s own sense of their political agency – as they assume the identity of a person with the right to have rights (Arendt). Therefore, studying citizenship ethnographically can also explore exactly how political subjectivities are produced in the interaction between state and non-state actors and histories. That in turn requires a consideration of notions of the self operating in a given sphere, which should then feed back into understandings of and assumptions about the self within political theory of citizenship. Liberal citizenship theory presupposes a particular form of subjectivity for those subject to liberal political structures, that of the abstracted, autonomous (implicitly male) Rawlsian individual. The challenge, one that anthropologists are peculiarly well-placed to answer, is how to speak of the relationship between individual and collectivity without invoking a similarly possessive and individual model of the person (the ‘encumbered self’ – MacIntyre) as owner of responsibilities instead of rights.
Thus the conference hopes to promote interdisciplinary conversations between anthropologists, political theorists and others in order to examine the relationship between citizenship and subjectivity. As such it expects to draw on recent developments in the anthropology of politics, of affect and of the state, and to contribute something new and particularly anthropological to the political theory of citizenship.
Delegate Accommodation

Conference delegates can find information about accommodation in Cambridge at the following URLs:

NB. CRASSH is not able to help with the booking of delegate accommodation.



The conference conveners would like to gratefully acknowledge the support of the following sponsors:

Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), Department of Social Anthropology (Cambridge) and Wageningen University and Research Centre




Administrative assistance: Helga Brandt (Conference Programme Manager, CRASSH)




 Provisional Programme

Location : Clare College Date : 5-6 November 2010

Friday 5 November


9.30 - 10.00


10.00 - 11.15

I. Opening Session

Introduction and welcome: Sian Lazar and Monique Nuijten

James Holston (UC Berkeley)
Right to the City, Right to Rights, and Urban Citizenship.

11.15 - 11.30


11.30 - 12.45

II. Contesting Citizenship

Chair: Andrew Canessa

Harri Englund (Cambridge)
Vulnerable Citizens, Assertive Subjects: Human Rights and New Headmen in Malawi

Monique Nuijten (Wageningen)
The Politics of Space and Place: violence and citizenship in a housing project in Recife, Brazil

12.45 - 13.45


13.45 - 15.00

III. Theorizing citizenship through ethnography 1. Critical concepts

Vinh-Kim Nguyen (Montréal)
Exception, triage, and experimentality in Global Health

Ritty Lukose (NYU)
Anthropologizing Citizenship: The 'Everyday' as a Standpoint of Critique

15.00 - 15.30


15.30 - 1730

IV. Theorizing citizenship through ethnography 2: Challenging Liberal Models.

Chair: Harri Englund 

Andrew Canessa (University of Essex)
Indigenous Citizenship in the 21st Century: Challenging the Liberal Model of the State and its Subjects

Trevor Stack (University of Aberdeen)
Mexican Understandings of Citizenship as Living in Society

Alpa Shah (Goldsmiths)
The Limits of Citizenship in a Marxist Revolutionary Situation



Saturday 6 November


9.30 - 11.30

I. Citizenship, law, and the state

Deborah James (LSE)
Rights, responsibilities and "cultural citizenship" in South Africa'

Martijn Koster (Utrecht School of Governance, University of Utrecht, the Netherlands)
Identity papers: differentiated citizenship, fear and personal connections in Recife, Brazil

Mary Vogel (Kings College London)
Amidst Markets and Hierarchies: Emerging conceptions of liberty and citizenship in 19th Century American politics and law.

11.30 - 12.00


12.00 - 13.15

II. Citizenship and collective organisations

Thomas Grisaffi (LSE)
'All of us are Presidents here'. Radical Democracy and Citizenship in the Chapare Province, Bolivia.

Sian Lazar (Cambridge)
Political agency and technologies of the Self in Argentinean Trade Unions

13.15 - 14.00


14.00 - 15.00

III. Closing session: Round table and Audience discussion

Discussants: Maxine Molyneux (Institute for the Study of the Americas)
Sarah Radcliffe (Cambridge),  Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov (Cambridge)