Considering acts of citizenship

Scholars and experts on citizenship were asked by Professor Engin Isin, York’s Canada Research Chair in Citizenship Studies, a series of thought-provoking questions prior to their participation in a symposium on citizenship held recently at York University.

Left: Engin Isin

“Are acts of citizenship inherently (or always) exclusionary or inclusionary, homogenizing or diversifying, positive or negative?” queried Isin. “Can acts of citizenship happen without being founded in law? Can acts of citizenship happen without a name?” 

Each of the participants was asked to forumulate their responses to these and other questions for the interdisciplinary symposium which took place March 25-27 at Calumet College. The symposium sought to define citizenship, consider acts of citizenship and discuss the positive and negative aspects of acts related to citizenship.

Organized by the Canada Research Chair in Citizenship Studies in cooperation with the Citizenship Studies Media Lab (CSML) Fellows, the symposium brought together 23 scholars from 12 different universities to examine various social and political struggles revolving around rights, belonging, diaspora, identity and difference.

The Acts of Citizenship symposium featured four panel discussions, the presentation of 21 papers and two keynote addresses over three days. Panelists discussed a wide range of issues revolving around acts of citizenship through which people are constituted as citizens sometimes with and sometimes without rights and responsibilities.

Some of the diverse topics discussed included the act of wearing head scarves in public places; acts of stigmatization of refugees and asylum seekers; acts of nationhood by indigenous peoples; acts of securitization by state authorities; acts of owning property in the digital age and acts of regulating borders. The panelists were asked to consider whether the concept of “acts of citizenship” involved not just the expected connotations of hospitality, generosity, tolerance and recognition but also the opposite including discrimination, violence and improper recognition. They were also asked to consider if acts of citizenship could be used as an effective concept for investigating the struggles for social justice.

“I am very pleased by the willingness and seriousness of the speakers to address the questions I posed in advance of the symposium,” said Isin. “I am delighted with their commitment and energy to sustain a high level of deliberation for the duration of the conference to consider them.

“We consistently returned to these questions and considered whether we could rearrange and reorder our theoretical and empirical tools to think about citizenship differently. The symposium has certainly laid the foundations for future work in critical citizenship studies,” said Isin.

The symposium featured an opening address by York Vice-President Academic Sheila Embleton and a closing address by York Vice-President Research and Innovation, Stan Shapson.

The final keynote address was delivered by anthropologist Ronald Niezen of Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany. Niezen is a researcher at the Institut fur Europaeische Ethnologie at Humboldt University in Berlin. His address was entitled “Indigenous Peoples, Citizenship and the Nation-State”, and discussed the role of the international movement of indigenous people in bridging the gap between citizenship and human rights.

Right: Ronald Niezen

According to Niezen, during the past several decades, indigenous leaders from many parts of the world have developed a strategy for redressing grievances with states and transnational corporations that increasingly makes use of the symbols and legal entitlements of nation-states.

“Indigenous peoples’ liberation from nation-states is sometimes expressed as a process of ‘decolonization’, underpinned by recognition of indigenous rights of self-determination,” said Niezen. “In Canada, aboriginal claims of self-determination are oriented toward a form of pluralism that is not only multicultural but also multiconstitutional, in which distinct systems of rights, cultural attachments and forms of citizenship exist nested within or parallel to those of the nation-state.”

The Acts of Citizenship symposium also celebrated the launch of the CSML Web site. “The Web site is designed and produced by CSML Fellows,” said Isin. “It delivers an automated electronic library, events listing and a scholar’s registry in citizenship studies.”