Postnational Citizenship: Rights and Obligations of Individuality

Two young Muslim women in the heart of Istanbul with their laptop


by Yasemin Nuhoğlu Soysal

In the postwar era, a series of interlocking legal, institutional, and ideological changes affected the concept and organization of citizenship in the European state system. A crucial development regards the intensification of the discourse and instruments on the individual and her rights. As sanctified across a range of sites, the individual has come to constitute the target of much of the legal and policy regulations (Meyer et al. 1997; Beck 2007). In particular, the codification of “human rights” as a world-level organizing principle in legal, scientific, and popular conventions signals a significant shift in the conceptualization of rights. Individual rights that were once associated with belonging to a national community have become increasingly abstract and legitimated within a larger framework of human rights.

A complementary development is the emergence of multilevel polities. The gradual unfolding of the European Union, for example, suggests that political authority is increasingly dispersed among local, national, and transnational political institutions. The diffusion and sharing of sovereignty, in turn, enables new actors, facilitates competition over resources, and makes possible new organizational strategies for practicing citizenship rights. The existence of multilevel polities creates new opportunities for mobilizing and advancing demands within and beyond national boundaries.

These developments have significant implications for the notions of identity and rights, on the one hand, and the organization and practice of citizenship, on the other. In today’s Europe, conventional conceptions of national citizenship are no longer adequate to understand the dynamics of rights and membership. In the following sections, I expand on what I called “postnational citizenship” elsewhere (Soysal 1994) to convey the contemporary transformations in the institution of citizenship.

De-coupling of rights and identity

The postwar elaboration of human rights as a global principle, in national and international institutions but also in scientific and popular discourses, legitimates the rights of persons beyond national collectivities. This authoritative discourse of individual rights has been instrumental in the formalization and expansion of many citizenship rights to those who were previously excluded or marginalized in society: women, children, gays and lesbians, religious and linguistic minorities, as well as immigrants. Particularly in the case of immigrants, the extension of various membership rights has significantly blurred the conventional dichotomy between national citizens and aliens.

The erosion of legal and institutional distinctions between nationals and aliens attests to a change in models of citizenship across two phases of immigration in the twentieth century. The model of national citizenship, anchored in territorialized notions of cultural belonging, was dominant during the massive migrations at the turn of the century, when immigrants were either expected to be molded into national citizens (as in the case of European immigrants to the US) or categorically excluded from the polity (as in the case of the indentured Chinese laborers in the US). The postwar immigration experience reflects a time when national citizenship has lost ground to new forms of citizenship, which derive their legitimacy from de-territorialized notions of persons' rights and worth, and thus are no longer unequivocally anchored in national collectivities.

These postnational forms can be explicated in the membership of the long-term noncitizen immigrants in western countries, who hold various rights and privileges without a formal nationality status; in the increasing instances of dual citizenship, which breaches the traditional notions of political membership and loyalty in a single state; in European Union citizenship, which represents a multitiered form of membership; and in subnational citizenship in culturally or administratively autonomous regions of Europe (such as, Basque country, Catalonia, and Scotland). The membership rights of noncitizen immigrants generally consist of full civil rights, social rights (education and many of the welfare benefits), and some political rights (including local voting rights in some countries). In the emerging European system, certain groups of individuals are more privileged than others – dual citizens and nationals of European Union countries have more rights than (non-European) resident immigrants and political refugees; the latter in turn have more rights than temporary residents and those immigrants who do not hold a legal resident status (see also Morris 2002). Thus, what is increasingly in place is a multiplicity of membership forms, which occasions exclusions and inclusions that no longer coincide with the bounds of the nation(al).

Paradoxically, as the source and legitimacy of rights increasingly shift to the transnational level, identities in the main remain particularistic and locally defined and organized. The very global rules and institutional frameworks that celebrate personhood and human rights at the same time naturalize collective identities around national and ethno-religious particularism by legitimating the right to “one's own culture” and identity. Through massive decolonization in the postwar period and the subsequent work of the international organizations such as the United Nations, UNESCO, and the Council of Europe, the universal right to “one's own culture” has gained increasing legitimacy, and collective identity has been redefined as a category of human rights. In the process, what we normally regard as unique characteristics of collectivities (culture, language, and standard ethnic traits) have become variants of the universal core of humanness or selfhood. Once institutionalized as a right, identities occupy a vital place in individual and collective actor's narratives and strategies. In turn, identities proliferate and become more and more expressive, authorizing ethnic nationalism and particularistic group claims of various sorts.

Claims-making and mobilization: the practice of citizenship

With the postwar reconfigurations in citizenship, along with the disassociation of rights and identity, the old categories that attach individuals to national welfare systems and distributory mechanisms become blurred. The postwar reification of personhood and individual rights expands the boundaries of political community by legitimating individuals' claims beyond their membership status in a particular nation-state. This inevitably affects the nature and locus of struggles for social equality and rights. New forms of mobilizing and advancing claims emerge, beyond the frame of national citizenship. Two features of these emerging forms are crucial.

First, while collective groups increasingly rally around claims for particularistic identities, they connect their claims to transnationally institutionalized discourses and agendas. Immigrant groups in Europe advance claims for group-specific provisions and emphasize their group identities. Their claims, however, are not simply grounded in the particularities of religious or ethnic narratives; they appeal to the universalistic principles of equality and individual rights. For example, when immigrant associations advocate the educational needs of immigrant children in school, they employ a discourse that appropriates the individual as its central theme. They forward demands about mother-tongue instruction, Islamic foulard, or halal food by asserting the human rights of individuals to their own cultures. By doing so, they appropriate universalistic and homogenizing rights discourses and participate in the host country public spaces as they amplify and affirm difference.

The second feature of the new forms of claims-making is that the organizational strategies employed by collective groups acquire a transnational and subnational character, along with national ones. Their participation extends beyond the confines of a unitary national community, covers multiple localities, and transnationally connects public spheres. In the case of immigrant groups, for example, we find political parties, mosque organizations, and community associations that operate at local levels but also assume transnational forms by bridging diverse public spaces. An example of this is the Alevite groups (a subsect of Islam), organized both in Turkey and Germany. Based on their experience in, and borrowing models from the German education system, they have raised demands for the recognition of denominational schools in Turkey, which do not have a legal standing in the Turkish educational system. In the same vein, the much-debated Islamic foulard issue in Europe has traversed the realms of local, national, and transnational jurisdictions – from local educational authorities to the European Court of Human Rights.

All this implies that while drawing upon universalistic repertoires of making claims, individuals and collectivities engage with a diverse set of public spheres, and hence alter the locus of mobilization and set the stage for new contestations and conflicts.

The value of “individuality” as the underlying principle of citizenship

How does postnational citizenship fare against the current landscape of European policy particularly in the field of immigration? The 2000s mark a new policy orientation in Europe that prompted some observers to comment on the “return” of the nation-centered citizenship projects (see, for example, essays in Joppke and Morawska 2003). “Selective migration” and “integration” constitute the core facets of this new orientation. Accordingly, most European countries set further limitations on unskilled labor migration (including family reunification), while welcoming scientists, specialist professionals, and entrepreneurs. Several countries have also introduced legislation, making integration a prerequisite for long-term residency and naturalization. In certain cases, access to social benefits is linked to participation in integration and language classes, and noncompliance can accrue sanctions. Most symbolic of all, citizenship and integration tests are compulsory en route to naturalization. Once considered a US idiosyncrasy, citizenship tests and oath-taking are now touted as indispensable steps towards integration throughout Europe.

Given the heightened preoccupation with the immigration-security nexus (not only in the context of “terrorism” but also urban riots) in the first decade of the 21st century, the urgency assigned to social cohesion in European policy circles is not surprising. Integration and selective migration also proffer a convenient language to reclaim “national boundaries” in a climate where electoral opinion is adversarial to immigration. However, such immediate political imperatives fall short of explaining the underlying logic of the new policy agenda. For that, I maintain we need to move beyond the much exercised “nation talk.”

Indeed, despite the symbolic command they profess, the current citizenship and integration tests do not reveal anything distinctive about the particularities of the nation (bar the questions about ordinary symbols such as the flag or national anthem) or a distinct philosophy of integration (see Michalowski 2009 for a systematic analysis; also Joppke 2008). The history questions are in the main geared towards capturing the present-day of the country and Europe. The questions to appraise values are primarily related to the rights of the individual, such as civic freedoms, and the rights of the underprivileged sections of society such as women and the disabled. Knowledge of democratic institutions and legal structure occupies a prominent place, in anticipation of a right-bearing individual fluent in a world of tax offices, schools, courts, and labor markets. Integration, as conveyed in these tests, is not a nation-centered project. In its place, integration acquires the purpose of achieving social cohesion driven by active, participatory, and productive individuals. The thrust is put on individual immigrants’ own effort and responsibility to take part productively in the rights and institutions offered in the system.

As such rather than a reversal, the new European immigration agenda is a continuum of the broader trends that underscore the transformation of citizenship in the postwar era. Along with immigration, the primacy of the individual is implicated in a number of related European policy areas. Most notably, in welfare policy, the new Social Project, whose architecture was sealed with the Lisbon Strategy in 2000, has shifted the emphasis away from “a passive providing state” to “self-activity, responsibility and mobilization” among citizens (Taylor-Gooby 2008). Accordingly, a plethora of policy instruments provision investment in individuals’ capacities — skill training and improvement programs, job insertion and apprenticeship schemes, and lifelong learning towards enhanced employability and self-realization, among others. In education, as part of strategies to boost human capital, raising standards in Math, Language and Science subjects has become a staple of national curricular reforms. Civics or citizenship teaching in schools now projects “cosmopolitan” individuals, globally aware and adaptive, with emphasis on developing children’s capabilities as effective, engaged, and responsible young persons (Soysal and Wong 2007, Soysal and Szakacs 2010).

What underlies all these European policy reforms is the trust in the value of individuality and its transformative capacity, which increasingly organizes the logic of the “good citizen” and “good society.” Sanctified as a collective good, individuality, on the one hand, elicits the recognition of universal qualities (as opposed to ascriptive ones, such as race, gender, and class) and enhancement of universal freedoms and rights. This is what made possible the expansion of the boundaries of citizenship in postwar Europe. On the other, the same tenet also nourishes the idea of individuality as a form of capital. Realizing self-potential becomes a right and a responsibility, and forms expectations about the self and others. Individuals are all expected to invest in themselves and their abilities. Being productive, creative, and active defines a higher form of life. Immigrants, along with other vulnerable sections of society (ethnic minorities, youth and women), are disadvantaged by this push. As “outsiders,” they have the added burden of proving the potential and worth of their individuality.

Reinforced by the authoritative backing of international organizations and expert professionals, economic and political liberalism now pretty much drive the policy reforms worldwide (Simmons et al 2006). It is the uneasy tension between the realization of transformative capacities of individuality and maintenance of social justice – the tension between the two forms of globalized liberalism – that occasions new forms of exclusions. Postnational citizenship highlights these emerging fault lines, which no longer simply cut across national lines but beyond.

Coda: delimiting the contours of postnational citizenship

In concluding, I address three major confusions that the discussions of postnational citizenship seem to raise.

First, postnational citizenship does not refer to an identity or a unitary legal status. It is an analytical concept to narrate the changes in the very institutions of rights and identity, which locate citizenship and its practice in increasingly transnational discourses and multiple public spheres. It does not mark the emergence of a legal status or identity at the world level, ascribed by a single, unified political and judicial structure. Thus, it is an oversight to attribute postnational citizenship simply to supranational legal and judicial processes. Likewise, it is unproductive to associate postnational citizenship with “transnational communities” – a theoretical formulation that presumptively accepts the formation of tightly bounded communities and solidarities (on the basis of common cultural and ethnic references) between places of origin and arrival. Such interactions might be intensified by advances in international transportation and communication technologies, but postnational citizenship does not imply the necessary advent of transnational solidarities or communal bonds, or the formation of “diasporic” identities and interests (Soysal 2000).

Second, postnational citizenship does not imply the “withering of the nation-state” or the declining purpose of the state. The principles of human rights (that foster postnational forms of citizenship) and the principles of nation-state sovereignty and agency are reified by the same transnational discourses and institutions. Thus, as the source and legitimacy of rights increasingly move to the transnational level, rights and membership of individuals remain organized within nation-states. The nation-state continues to be the repository of cultures of nationhood and institutions through which rights and membership policies are implemented. This is what leads to the incongruity between the legitimation and organization of postnational citizenship, which has paradoxical implications for the exercise of citizenship rights. Nation-states and their boundaries persist as reasserted by sovereignty narratives, restrictive immigration policies, and differentiated access schemes, while universalistic principles of personhood transcend the same boundaries, giving rise to new models and understandings of membership (see also Sassen’s 2006 illuminating conceptualization of global processes as multiple scaling).

Lastly, postnational citizenship is not in itself a normative prescription and should not be superfluously conflated with theoretical positions such as cosmopolitanism that profess a moral commitment to the transformative capabilities of universal values (Habermas 2003; but see Beck and Grande 2007 for a critical view). Nor does postnational citizenship presume public spheres free of conflict or devoid of exclusions. That is to say, on the one hand, postnational citizenship reveals an ongoing process of definition and redefinition of rights and participation. On the other, it productively brings to the fore the fact that there are no longer absolute and clear-cut patterns of exclusion and inclusion that simply coincide with the bounds of the national. Postnational rights are results of struggles, negotiations, and arbitrations by actors at local, national, and transnational levels and are contingent upon issues of distribution and equity. Like any form of rights, they are subject to retraction and negation. Rather than denying the certitude of conflict and contestation for rights, postnational citizenship draws attention to the multilayered and diverse forms that they take and new arenas in which they are enacted.

Our dominant theories and conceptualizations have yet to catch up with the changes in the institutions of citizenship, rights, and identity. Postnational citizenship is an attempt to capture and incorporate these changes by assigning transnational institutions and discourses a more predominant analytical role than it is usually granted in prevailing studies. Otherwise, we will continue to have models that do not work, anomalies in existing paradigms, and incongruities between official rhetoric and institutional actualities.



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Yasemin Soysal teaches sociology at the University of Essex. Before moving to Europe, Soysal studied and worked in the USA. She is past president of the European Sociological Association.