Michaela Benson [MB]: Welcome to Who do we think we are a podcast exploring some of the lesser known stories of British citizenship. I’m Michaela Benson, a sociologist specialising in citizenship, migration and belonging, and your host. Join me over the course of the series, as I debunk some of the taken for granted understandings of citizenship, and examine how this changes our understandings that some of the most pressing issues of our times
Engin Isin [EI]: As long as there was notion of citizenship, or some form of the dominant virtue of a dominant person, there was resistance to it, there was never a moment where the alternative of citizens just dropped arms and stopped resisting, it’s impossible to think so that resistance itself is hope, but also inspiration.
MB: That was Engin Isin, our guests in today’s episode. He is a professor of international politics at Queen Mary University of London, and editor of the academic journal citizenship studies. Now, what I really like about that quotation is how he focuses on the others to the citizen and the role that they might be playing in the production of citizenship. And we’ll hear more from him later about that. This is caught up in his broader body of work that focuses on the politics of doing citizenship and citizenship as a site of struggle. His work is really wide ranging, it cuts across history and geography, as you’ll see in our discussion later in the episode. And as usual, I’ll drop a few references to his work into the Episode notes. In this episode, we’re taking a little bit of a change of direction, and we’re going to look at resistance to dominant understandings of who is a citizen, is a theme that picks up from our latest episode of beyond the headlines where Ala and I spoke with Alison Phipps, and Tawona Sitholé about local resistance to deportation, detention and bordering. And just a quick plug, if you haven’t listened yet, do check it out, not least for the poetry by Tawona and Allison.
Before we hear more from Engin, we’ll be hearing from George about some very recent acts of resistance, and what these make visible about citizenship in Britain today. In today’s explainer, I’m going to talk about citizenship as a site of struggle, and how this opens up the space to think about the role of resistance within this. And we’ll hear more from Engin about how recognising acts of citizenship can change our understandings of who is a citizen. Today, we’re not so much going back in the archive, but thinking together about some recent events that really capture the essence of acts of citizenship. To be honest, we’re really spoilt for choice. And I’ve left it up to George to choose a few things that really stood out to him in recent months. So it’s over to you, George.
George Kalivis [GK]: So I thought we could talk a bit about how citizenship is enacted as a process as a kind of doing right in protests and demonstrations about immigration and human rights. Over the last couple of months, for instance, hundreds of physical in person protests and online acts, such as Hasek, Twitter storms have been taking place across the UK, at airports and camps and outside home officers offices and more to come in light of the recent nationality and borders act, and specifically its Rwanda deportation scheme, where simply put, the UK government aims to deport immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers to Rwanda. Resistance to this has come from across society, culminating in a last minute intervention by the European Court of Human Rights. That meant that the flight was grounded. There have also been calls for such resistance to be extended in workplaces and for trade unions to get involved. But of course, we also know that the UK Government has plans for a new bill of rights for which the UK will withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights. I think this already kind of gives us an idea about the different spaces and context through which citizenship is enacted and is being done.
MB: I think that’s a really good opening example George, and it reminds me of what’s Zrinka Bralo , the CEO of migrants organised, shared with us in a recent episode of beyond the headlines. And she was really keen to drive home the idea that what happens to migrants is just a precursor for what’s going to happen to everyone else. And so this is the reason why we need to be alert. But I think that you’ve got some other examples too, haven’t you?
GK: Yes, I also wanted to briefly highlight the everyday aspects of collective bodily resistance as an act of citizenship. I want to reflect on last month’s That’s June 2022 case of 200 people who gathered in peaceful protest to block an immigration officers van in Peckham in London. After the arrest of a Nigerian man who had overstayed his visa. People sat on the ground in front of the vehicle shouting let him go. In a garden article from the 11th of June, the words of Eleanor Janica, a 39 year old from South East London who participated in the protest really stood out to me. I quote her, “we were alerted that there was an immigration raid in process. So locals came down to block it. We had been sitting here blocking the van and having ice lollies. They brought more police in and tried to break through the crowd by pushing us, we all sat down.” Now, video footage of the police heavily handedly pushing the protesters was later circulated in social media, and was given to journalists with the Metropolitan Police declining to comment. The Guardian reports a home office spokesperson as saying ‘preventing immigration enforcement teams from doing their job is unacceptable. Blocking or obscuring them will not deter them from undertaking the duties that the public rightly expects them to carry out.’ Now, coming from a country where police violence is increasingly utilised as a tool against any kind of protest, allow me to have my doubts on that, quote, unquote, rightly. Anyways, for the record, the man was arrested and later released on bail.
MB: I think you’re right to query that use of the word rightly. And indeed, we’re seeing increased brutality against protests. I think I saw over the weekend, for example, the way that police in Greece had reacted in response to firemen, so other people who were in the kind of Civil Protection arena, who were protesting over their rights, their employment rights, and all of these kinds of things. So I appreciate what you’re getting to there. We’ll put a link to that article in The Guardian in the Episode Notes. And, again, I’m struck by the close alignment between what you’ve been talking about today. And our latest episode of beyond the headlines with Alison Phipps and Tawona Sitholé, where we talked about the Kenmure street protests in Glasgow, and the link between this and emerging resistance to immigration controls in the southeast, particularly around the border in Dover, actually. But the other thing that really stood out to me in my conversation with Allison and Tawona, was this idea of broad coalition’s that come together in resistant and protest movements. And I think that that really offers a sign of hope. If you can have a coalition that cuts across as the Guardian article that we discussed and beyond the headlines listed that cuts across Monarchy, celebrity and clergy, as well as members of the general public. Maybe there is some hope after all, but I want to give you an opportunity to reflect on one last protest because I know that this is something that’s close to your heart, but also something that I think really illustrates this idea of acts of citizenship.
GK: Thank you Michaela. Yes, I would like to bring in a final protest case into our discussion. It’s one that takes us a little bit away from Immigration and Citizenship. But that I think really illustrates this idea of acts of citizenship. It is a very recent Protest Where 10s of 1000s of people marched in the centre of London for their rights. However, this demonstration didn’t receive analogous media coverage. And I thought to bring this up to comment on how media dissemination and visibility or non-visibility of protests plays into what is sometimes being officially counted as an enactment of citizenship and whatnot. I’m referring to this year’s London Trans Pride which took place on the ninth of July. The purpose of this was to reclaim pride as a human rights protests, rather than the parade that regular pride, a corporate event has been criticised for becoming. This year, I’ve actually attended several protests, including Trans Pride and the demonstration against the Rwanda flights outside the home office in Marsham. Street, I see my participation in these as a way of doing and redoing and redoing again, my citizenship, claiming my rights to being in space and being heard, rather than a status written in a document or stored in a digitised database. And this is where I’d like to close this back to the archive section, which was not so bad, really, with the way citizenship can be embodied in action, and in the doing of it.
MB: I think that’s a really powerful point to end on George, and it really, I think, illustrates that idea of citizenship as the right to claim rights rather than citizenship as it’s more commonly understood as a legal status. Thank you very much for bringing those excellent examples to the episode. And bye for now.
GK: Thank you, bye.
MB: You’re listening to who do we think we are? A podcast all about British citizenship, hosted by me, Michaela Benson. If you like what you’ve heard, and you want to hear more, you can subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcast platform.
In my closing reflections on the examples that George presented, I referred briefly to the idea of citizenship as the right to claim rights. This is a phrase that’s borrowed from Engin’s work on acts of citizenship. And we’ll hear more from him shortly about this work. But we’ve already had a bit of an insight into this with the examples that George presented. He drew attention to protest and resistance, and how this is organised around challenging the exclusionary politics at the heart of citizenship. The particular issues that he focused on with trans rights and Migrant Justice, the mobilisation around both issues makes visible whose valued within the political community and the virtues of what we might refer to as the quintessential citizenship. Now, thinking with acts of citizenship of fers the prospect of critiquing dominant understandings of who counts as a citizen, and the values and virtues attached and reproduced through such understandings. Basically, it addresses a challenge that we all have to wrestle with, how do we bring those who are formally or symbolically excluded from how the state or dominant powers understand citizenship into the conversation about what citizenship could be. And it’s that phrase from Engin’s work that really captures this reframing citizenship as the right to claim rights with mobilisation, protest and activism central to this.
Acts of citizenship identifies that it’s possible to resist dominant framings in ways that bring citizens and non citizens alike into the conversation. Residents coming out in support of their neighbours to prevent them being detained or reframing the conversation, centering a shared community made up of local residents, irrespective of their migration status. This is a head on challenge to the distinction between the citizen and the migrant other that is produced by those in power in pursuit of their particular political project. But it also draws attention to the struggle at the heart of citizenship. Questions over who gets to define the membership of the political community and shape its value of us revealed as a near continuous process. What we’re seeing when residents come out in support of their neighbours to prevent them from being detained is a reframing of the conversation, centering this around a shared community made up of local residents, irrespective of their migration status.
I think we can see this as a head on challenge to the distinction between the citizen and the migrant other that’s produced by those in power in pursuit of their particular political projects. But it also draws attention to the struggle at the heart of citizenship. questions over who gets to define the membership of the political community and shape its values lie at the heart of this process. And what we also see is the potential of the struggle to alter the course of those definitions. This process is writ large in the story of British citizenship that we’ve been exploring together in who do we think we are. We’ve seen the twists and turns over who is a member of the political community, and who gets to determine this. We’ve witnessed Britain’s former Overseas Citizens remade as racialized others and migrants, and women excluded from the right to pass on their citizenship to their children. By looking at those formerly excluded from the rights of citizenship, who is a citizen, at least as the dominant powers see it comes more sharply into view. But we’ve also seen how at every step in this process, there has been resistance. Looking at this resistance makes clear that following Etienne Balibar, citizenship is always imperfect, unfinished, and in the making. And so understanding citizenship might mean looking precisely for the unfinished and exploring the potential of resistance. What I like about this perspective on citizenship is it opens up the space for hope. There may be a struggle, we see the dynamics of citizenship unfolding in front of our eyes in those moments. And that’s not to say that everyone’s equally positioned within that struggle. Indeed, we’ve seen that that’s simply not the case. But this helps us to move beyond citizenship as a politics of exclusion, when you realise that the struggle is ongoing, and that none of those groupings are stable, or rather, as stable as they purport to be, then I think that you open up that space for hope. That’s quite enough for me for now.
Let’s hear more Engin Isin. I started by asking him to explain what he means by acts of citizenship, a concept that to my mind, centres understandings of struggle at the heart of citizenship, and offers the prospect for breaking down the barriers created by legal distinctions between citizens and their others.
EI: Yes i’d be very happy to reflect on that Michaela, because I think you’re absolutely right hope. And I think as a scholar, that hope then was inspiring to me. So when I went through this genealogy and discover entire European literature, I did some primary research myself in the archives, and also printed works and use the languages that I know, try to understand the specific dynamics and sites have struggled right across these two millennia. But I also came to depend on what one might one call nowadays as subaltern literature, feminist historians, black historians, indigenous historians recovering so many stories and instances of struggles of resistance. And so for example, when I was reading histories of ancient Greece, from white European male subjects, I also began with my hypothesis working through I became aware of really subaltern histories, where, for example, in ancient Athens, women were banned from agora. So on the one hand, white European subjects are hailing the Agora as the invention of citizenship. And yet, you know, I’m really interested in why from the agora, why from the forum, a particular figure is being banned and identified as not producing the virtues that are inherent in agora and the forum and that’s woman, slaves and merchants. So I’m interested in women, slaves and merchants, and then it’s not a passive history.
Humans have put considerable struggles and lost their lives, because they refuse to just let go of the fact that they were defined the way in which they were defined by dominant people. Merchants stage what we would call strikes resistances. They fought against their conditions. Women, they may have been banned from the centre but actually they created their own agora and forum in the periphery and produce work theatre drama tragedy in those spaces asking questions about why they being peripheral, and marginal. Similarly, slaves at numerous revolts, revolts in which they questioned why they ought to be burdened, as it were, what as it was used then for who they were. So it’s like who they were defined as a burden to society, and yet at the same time doing the work of the citizen, so that the citizen can do other work.
So all of this is to me and I, I mean, I found the examples this in Roman history, I found examples of this medieval history 12, Century, 13, Century 14th, century revolts, as long as there was notion of citizenship or some form of the dominant virtue of a dominant person, there was resistance to it, there was never a moment where the alternative of citizens just dropped arms and stopped resisting, it’s impossible to think so that resistance itself is hope, but also inspiration, and it produces, but then I pushed it a little bit further. And I made this hypothesis, actually, citizenship. virtues are produced by those who are dominated by it, because they are pushed in a space where they have to articulate a new, what it means to struggle against it, they end up producing a figure that is dissenting, innovative, creative, autonomous, thinking resisting, to me, the perfect citizen, perfect citizen is the dissenting revolting citizen asking question about why they should not have the right to perform themselves as such. So my sort of additional hypothesis was that really, citizenship is articulated in that space. And in that moment, when there are those who are othered by it, actually make claims to it. That’s where you see clearly is and how that happens, through Acts, when they act with deeds. And when they actually identify certain ways of performing themselves as citizens, although they don’t have a right to, they are not given the right to buy the dominant, but they take it. So this notion of giving rights versus taking rights, my essential hypothesis, then in this moment of taking, that the acts of citizenship, really articulate what its potentialities are, this is where we get a glimpse of it.
MB: When you’ve written about this, you write you write of it, as an act of citizenship is claiming the right to claim rights, or something like that. And I think that’s really, really powerful and links in with that discussion around hope that we just had, but But I suppose just to kind of like turn that on its head a little bit. Is it really enough to act as a citizen in the way that you have described? Is that Is that sufficient?
EI: It isn’t it really, in and of itself, I think it participates in a repertoire of things that have to accumulate. I often think that a symbolic production must both accompany and follow an act. There are many actions that come under the description of citizenship, any combination of these actions can be interpreted as an act of citizenship, but those who are acting under this description, and those who are describing it must somehow come to a symbolic agreement that this combination of actions can be understood as an act of citizenship, to give up your seat for a person who needs it on the bus is an act of citizenship. But we don’t necessarily perceive it as such, because it has become part of the normative structure of that symbolic agreement. But what happens when you refuse to give up your seat? Because you’re asked to actually give up your seat because you’re a black person. And I’m interested in describing what would be the symbolic production that would allow us to recognise that as an act of citizenship. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, she was considered as a non virtuous citizen who does not deserve to be called an American.
MB: And that’s kind of what you’re talking about how things move from that situation where someone does something to it being recognised as something that can be interpreted as signifying citizenship as those virtues is the things that we would stand by as a political community, all of those kinds of things. I think that really helpfully actually brings us on to a concept that you’ve developed in your work, then more recent work, I wondered if you could provide a very brief introduction about what you’re trying to do with this concept of performative citizenship.
EI: So it really follows from considering citizenship as I must add, often deadly games of struggle in the production and distribution of alternative among citizens, strangers, outsiders and aliens, if these acts actually produce these subjects, what language what repertoire, as scholars we can use became my question. So by shifting the emphasis from inclusion and exclusion to production and distribution of alternatives, I began understanding acts through which citizenship games are played. And so the concept of performative citizenship, began naming this perspective. That way, it allowed me to actually draw on a much more rigorous and long standing literature on understanding performativity and performative to bear on studying acts, to think about, what is it exactly that you’re talking about with acts of citizenship, and what is the sort of theoretical basis, that’s when I began developing the idea of performative citizenship.
MB: I really love the way in which you’re, in which you describe how you deepen your conceptual contribution over a period of time, by bringing yourself into conversation with these other bodies of work and thinking about how that transforms what you’ve already written, and build it into a bigger project. It was just wondering if we’re going back to the example of the seat on the bus that you talked about what happens when we look at this from your perspective of performative citizenship.
EI: I think nobody would object to a young person, or able bodied person to give up their seat to someone who’s in need of it. On the bus, we consider this universally as a good act of citizenship in the broad sort of behavioural sense of that citizenship, which is, by the way, very important not to be dismissed at all, I think a lot rides on that notion of citizenship that we maintain, and nurture and so on.
So the performative here is that it’s such that it’s routinized, repeated, cited and signified in ways that it becomes embodied in people’s habits. So we habitually act out ourselves out as citizens. And that’s a good thing we have learned the discipline of being a citizen. And we expect that from each other as mutual obligations. If I’m following certain rules, like for example, currently about the wearing a mask in public space, it is a good conduct to get habituated into because it is not only about you, what’s happening in the public space, it is also about the other perfect definition of citizenship, being in presence of others, that we understand how to behave responsibly, and fulfil our obligations. A
nd yet at the same time, there are moments when in fact, these routines have to be broken. There are moments where you have to ask, I am doing what I usually do. But what does that do is also responsibility. What are the effects of me performing myself routine as a citizen? What consequences does it have? Does it create, for example, as an if I’m speaking myself, as an environmental citizen, is my consumption activity what I buy is generating adverse labour effects elsewhere, adverse environmental effects elsewhere? And then I asked myself the question, I am acting like a citizen, but it is producing these results. Do I want to participate in these effects? And then I can say no, I don’t want to participate. I actually don’t want to create adverse labour effects in another place so that I can have my conveniences I don’t want to participate in environmental degradation, so that I can have my conveniences a rupture enters and and how do I act presents itself as a question at that moment. For someone to give their seat to someone who needs it is fine. As long as we think about the seat on the bus politically And what happens actually, when you refuse to give it up? for other reasons. If those gains of dominations are ruptured, then we might find ourselves in presence of an act. That actually signifies now what it means to be a citizen.
MB: What was really striking me when you were speaking, was that kind of idea about habituation and the kind of the repertoires that we have that are kind of almost automatic, really, sometimes when you start to think about habit and routine, things that you don’t have to think about, because they’re almost second nature. And actually, that comparison of of the difference, you know, the idea that you will give up your seat on the bus versus the person versus the case of Rosa Parks, undeniably political action now, because she refused to give up her seat on the bus forces us to ask those questions, again, about those habitual actions that we undertake. And the impact of those depending on who you are, how you are positioned visa vie, those kind of normative values around what is assumed of being a citizen, and therefore how you’re made as a citizen or not, as the case may be. So I think I think that you communicated that really, really well. I was just wondering if we could kind of think a little bit about how you work with both the political and the struggle in your understandings of citizenship. And I’m wondering if you would like to reflect on what this opens up in terms of understanding what alternatives that gives us
EI: Often, and this is I find in various different world cultures, it’s not necessarily Eurocentric or European, the notion of dissent, all the examples I gave, you know, resistance from slave revolts to women’s struggles and plebs and so on, there is a sense in which the conditions under which dominating conditions under which people find themselves are resisted, and to be dissented, because it is not right, it is unjust, and the sense of injustice on the basis of arbitrariness of the power that condemns them to that injustice becomes the axis of the struggle. So injustice justice became then the distinction that I mapped on to political and politics. And in operating with these really, the struggle became that notion of a struggle, struggle to make claims struggle against injustice as the operative element to understand why people are able to do what they do. I think many people when they resist, when they may, or may not be able to articulate the specific content of resistance. In the first register, often they have a very good sense of the second register of the injustice, even if I’m not able to articulate yet, you know why this is so that why I cannot really resist this.
MB: I think a lot of people would find familiar this idea of, you know, sensing that there is injustice, but not really being able to articulate it, and then kind of acting because you feel the injustice.
EI: What that means, and I use some examples that are really important, like the ordinary Chinese shopping person in front of that tank. Much has been written about. I keep going back to that, and what would if we were to be if I were to be able to speak to that person, would he be able to explain
MB Why he did it?
EI: Why he did it, at one register, he will, he will say that I will not allow people’s army to roll over people. Right, he will explain and yet taking one’s life into one’s hand when one was returning from a shopping trip and pulling yourself in front of a tank people think that this is an individualist act. This is not an individualist act and it is not by an individual. It is represented by an individual, but it is always collective.
MB: Really, really interesting example and, and one that’s worth, you know, remembering, you’re talking about Tiananmen Square, you’re talking about 1989. And yesterday, we saw a very similar Act actually, in Myanmar with a nun, I think, putting herself up in front of the army there.
EI: Exactly. She said, “You have to kill me first.” That’s amazing, and how states empires have been instrumental in setting up these games in, in some ways, the dominant classes, dominant social groups, through policies and formations, such as states and empires do exactly that in law in norm, constitute games, and identify what roles people can play in those games.
So when we think about a post Imperial state Britain, in post war situation wanting a, or identifying and diagnosing a labour shortage, decides to open up its citizenship games, and in 1948, allow all its colonial subjects to have actual access to British citizenship. And of course, overtime British state or shall we say those who are in control of it, or those who are dominant in British society changes its mind for various reasons, the performance or or the entrance of ingrained racism that made Empire possible in the first place. And various other reasons, from 1948 onwards, it becomes more restrictive, it becomes more questioning, it becomes more limiting in terms of making that space available to subjects from outside the British state. So that colonial citizenship, Imperial citizenship comes to a close. And yet at the same time, we are talking about a people who have made the decision to move and constitute themselves in performance as citizens. They were given the right to be and in their own minds, they were really exercising the right that they were entitled to. They did not bother to nor were they asked, correct me if I’m wrong, please because I’m not an expert on the details of Windrush. But as far as I remember and recall from reading, that the British state itself was not also requiring of them to produce and validate their existence for a long time. And so there was what I called a symbolic agreement between two parties here locked into one another, as two actors in citizenship games, for that game to continue.
And yet a hostile environment, the changing government changing environment in Britain, expose the game, and the rules of the game changed. And that’s what I mean by also deadly games of citizenship, deadly citizenship games, some people have lost their lives, some people have lost their livelihoods. Some people have lost their opportunities, some people have been exposed to intolerable conditions, they have been deported. All instances that we see that states and empires are so good at, to make subjects suffer, so that the impose cruelty on them can produce another set of disciplinary behaviour that is conducive to good government, as they understand. And it’s a betrayal and it happens, we can go on, but in terms of performatively reading this, what is performative is that state is performing the stateness that it can be.
MB: Right, yeah, it’s performing, right to do what it’s doing. Exactly, which is, as you say, a deadly game
EI: A deadly game, deadly game performing of sovereignty, performing of cruelty, performing, of demonstrating that it is, it is both capable and entitled to play with people’s lives like that and play again, here, not accidental. And those who are being played with also play the citizenship games. Make a case of it. And there has been I mean, in some ways, we could say that perhaps our resistance came too little too late, as citizens that we didn’t become aware of it early enough to avoid some of the disastrous consequences. But on the on the other hand, I think there was also resistance, it did not go without in the annals of history without being resisted by both citizens and non citizens. Many of us agree that despite the fact that these people did not have these British citizens did not have the formal acceptance to British citizenship in all manners or performance. They were actually British citizens. And the fact that British state failed to recognise that is a tragedy.
MB: What I really liked about my conversation with Engin is how he laid out what’s at stake in citizenship struggles. It reminded me of the struggles I’ve witnessed in my own fields of research. Over the past few years, I’ve encountered the emergence and decline of transnational solidarities between British citizens living in the EU, and EU citizens in the UK, protesting the transformation of their rights through Brexit. I’ve also witnessed from afar the resistance on the ground in Hong Kong in the face of political oppression by the People’s Republic of China, tracking in my own work, how this sits in a longer history of protests as a form of political expression for a population who from British colonialism onwards, never had full franchise. But I want to stress that it is important to recognise as Engin so clearly pointed out, that people are very unevenly positioned within what are at times deadly playing fields. While quite a lot of people are never going to be on the receiving end of what he refers to as games of citizenship. There are others who find themselves repeatedly constituted as outside of that political community. As Engin showed in his brief accounts, you can find examples of this from all over the world, as well as in Britain. Now, my interview with Engin covered a lot more ground than I’ve been able to showcase here. But the good news is that later this year, the interview between the two of us will be published in citizenship studies. So keep an eye out for that. We’ll be back with another episode of beyond the headlines in a few weeks, when we’ll be talking about the revelation that sir Mo Farah was trafficked to the UK as a child. Until then, take care.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Who do we think we are a podcast series produced and presented by me Michaela Benson. Special thanks to Emma Houlton at brilliant audio for her production and post production support, and to George Kalivis for the cover art, social media assets and archival research. You can check out our show notes for further resources, transcripts and links to all our socials. If you like what you’ve heard, take a moment to subscribe on your preferred podcast platform. And you can also find us at https://whodowethinkweare.org. That’s all for now, but we’ll be back with another episode very soon.
END OF TRANSCRIPT