The Scaffolding of Citizenship: Assembling a Nation from the Inside, Out

Social scientists, and particularly those interested in American political development, have long studied the legacies of citizenship policy on individuals. These studies interrogate such impacts from a broad range of theoretical foci and engage shifting and overlapping orienting questions. In her 2010 ASA Presidential Address, Evelyn Nakano Glenn (2011) calls for the development of a sociological conception of citizenship and, in doing so, outlines what sociology can contribute and how extant scholarship can be buoyed by an injection of sociologically-grounded theoretical insight. While political scientists and legal scholars tend to focus on the formal status of citizenship as codified by legal documents and investigate policy implementation in light of political institutional structures, historians and anthropologists focus on the textual and cultural meanings of citizenship and the processes by which these symbols and representations are discursively shaped. In this respect, sociology can augment these perspectives by illuminating that, at the core, citizenship is a process of boundary making through habituated interaction that takes place within a larger socio-political context. Yet, I’d like to push this a bit further and broaden the scope of how sociologists and social scientists, more generally, have historically conceptualized the topic. In doing so, I’ll attempt to underscore the theoretic payoffs associated with reframing sociological studies of citizenship in relation to my own dissertation research that investigates how varying modes of incorporation for pre-colonial populations in the U.S. shaped subsequent possibilities for collective action and consequent outcomes.

1.) First, I want to emphasize a sociology of citizenship that goes beyond analyses of the traditional cache of case studies. The majority of the work on citizenship and its effects tends to focus on the dynamics of citizenship policy in relation to its impact on immigrant populations. This predisposition orients us to think about citizenship as a tool wielded at the margins of the state – regulating, monitoring, and absorbing the populous from the outside, in. In doing so, sociological scholarship, in particular, has produced many overarching theories on the wholesale impacts of citizenship policy on immigrant populations. Yet this rich area of study has failed to foster any general theory that comprehensively make sense of the impacts of citizenship policy on those pre-existent populations that occupied American soil prior to the arrival of the European settlers. Thus, I’d like to argue that there is much to be gained by interrogating citizenship policy and its effects from the inside, out. At present, studies about the incorporation of pre-colonial groups are often relegated to individual case studies and remain epiphenomenal to most accounts of nation building in American political development.

In my own dissertation research, I try to address this gap in the literature by developing a conception of citizenship that focuses on the lesser-known policy tract of internal incorporation. The U.S. has been referred to as a “nation by design” (Zolberg 2008) in that it has strategically engineered and pointedly implemented a vast web of overlapping policy to deliberately shape the nation’s racial, ethnic, political, religious, economic, social and cultural composition into its own “imagined” vision (Anderson 1991). Historically, this included a bifurcated, yet mutually reinforcing system of exclusionary immigration and citizenship policies. These policy systems were designed to operate on two different fronts. First, as mentioned above and has been well documented in the literature – immigration policy was designed to systematically exclude some while simultaneously opening the borders to other, more “desirable” ethnic immigrants (Ngai 2004; Divine 1957; Portes and Rumbaut 2014).

However, the rapidly expanding union also had to find ways to incorporate those peoples that “came with the territory.” In nearly all cases, these populations did not comport with the larger imagined vision; and so, pre-existing populations posed fundamental challenges to the colonizing American state. From American Indians who spanned the continent, to Alaskan natives above the forty-ninth parallel, to native Hawaiians in the Pacific, to Puerto Ricans in the Eastern Caribbean, and finally to Mexicans who populated a broad expanse of the Southwestern region of the country – the burgeoning American federation had to find a way to manage the incorporation of these extraneous populations.

The federal and state governments set about the task of fashioning a self-constituted union by internally conscribing full access to membership in the polity to these pre-colonial groups. The government did this by brokering different citizenship “contracts” with each of these distinct populations. As has been noted, citizenship can operate as an “architect of social inequality” (Marshall 1950) or an instrument of social closure (Brubaker 1992; Weber 1968). Drawn from ideological conceptions of whiteness that inextricably bound eligibility and belonging to race, citizenship policy in the U.S. institutionally reified the boundaries between those who were formally included into the state – vis-à-vis racial precepts – and accordingly entitled to the civil, political, and social rights stemming from the recognition of those rights, and those who were not (Glenn 2002, 2011). Consequently, citizenship policy served to attenuate the socio-political power of these groups. Yet, despite their subordinate social and political positions, the social movements that emerged from these populations have waged long-standing collective action campaigns against these policies and their associated effects. In my dissertation, I argue that inherent differences in citizenship contracts, constructed within and influenced by a web of numerous political institutional considerations, meant that the universe of potential collective action strategies and consequent outcomes were uniquely determined.

2.) These stories of resistance, waged in response to disadvantageous citizenship contracts, bring me to my second argument: a sociology of citizenship should devote far greater attention to the protest campaigns waged against the far-reaching effects of disadvantageous citizenship contracts. While notable studies have chronicled how individual American ethnic groups have mobilized against the residual effects of unfavorable citizenship contracts – the American Indian Movement, the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement or the Independence Movement in Puerto Rico, for example – very little in the way of comprehensive accounts have comparatively investigated why groups with similarly unfavorable citizenship arrangements employ different movement strategies or why some are better able to renegotiate their situations. This would appear to be an area that offers many opportunities for theoretic and empirical development in the social movements literature.

3.) Thirdly, in order to develop a sociology of citizenship scholars need to engage comparative case study approaches in order to uncover the mechanisms connecting citizenship contracts to collective action. I am not claiming that pre-colonial American populations are by any means a monolith: each of these peoples bear unique histories regarding their ultimate inclusion into the U.S. – in most cases these stories are connected by shameful atrocities of conquest, dispossession, and the direct denial of negotiated rights. However, these shared colonial experiences should not bar scholars from comparatively investigating variance in how these groups attempted to renegotiate these policies and their effects. Why do we see variance in tactical repertoires? Why do some opt to leverage legislative channels while others litigate their grievances? Why do disruptive and even, in some cases, militant strategies successfully engender tangible reform, while other less disruptive protest is comparatively ineffectual? Why are some of these groups able to continually wage protest campaigns while others demonstrate only sporadic moments of collective action? Adopting a comparative case study approach provides the researcher leverage in uncovering the mechanisms underlying variance in such movement dynamics.

4.) The potential of the comparative approach brings me to my fourth and final consideration. I want to suggest that working toward a sociology of citizenship should not be limited to a strict sociological institutionalist approach – where citizenship is conceived of as a fluid and changeable product pivoting on processes of social construction, norms, practices, assumptions and values. Indeed, citizenship is fluid and changeable, but I want to argue that while norms and interactions do act as significant influential variables on the form and content of citizenship policy, other political institutional factors are also decisively influential. Thus, in order to further analytic discourse on how we might consider a sociology of citizenship, sociologists can greatly benefit from bringing in key elements of political and historical institutionalist perspectives. Indeed incorporating key strengths from each of these perspectives can go far in explaining why some groups were able to leverage change when others where not (see forthcoming: Amenta & Tierney 2014, for a discussion of how these approaches help to explain change in U.S. social policy). Political institutional explanations of change can highlight how citizenship policy is influenced by: 1.) Internal feedback processes that at times make it more or less difficult for challengers to press for reforms as well as 2.) A number of countervailing political material and institutional characteristics that impact the application of citizenship policy – such as how state level politicians craft, implement, and enforce the organizations, rules and practices associated with citizenship. Meanwhile, historical institutionalist approaches demonstrate the power of the comparative design to illuminate the importance of feedback mechanisms and path dependency in explaining variance in response to citizenship policy.


Filed under Emerging Stars in Social Movement Research, Essay Dialogues

3 responses to “The Scaffolding of Citizenship: Assembling a Nation from the Inside, Out

  1. Pingback: Emerging Stars in Social Movement Research | Mobilizing Ideas

  2. Pingback: Emerging Stars in Social Movement Research | Mobilizing Ideas

  3. Pingback: Mobilizing Ideas – Contributing Editor | amber tierney

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