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Dr Mary Gilmartin answers questions on identity and citizenship

Dr Mary Gilmartin This identity and citizenship interview (PDF) is also available to download.

1. Citizenship can mean so many different things. I am confused. Can you explain?

In broad terms, citizenship means belonging to a community in place. Nowadays, citizenship is most often used to define the relationship between an individual and a nation-state. This concept of national citizenship has its origins in the Enlightenment, but gained prominence with the development of the modern nation-state. As nation-states developed, so too did the concept of citizenship, primarily as a means of regulation. Nation-states counted their citizens, monitored their movement, and governed their behaviour. In return, citizens were granted the protection of the nation-state, as well as rights to vote and travel. Over time, citizenship became a means of defining the nation-state, often through processes of exclusion. For example, from the 1870s until the 1940s, the US denied people of Asian origin the right to become US citizens. Following the 1924 Immigration Act, this lack of access to citizenship meant that people of Asian origin could not immigrate to the US. Nation-states thus use citizenship as a means of defining who belongs, and who does not belong, to the national community and territory.

In the contemporary era, many argue that the nation-state and citizenship have been redefined by globalization. For example, some commentators claim that we now live in an era of post-national or denationalized citizenship. Post-national citizenship refers to the way in which the importance of the nation-state has been diminished by globalization. Aihwa Ong suggests that citizenship is now ‘flexible’, with people carrying multiple passports, crossing boundaries, and living in more than one place. One example is the ‘astronaut families’ of the Pacific region, where one family member, usually the head of household, continues to work in the place of origin (for example Hong Kong) while other family members relocate to a new country (for example, Canada or Australia). However, such flexible or transnational citizenship is mostly restricted to those who are wealthy. Indeed, it is possible to argue that while a small category of people may live as flexible global citizens, with the freedom to belong in a variety of places, the majority of people continue to experience restricted access to citizenship. An alternative is denationalized citizenship, which suggests that citizenship occurs in practice at a variety of scales, from the local to the urban to the global, and that these practices in turn change the ways in which citizenship is understood at the scale of the nation-state. Calls for amnesties for undocumented migrants, from Spain to the US, provide a good example of how the practices of local citizenship attempt to redefine the boundaries and definitions of the nation-state.

2. How does citizenship in the UK compare to other countries, such as the USA?

There are two broad ways in which citizenship is defined: by birth (jus soli) or by descent (jus sanguinis). In most countries, the jus sanguinis principle takes precedent. Since 1983, the UK has followed the jus sanguinis principle, as do most other European countries – in these cases, your parents must be British citizens for you to have British citizenship. In the US, the jus soli principle takes precedent – if you are born in the US, you are a US citizen. Both the UK and the US allow people to become citizens through the process of naturalization, and both countries also permit dual citizenship.

3. Is it still realistic for individual countries to set their own citizenship requirements and immigration quotas or should this be done in the case of UK for example, by the EU?

In an era of mass migration and globalization, immigration quotas and citizenship requirements remain firmly the responsibility of national governments. Individual countries are very reluctant to relinquish this control, since it remains one of the few ways in which they can assert their independence and sovereignty. In the EU, the Lisbon Treaty confirms a commitment to developing a common immigration policy, but this is mostly concerned with border security, asylum seekers and illegal immigration. Therefore, it appears likely that immigration quotas and citizenship requirements will remain under the control of national governments for the foreseeable future, and will continue to be used as a means of defining national identity and sovereignty.

 4. Is completing a test an appropriate determination of citizenship?

The vast majority of citizens, across the world, have never completed a test to determine their citizenship. Instead, they were granted citizenship on birth, either because of who their parents are or because of where they were born. When adults become citizens of another country, this process is described as naturalization. It is at this point that some countries – most notably the US, Canada, Australia and the UK – require that applicants for naturalization pass a test to show that they are eligible to become citizens. Passing a test is usually just one component of the process: others may include a long period of legal residence in the country, language proficiency, evidence of ‘good moral character’, and taking an oath of allegiance. However, the majority of countries do not have citizenship tests, but rather grant citizenship based on the length of time a person has lived in the country, or on their ability to pay. There is some debate over the objectivity of citizenship tests, as some critics argue that they may be racially biased.
A test, if it is fair, transparent and relatively straightforward, may be useful in determining citizenship. However, since most people become citizens without competing tests, the equity of citizenship tests is certainly up for question.

5. What does citizenship mean in the twenty first century? And will the meaning change in the future?

The meaning of citizenship constantly changes. A good recent example is the way in which two EU countries have recently changed the ways in which they define citizenship. In 1999, Germany introduced a new citizenship law that permitted German citizenship on birth (jus soli). In contrast, five years later the Republic of Ireland changed its basis for citizenship from place of birth (jus soli) to descent (jus sanguinis). Both changes were a response to specific national issues and concerns. In Germany, changes to citizenship laws were seen as a means to attracting highly skilled workers. In Ireland, changes to citizenship laws were seen as a means of detracting so-called citizenship tourists – pregnant women coming to Ireland to give birth so their children could be Irish citizens. In both instances, access to citizenship was changed as a political imperative, showing how citizenship as a concept is both spatially and temporally contingent.

Citizenship remains a crucial way of organizing people’s place in the contemporary world. It will undoubtedly continue to change meaning across space and time in the twenty first century. My concern is that changes to citizenship at the scale of the nation-state may often be reactive, seeking to exclude groups or individuals from access to citizenship on the basis of ethnic or racial hierarchies. As Tim Cresswell has argued, ‘citizens require the production of others to be possible, and the definition of citizen carries around the noncitizen or the shadow citizen as part of its constitution’ (2006: page161). However, alternative models of citizenship may well counter these tendencies, focusing on communities of belonging at other spatial scales.

6. How important are investigations into our heritage, history and roots to our sense of 'who we think we are?'

Heritage, history and roots are important components of individual and collective identities. They are, however, just one aspect of identity, though they can be given disproportionate explanatory power. From time to time, history and heritage may be used to construct exclusive forms of identity, as a way of keeping others out, or preventing them from full participation.
In assessing their importance, it is crucial to realise that narratives of history, heritage and roots are always partial. Equally important for understanding ‘who we think we are’ is the stories that are left out. Stuart Hall, who was born and raised in Jamaica, touched on this when he spoke about ‘English’ identity. As he commented, ‘people like me who came to England in the 1950s have been there for centuries …. I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea. I am the sweet tooth, the sugar plantations that rotted generations of English children’s teeth’ (Hall 1991; quoted in Mitchell 2000: page 274). For Hall, the defining act of Englishness – drinking a cup of tea – could never be removed from the colonial relationships that made the production of tea and sugar possible. Yet, narratives of colonialism and its impacts on other parts of the world were often ignored or marginalised. This shows how investigations into heritage, history and roots must always pay attention to the ways in which they can simplify our understanding of identities.

7. Do you think explorations of identity are important for the young people of today? And if so, why?

Explorations of identity are always important. It’s possible to argue that we are constantly exploring identity, and that our identities are always in flux. Think of how your sense of identity has changed from when you were very young, and of how you explore your identity now through, for example, music, politics, religion or sport.

Too often, however, explorations of identity assume that there is an essence to identity: some pure, unchanging truth rather than a set of constantly changing social and spatial relations. Genealogical explorations can sometimes fall into this trap, focusing on and prioritising particular aspects of identity such as DNA or ‘Britishness’. TV programmes such as ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ are occasionally guilty of this, but they also serve to show how explorations of identity usually lead to unsettling answers, and most often show the messy and contingent nature of identity. It is precisely because of this messiness that young people, and older people, should always be open to explorations of identity.

8. When we ask the question Who do we think we are? why do so many people reference this to geographical places?

For geographers, the concept of identity is so closely connected to place that it would be impossible to answer this question without referring to places. Place and identity are, for geographers, inextricably linked: identities are shaped by place, and place is in turn shaped by identity. One of the ways in which this relationship is articulated is through the emotional connection we develop to specific places: places that we associate with feelings of happiness, security and belonging. Geographers seek to explore these connections, particularly through humanistic and emotional geographies, and often with an emphasis on ‘home’. It is these meanings and memories that often come to the forefront when we think about identity.
However, very often the relationship between place and identity is connected to practices of exclusion, or to feelings of being out of place. Italian writer Claudio Magris expresses this beautifully when he says that ‘every identity is also a horror, because it owes its existence to tracing a border and rebuffing whatever is on the other side’ (Magris 1990, page 38). This sense of place-based belonging is often at the root of conflict. For example, the relationship between place and identity is often exploited for political ends. At times of uncertainty, migrant bodies often become important sites through which and on which national identity is articulated: defending borders from waves or floods of migrants is one way of asserting national identity. This is based on a ‘common-sense’ understanding of the relationship between place and identity, expressed for example through assumptions of racial or ethnic homogeneity.

9. Can people truly be global citizens even though you can’t vote for a global government

If we understand citizenship as directly related to voting rights, then it is appropriate to question whether or not global citizenship exists. If, however, we understand citizenship in terms of belonging, then it is possible to see how we can be ‘global citizens’, with the world just one of a number of scales or spaces of belonging. In this context, voting rights are less important than the ways in which we understand our place in the world. Doreen Massey has argued for the importance of a global sense of place, where we recognise the ways in which any place is made up of numerous social relations that move across a variety of scales. She uses the example of Kilburn High Street, ‘a pretty ordinary place’, that is so connected to Ireland and India and Pakistan through colonialism and migration that it is ‘impossible even to begin thinking about Kilburn High Road without bringing into play half the world’ (Massey 1991). The same, Massey claims, is true for any place you can think of. If places are connected in this way, so too are people, which gives a new sense of possibility to the concept of a global citizen. Writing in 1885, geographer Petr Kropotkin expressed his version of global citizenship: ‘we are all brethren, whatever our nationality’.


  • Cresswell, Tim 2006. On The Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World. London and New York: Routledge
  • Kropotkin, Petr 1885. What Geography Ought to Be. Reprinted in Harald Bauder and Salvatore Engel Di-Mauro (eds) 2008. Critical Geographies: A Collection of Readings. British Columbia: Praxis E-Press, pp.11-22. Available online
  • Magris, Claudio 1990. Danube. London: Collins Harvill
  • Massey, Doreen 1991. A Global Sense of Place. Marxism Today: 24-29
  • Mitchell, Don 2000. Cultural Geography: A Critical Introduction. Oxford and Massachusetts: Blackwell

Mary was interviewed in January 2010.

Dr Mary Gilmartin's biography

Mary Gilmartin is a Lecturer in Human Geography at the National University of Maynooth, Ireland. With a PhD from the U University of Kentucky in 2001, she has previously worked in the School of Geography at University College Dublin and at Nottingham Trent University.

Mary’s research interests lie at the intersection of political, cultural and social geography. Her current research focuses on migration, in particular contemporary migration to Ireland. With Bettina Migge, a colleague from UCD, Mary has just started a two year study of recent migration to Ireland, funded by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences, and will continue to work on other immigration-related research projects.

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