MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXX No. 5
May / June 2018
A Letter to the Class of 2018
Is This Any Way to Run a University?
Women at MIT
The Obligations of Citizenship
Diversity is Not Enough
The Positive Near-Term Picture
for Federal Research Funding
Engineering Enrollment Data at MIT
Student Leaders Emerge at MIT Conference
to Address Danger of Nuclear War
Looking Forward/Looking Backward
Across the Retirement Line
Promoting Mental Health
and Well-Being at MIT
from the 2018 Senior Survey
Printable Version

From The Faculty Chair

The Obligations of Citizenship

Susan S. Silbey

Several months ago, President Rafael Reif asked me to lead a discussion at Academic Council about what we mean when we talk about the obligations of citizenship. With the assistance of HASTS graduate student Clare Kim (who has also been the TA for the class on “MIT and Slavery”), I put together some thoughts that I hoped would invite debate about our obligations as teachers and scholars to educate responsible citizens. I am sharing those notes in this final column of the year, with similar expectations to generate a wider discussion.

What do we mean when we use the word citizenship? For any cultural analysis, it is important to begin by collecting common uses. Over the centuries, there are some patterns in the use of the term citizen. We can start with the Latin roots in civitas, meaning “city.” From there, we can see a thread of narrow conceptions of the citizen as a subject, a legal classification – for example, as a carrier of a passport – with no further specification or implication than the individual as being a subject of state power. There are broader conceptions also, though: citizen as a member of some entity, signifying inclusion rather than subjection, and thus connectedness. Here, the citizen exists in relation to others and thus incurs obligations, duties, responsibilities to the whole of which the citizen is a part.

Turning to an early reference of this sort, Aristotle articulated a form of citizenship grounded in the polis, arguing that human potential could be fully realized only within a political community, such as the Athenian city-state. Citizenship, by this usage, bestowed “the power to take part in the deliberative or judicial administration;” however, “the good citizen should know and have the capacity both to rule and be ruled, and this very thing is the virtue of a citizen.” However, because Aristotle believed that people played roles appropriate to their status within a (natural) social hierarchy, only some persons qualified as politai or citizens. For him, Athenian citizens were males aged 20 or over, descendants of an Athenian citizen family, a patriarch of a household, a warrior possessing the arms and ability to fight, and a master of enslaved others. Women, slaves, artisans, and foreigners were inherited statuses excluded from the category of politai (citizens). Only those, Aristotle reasoned, with the freedom to deliberate without the constraints of necessity, could participate in governing in the public’s interest.

Over time, the concept of citizenship was extended and became central to legitimating the modern state. Extensions begin in Rome; as the Republic (509 BC) continually annexed territory, citizenship was offered to the foreign communities it sought to absorb in its expanding jurisdiction.

Under the Empire (beginning 100 BC), citizenship was granted to whomever the Emperor wished and as a personal reward rather than sign of territorial membership. Perhaps as a result, citizenship became more passive over this time, sought no longer for its political significance but for the honor it carried. By 202 AD, however, citizenship was extended to all free inhabitants of conquered territories incorporated within the empire.

The growth of jurisprudence under the Roman Empire helped transform citizenship from a political status (subjects within the territory) to a legal status, which conferred certain rights and protections. Nonetheless, despite citizenship’s more inclusive status there, Roman citizens never possessed anything like the political influence of the more limited and exclusive population of Athenian citizens. Most of the power still rested with the Roman Senate, a group of nobles distinct from the rest of the population, but like the Athenian citizens, relatively free from the demands of necessity.

During the long, thousand-year decline of European monarchies (and political power of the Catholic Church), Western notions of citizen evolved from being one subject to state power to membership in a collective and the raison d’etre of the modern constitutional state. The American and French Revolutions signal the institutional development of the state as a separate entity with specific subject members called citizens. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man coupled the notion of individual freedoms with principles of universality, equality, and community, while the American Declaration of Independence pressed more strongly on individual rights, rather than collective goods. These formulas preserve a dualism between the “public” political citizen, who acts as a collective agent and lawmaker (the “people” or the “nation”), and the private, “legal” citizen, who is a subject of the law and the possessor of “natural” rights to liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness. Good citizenship (or what we might call civic virtue), seems enshrined in the institutional processes, while the law protects (and sets boundaries, albeit regularly shifting) on selfish citizens’ rights to pursue their personal interests.

In his now classic text, Citizenship and Social Class (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950) Sociologist T.H. Marshall described the modern development of citizenship as the product of three interrelated processes of state building, the emergence of commercial and industrial society, and the construction of a national consciousness, with all three driven forward by class struggle and war. The net effect, however, was to create a “people,” who were entitled to be treated as equals before the law and possessed of equal rights to buy and sell goods, services, and labor; whose interests were overseen by a sovereign constitutionally defined political authority; and who shared a national identity that shaped their alliance to both each other and to their state. Marshall described three periods in the historical evolution of modern citizenship as different groups fought to attain equal status as full members of the community. The first period, from the seventeenth to mid-nineteenth centuries, saw the consolidation of the civil rights needed to engage in a range of social and economic activities, from the freedoms to own property and exchange goods, to liberty of thought and conscience. The second period, from the end of the eighteenth century to the start of the twentieth, coincided with the gaining of political rights to vote and stand for election, to fully participate in the governing processes and political institutions. The third period, from the end of the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth, involved the creation of social rights that gave citizens the right to share in the full heritage and common standards of a civilized – the modern extension of civitas – society.

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Before concluding, I would like to offer a final, empirically derived notion of citizenship, which emerged in the work of some of my graduate students and colleagues as we observed public agency regulators, inspectors, prosecutors, private managers, and microloan officers across a range of settings. We observed that some individuals did their work differently than others, and in many cases better. We ended up calling these individuals “sociological citizens.”

In case studies ranging from Australia to France, Mexico, Brazil, and the U.S., we saw how some organizational agents purposively organize themselves and their work as a link in a complex web of interactions with others. We use the word “citizen” to name these workers because they recognize their embeddedness in a network of relations with others on whom their occupational and professional performance was dependent (rather than see their job as a cabin of demarcated tasks, limited interests and responsibilities as many others do).

Instead of focusing only on their local environments, these actors view their organizations or states as a dynamic entity in which their own role was simultaneously insignificant by itself and yet essential to the whole. These responsible citizens saw the organization (or state) as the outcome of human decisions, as well as indecisions, and planning as well as trial and error. With awareness that not everything goes as planned, the sociological citizen regularly reached beyond what was prescribed to meet organizational goals and perform their duties. I offer this conception of the citizen as one who is essential and yet insignificant by herself or himself, who has agency and yet is unable to act entirely alone.
We turn to the notion of citizenship today because it seems essential to addressing the most critical challenges of our moment – e.g., the consequences of climate change, proliferation of nuclear weapons, increasing divide between rich and poor, retreats from democracy across the globe. Yet, popular and sustained critiques decry the likelihood of adequately resolving these persistently competing, always contested interpretations of citizenship. Efforts to determine who is a citizen, and what is owed by and to citizens, have always – perhaps inadvertently but sometimes quite violently – denied the protections of citizenship to many within our borders. For example, if we adopt responsible citizenship as an educational goal, what does it mean if some students will have more access to that right than others? Despite this conundrum, I offer an aspiration to citizenship as a counterpoint to the more ubiquitous conceptions of student as consumer, or disruptive innovator, insisting on a different conception of self in relation to others, to the community, the Institute, and to the polity. Here, at MIT, citizenship seems essential to secure our fundamental scholarly integrity, as well as the long-term security of the Institute itself. In the larger national and global arenas, perhaps a more radical and capacious, less individualistic notion of citizenship can ignite the creativity and energy to address these existential threats. If we take responsible citizenship as a worthy aspiration for our work, would we change what we do, what we require of our students, or ourselves? I cannot answer these questions alone, but perhaps they are worthy of some wider conversations.

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