Elizabeth CohenSemi-Citizenship in Democratic Politics

Cambridge University Press, 2009

by Cyril Ghosh on May 20, 2011

Elizabeth Cohen

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Practically everyone thinks they understand what citizenship means. Yet, there is a great deal of conceptual ambiguity about the term and scholars studying citizenship often disagree about what citizenship actually entails, how it developed, and so on. InĀ Semi-Citizenship in Democratic Politics (Cambridge UP, 2009), Elizabeth Cohen clarifies the idea of ‘semi-citizenship’ and thus helps clarify the concept. In doing so, she makes a series of provocative arguments.

Cohen argues that there are various categories of people who are neither full citizens and nor are they totally excluded from the polity. These semi-citizens, she claims, are present in every democracy and hold some but not all of the essential elements of citizenship. In making this argument, she disaggregates the concept of citizenship into the various kinds of rights it bestows. She goes on to show that every democratic polity includes members who are routinely denied certain rights while continuing to have others, even though these individuals may be recognized as full citizens in the eyes of the state. In addition, she claims that such semi-citizenships are an enduring and inevitable part of all democratic politics.

It is common to find in the scholarship on citizenship the tendency to make normative arguments for full inclusion into the polity. Yet, in this carefully and somewhat provocatively argued book, Cohen invites us to recognize that full inclusion for all members of a polity has never been the norm in liberal democracies. Nor is it always warranted. In this interview, Cohen explains to us why this is so.

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