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date: 07 December 2022

Global Citizenshipfree

Global Citizenshipfree

  • April R. BiccumApril R. BiccumSchool of Politics and International Relations, Australian National University


The concept of “Global Citizenship” is enjoying increased currency in the public and academic domains. Conventionally associated with cosmopolitan political theory, it has moved into the public domain, marshaled by elite actors, international institutions, policy makers, nongovernmental organizations, and ordinary people. At the same time, scholarship on Global Citizenship has increased in volume in several domains (International Law, Political Theory, Citizenship Studies, Education, and Global Business), with the most substantial growth areas in Education and Political Science, specifically in International Relations and Political Theory. The public use of the concept is significant in light of what many scholars regard as a breakdown and reconfiguration of national citizenship in both theory and practice. The rise in its use is indicative of a more general change in the discourse on citizenship. It has become commonplace to offer globalization as a cause for these changes, citing increases in regular and irregular migration, economic and political dispossession owing to insertion in the global economy, the ceding of sovereignty to global governance, the pressure on policy caused by financial flows, and cross-border information-sharing and political mobilization made possible by information communications technologies (ICTs), insecurities caused by environmental degradation, political fragmentation, and inequality as key drivers of change. Global Citizenship is thus one among a string of adjectives attempting to characterize and conceptualize a transformative connection between globalization, political subjectivity, and affiliation. It is endorsed by elite global actors and the subject of an educational reform movement. Some scholarship observes empirical evidence of Global Citizenship, understood as active, socially and globally responsible political participation which contributes to global democracy, within global institutions, elites, and the marginalized themselves. Arguments for or against a cosmopolitan sensibility in political theory have been superseded by both the technological capability to make global personal legal recognition a possibility, and by the widespread endorsement of Global Citizenship among the Global Education Policy regime. In educational scholarship Global Citizenship is regarded as a form of contemporary political being that needs to be socially engineered to facilitate the spread of global democracy or the emergence of new political arrangements. Its increasing currency among a diverse range of actors has prompted a variety of attempts either to codify or to study the variety of usages in situ. As such the use of Global Citizenship speaks to a central methodological problem in the social sciences: how to fix key conceptual variables when the same concepts are a key aspect of the behavior of the actors being studied? As a concept, Global Citizenship is also intimately associated with other concepts and theoretical traditions, and is among the variety of terms used in recent years to try to reconceptualize changes it the international system. Theoretically it has complex connections to cosmopolitanism, liberalism, and republicanism; empirically it is the object of descriptive and normative scholarship. In the latter domain, two central cleavages repeat: the first is between those who see Global Citizenship as the redress for global injustices and the extension of global democracy, and those who see it as irredeemably capitalist and imperial; the second is between those who see evidence for Global Citizenship in the actions and behavior of a wide range of actors, and those who seek to socially engineer Global Citizenship through educational reform.


  • Human Rights
  • Identity
  • Organization
  • International Relations Theory
  • Political Sociology

What is Global Citizenship?

Global Citizenship (hereafter GC) as a concept is enjoying some currency in the public and academic domains. The theory and study of GC has been a growth industry especially in philosophy, international relations, and education, and it has been adopted as a central educational reform under the Sustainable Development Goals and endorsed by major international organizations, think tanks, and the expanded regime of Global Education Policy (Mundy, 2016). What is meant by GC varies between political actors and academics. The academic literature on GC divides into two branches. The normative theoretical branch has a number of overlaps and engagements with cosmopolitan, liberal, and republican political theory. The empirical scholarship, meanwhile, observes GC’s existence in individual behavior and the structures of transnational organization; in the case of education, empirical scholarship offers ways and means of producing GC through a reform of pedagogy, curriculum, and educational design. It is commonplace to begin any discussion of GC with an account of cosmopolitan political theory dating back to the ancients. The problem with this account is that these theoretical arguments for and against GC have been superseded both by its increasingly widespread use among political actors and by the technological capability to make it something of an institutional reality. GC is no longer simply a theoretical or philosophical discussion but is increasingly also a diversified field of empirical study. The problem with the study of GC empirically is that it is one of those conceptual variables that cuts across scholarship and public use. It is a concept, according to Reinhart Koselleck’s understanding of that term, in that it is an inherently contestable carrier of signification with multiple meanings (Koselleck, 2002).

What is true of GC is equally true of citizenship. Both are used by political actors and institutions, and also by academics, to inform empirical study; they are equally both concepts that inform normative political theory about the ordering foundations of society. They thus straddle the distance near (ordinary usage), distance far (academic and technocratic usage), and the normative theoretical of both political actors and academics (other conceptual variables with a similar bifurcation are democracy and the state) (Ferguson & Mansbach, 2010; Mitchell, 1991). This entanglement speaks to methodological problems at the heart of all social science endeavor: the use of the same concepts by political actors, institutions, and academics; and the problem of trying to fix those concepts for the purposes of advancing knowledge, or equally, trying to elaborate them philosophically for the purposes of creating social change. In the case of both citizenship and GC, the attempt to use various methodological techniques to fix their meaning and tie them to concrete empirical phenomena (Sartori, 1984) is unproductive because all these concepts are quintessential examples of the fact that political actors are themselves also self-conscious conceptualizers. Moreover, the way GC is conceptualized by certain political actors is currently having concrete political outcomes (Biccum, 2018b, 2020). Trying to improve its study by using Sartori’s ladder of abstraction to parse it into conceptual precision will not do when conceptualization is itself an integral part of its political impact and institutionalization. Moreover, there is increasing overlap between academic scholarship and the concept’s political operationalization, particularly in education.

Interpretive social science offers a way of grappling with this complexity by recognizing what a concept is (i.e., the function in language that allows for multiplicity of meaning and abstraction) (Koselleck, 2002), the ubiquity of the use of concepts for all language users (Geertz, 1973), and methodological techniques that are consistent with the properties of language and its study in use (Fairclough, 1989; Schaffer, 2016). The interpretivist approach is more appropriate for fleshing out the complexity of defining GC by recognizing that the rise in its use both academically and politically is in response to changing circumstances, but also and concurrently that its take up is an attempt to by actors to change political circumstances. The interpretivist approach equips scholars with a sensitivity for assessing how and why GC’s use is significant. GC is one among a variety of adjectival variations on citizenship, but it is one that has taken greater hold than any of its rivals and, depending on who uses it and how, has implications for a shift in identity and allegiance from the national to the global. Therefore, its increased use by elites and operationalization in policy to affect change should be recognized as politically significant. Interpretive social science provides the analytical and methodological tools to ground, locate, and elucidate the various meanings of GC in theory and in practice (Schaffer, 2016).

Citizenship, as a concept, is also both a variably applied political institution and a contested theoretical concept. It emerged as a body of study in its own right in the 20th century only to be problematized toward the end of the century with a variety of qualifying adjectives, including postnational citizenship (Rose, 1996), the denationalization of citizenship (Soysal, 1994), extrastatal citizenship (Lee, 2014), cultural citizenship (Richardson, 1998), minority citizenship (Yuval-Davis, 1997), ecological citizenship (van Steenbergen, 1994), cosmopolitan citizenship (Held, 1995), consumer citizenship (Stevenson, 1997), and mobility citizenship (Urry, 1990). The meaning and theorization of citizenship itself in the context of globalization have undergone some considerable contestation. In the late 1990s, sociologist John Urry noted the contradiction that just as everyone is seeking to be a citizen of an existing national society, globalization is changing what it means to be a citizen (Urry, 1999). For some theorists of citizenship, it has normative dimensions. Brian Turner in particular made a distinction between a conservative view of citizenship as passive and private, and a more revolutionary idea of citizenship as active and public (Bowden, 2003; Turner, 1990). For theorists of citizenship it is a mode of political membership that has as a performative nature, even by those who are not officially recognized. Understood this way, it is a quintessentially democratic political subjectivity, where agency is expressed in struggles for rights and inclusion for the benefit of self and others.

Historicized as an actually existing political institution, citizenship can be shown to be a mechanism of differentiation through rights allocation, inclusion, and exclusion that is unavoidably connected to state and imperial violence, interest, and power. For critical scholars, it is gendered, racialized, and colonial and has been a mechanism not for the expansion of civil, political, and social rights (as canonized in Marshall’s 1949 account) but as a means of conferring those rights on the few (Isin & Nyers, 2014b; Marshall, 1949). Editors of the Routledge Handbook of GC Studies survey the various ways in which national citizenship has been conceptualized and how Citizenship Studies must be revised in light of globalization (Isin & Nyers, 2014b; Lee, 2014). A work in “critical Citizenship Studies,” this volume notes that citizenship has been defined as membership, status, practice, or performance, with each definition harboring presumptions about politics and agency. To overcome these shortcomings, the editors offer a minimal definition which contains conceptual complexity. For Isin and Nyers, citizenship is “an institution, mediating rights between the subjects of politics and the polity” (Isin & Nyers, 2014a, p. 1). The word “polity” enables a conceptualization of diverse political entities and overlapping governance configurations. “Rights mediation” recognizes that citizenship is inclusive and exclusive simultaneously and that it is most often expanded through political struggle. Finally, the “Subject” is a way of understanding political behavior on the part of people with no formal institutional recognition. The volume aims to address the fact that Citizenship Studies is globalizing because people around the world are articulating their struggles through the political institution of citizenship, and they see this struggle as the performative dimension or enactment of citizenship in political behavior that makes claims upon states and governing institutions. This is why scholars are engaged in “a competition to invent new names to describe the political subjects that are enacting political agency today. Whether it is the Activist or the Actant, the Militant or the Multitude” (Isin & Nyers, 2014a, p. 5). Contributors to this volume are highly skeptical of the concept of GC, but this is precisely the kind of active enactment of rights and responsibilities that scholars of GC see as evidence of its existence, or endorsement for its contribution to the globalization of democracy. Thus, the emergence of GC is part and parcel of the very contestation over citizenship that contributors to this volume see as evidence for grassroots political agency and democratic political change.

As a concept, GC is often linked with the body of cosmopolitan political thought dating back to antiquity (Heater, 1996), but this association needs to be qualified. Its increased usage in the early 21st century among scholars, philosophers, policymakers, global institutions, and educators has been prolific, leading to several attempts in the literature to codify its various meanings (Fanghanel & Cousin, 2012; Hicks, 2003; Sant, Davies, Pashby, & Shultz, 2018), or to study its variation in use empirically (Gaudelli, 2009). Some have argued that its conceptual heterogeneity is strategically advantageous for those who are using it in practice, and political actors particularly in education have devoted a substantial amount of time to conceptualizing it for the purposes of its articulation in policy (Biccum, 2018b; Hartmeyer, 2015). In the education space, an agreed-upon meaning organized around attitudes, aptitudes, and behavior is now being utilized by international organizations (specifically the United Nations, United Nations Education Science and Culture Organisation, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), which are disseminating their preferred definitions through the expanded global education community via declarations, policy advice, research, information portals, and international conferences. Attempts to codify the different meanings of GC in the academic scholarship have used different metatheoretical concepts to understand the systematic organization of meaning, among them heuristics (Gaudelli, 2009), discourse (Karlberg, 2008; Parmenter, 2011; Schattle, 2015; Shukla, 2009), ideology (Pais & Costa, 2017; Schattle, 2008), and typology (Andreotti, 2014; Oxley & Morris, 2013). For all this definitional and metatheoretical categorization, what cuts across all are the notions that a global citizen is a type of person (endowed with a certain kind of knowledge, values, attitudes, and aptitudes) and that GC is expressed in behavior (always active). Oxley and Morris’s (2013) codification is often cited in educational scholarship that is working to provide the pedagogical and theoretical foundations for producing Global Citizens (Bosio & Torres, 2019) or critically contesting existing practices and theoretical models of GC education in order to make them live up to what both scholarly factions regard as its emancipatory potential (Andreotti, 2014).

The various attempts to codify the use of GC in situ tend to make a distinction between hegemonic use and attempts by both scholars and political actors to expand its meaning for political purposes. In this context Oxley and Morris (2013) make a distinction between “cosmopolitan based” GC Education, which is further nuanced by political, moral, economic, and cultural considerations; and “advocacy based,” which is inflected by social, critical, environmental, and spiritual features. This distinction effectively codifies the differences between official uses of GC by elite actors, and the contestations from critical practitioners and scholars who seek to expand its official meaning (a) to include the grassroots activity of activists; and (b) in educational policy and practice, to include knowledge of global capital and European colonial history, a normative attitude against the inequalities and injustices these have produced, and the aptitude to hold elite actors to account (Andreotti & Souza, 2011). Gaudelli (2009) and Schattle (2008) based their discursive and ideological codifications on methodologically informed definitions of discourse and ideology and an empirical focus on the use of the concept in multiple sites. Gaudelli identifies five different discursive framings (neoliberal, nationalist, Marxist, world justice and governance, and cosmopolitan), and Schattle (2008) deploys an ideological analysis to determine whether the discourse of GC in education constitutes a new “globalist” ideology. He finds that in fact it remains inflected by varieties of liberal ideology, even its critical variants, because of its emphasis on human rights, equality, and social justice.

Despite contestations over meaning and use, there are those in the literature who regard GC as the conceptual iteration that underpins a hegemonic ordering of a global governance to further globalize the market by creating market-ready “neoliberal subjectivities” (Chapman, Ruiz-Chapman, & Eglin, 2018), or who argue that the proselytizing gesture of its proponents and its rootedness in Western liberal democratic culture make it inescapably imperial (Andreotti & Souza, 2011). A common accusation is that GC is an attempt to put a progressive veneer on the global market. In addition, definitions of GC that link it to worldly cosmopolitan values, high-tech skills, and enough cross-cultural knowledge to enable flexibility and adaptability map neatly onto the kinds of subjectivities one will find among the world’s most privileged and highly mobile workers. For critics, there is evidence for this critique in the individualizing and entrepreneurial programs which make elites responsible for limited social change that won’t disrupt market relations. Conversely, the neorepublican and neoliberal response to this critique is that citizenship is inseparable from market-based participation in society because it is the market’s tendency to untether people from social, political, and economic constraints and to diversify the economy that creates free rational agents capable of participating democratically (Lovett & Pettit, 2009). From this perspective, chauvinism, discrimination, and communitarianism are bad for global markets, ergo the promotion of the progressive social values of GC is good for the global economy. The critics of GC are quite right in that it is being articulated and reframed to fit the particular ideological commitments of promarket actors in certain sites (Chapman et al., 2018; Pais & Costa, 2017). However, paying close empirical attention to how conceptualization works, what should be emphasized is that GC’s heterogeneity, fluidity, and contested meaning ensure that it cannot be dismissed as essentially one thing and serving a single purpose (Biccum, 2020). Instead, close empirical attention needs to be paid to who is using it, how, and for what purpose.

The Theory of GC

It is commonplace to want to tell the story of GC as the next step in the genealogy of the cosmopolitan tradition. But the picture is more complex than that, because while both cosmopolitanism and GC have close family ties with liberal political theory, it is a mistake to collapse them because there are articulations of liberalism which reject cosmopolitanism, such as the work of John Rawls. Equally, in GC’s associations with antiquity there are concrete connections also with republican political thought (Pagden, 2000). In fact, republicanism has equally enjoyed a revival since the 1990s (Costa, 2009; Dagger, 2006; Lovett & Pettit, 2009) and, when examined in detail, the approach to the market found in elite articulations of GC do bear a closer affinity with neorepublicanism than, as critics maintain, neoliberalism (Biccum, 2020). The work of Luis Cabrera argues for maintaining a distinction between cosmopolitanism and GC while understanding their connections (Cabrera, 2008). Succinct political theories of GC have emerged (Carter, 2001; Dower, 2000; Tully, 2014), some of which try to counter this tradition and some of which marshal GC as a suitable replacement for aggressive American militarism (Arneil, 2007; Hunter, 1992), arguing that it will allow the United States to pass an “Augustan Threshold.” However articulated theoretically, GC is intimately tied up with questions of human nature, political subjectivity, and appropriate political arrangements, such as polis, state, republic, global governance, world state or empire, with a characteristic omission of political arrangements deemed less formal or “modern.”

The commonplace narrative that places GC within the history of the repetitive revival of cosmopolitan thought is best expressed by April Carter (2001) and Derek Heater (1996), whose histories observe a cycle of periodic revival in which the structural contradictions of imperial formations follow a pattern of critique and externalization. Heater begins with Aristotle’s view of the polis as a form of political organization that is congruent with the nature of man.1 This is an intellectual gesture that naturalizes the polis, making it an expression of the final and perfect condition of human development, and provides legitimacy for its transplantation elsewhere (similar to Hegel’s view of the state). These ideas were put under sustained pressure from circumstances that bear a remarkable similarity to patterns coded by contemporary scholars as “globalization,” including territorial expansion, extensions of governance, migration, and the privatization of the military. Cosmopolitan ideas, Heater argues, arise out of the failure of the polis to live up to claims that it is the expression of human nature. This led to the exploration of two other ideas: the true nature of human beings should be sought either in solitary individualism, or in the essential oneness of the human race. These were first articulated by figures who were critical of existing political arrangements such as Diogenes, Cicero, and Zeno. According to Heater, the periodic revival of cosmopolitan ideas since ancient times is caused by a sense of external threat, whether it be war or environmental catastrophe. Each articulation differs in emphasis over the role of the state, the role of the individual, the role of global institutions, and the desirability of a world state. Similarly, historian Anthony Pagden offers a genealogy of cosmopolitan thought which sees it as indelibly rooted in imperial structures but finds its culmination in the global republicanism of Immanuel Kant, in which Pagden finds there are also critiques of imperialism (Pagden, 2000). Thus, an analytical distinction must be maintained between concrete political projects for the realization of global democracy or a world state, and cosmopolitan political philosophy, although they certainly intersect. So, for example, the early cosmopolitans did not devise plans for constitutions and governance, and early-20th-century advocates for a world state (such as H. G. Wells) were not philosophers (Heater, 1996). The International Relations (IR) scholarship which sees the eventuation of a world state deriving from structural conditions is not necessarily engaging normatively with the concept of GC (Ruggie, 2002; Wendt, 2003), and some scholarship on GC sees its democratic potential in the fact that it is a set of citizen claims, attitudes, and behaviors in the absence of a world state (Dower, 2000; Dower & Williams, 2002; Falk, 2002).

Understanding GC as the culmination in the genealogy of cosmopolitan thought also conflicts with the cosmopolitan revival in IR, although these scholars repeat the formulation described by Heater: namely, the contradictions of globalization demonstrate the flaws in the Hegelian understanding that the nation state is the perfect reflection of human rationality and the only political arrangement that will enable the full flowering of human development. The turn to cosmopolitanism in IR is also occasioned by the end of the Cold War and the disillusionment with Marx in the context of a recognition of diverse identities and non-class-based modes of social, political, and economic exclusion and the new social movements that sprang up as a redress. The cosmopolitan vision for the extension of democracy through reformed institutions is articulated by Richard Linklater (1998), Daniele Archibugi (1993), and David Held (1995) as a redress for these structural conditions. The sovereign state cannot continue to claim to be the only relevant moral community when the opportunities and incidences of transnational harm rise alongside increasing interdependence (Doyle, 2007). Similar to their ancient counterparts, Linklater, Archibugi, and Held offer cosmopolitan democracy as both a critique of the Hegelian theory of the state as the highest expression human rationality and a method of expanding democracy transnationally. Both Archibugi and Linklater offer the possibility of direct citizen participation in global institutions as the mechanism that would make for a robust global democracy. Global or world citizenship is implicated in this project, but these scholars do not offer a political theory of GC as such.

The cosmopolitan revival in political theory does, however, theorize GC as a way of reconfiguring ethical foundations of the individual connection to state and world (Appiah, 2007; Nussbaum, 1996; Parekh, 2003). The cosmopolitanism of these scholars is organized around the premise that, in the context of “complex interdependence,” individuals in advanced economies have ethical obligations to the rest of the human race which can override their obligations to fellow citizens. Contained within many arguments in favor of GC is a latent criticism of the nation state and transnational capital. For Thomas Pogge (1992) this amounts to recognition of the insertion of the citizens of advanced economies into global value and production chains; for Bhiku Parekh this amounts to recognition of the political and economic debt gained through European colonization, and he calls for a globally oriented national citizenship (Parekh, 2003).2

The central cleavage is the relevance and role of the state. Critics of GC argue that GC’s rootless sense of obligation from nowhere undermines Aristotelian notions of civic virtue, and that the nation state is the only community where active citizenship can be practiced (Carter, 2001; Miller, 1999; Walzer, 1994). Others offer GC as a way of being that does not devalue, erode, or supersede the nation state. Nigel Dower, for example, argued in 2000 that a world state is not needed for GC (Dower, 2000). Here he is responding to critics who argued at the time that GC cannot exist, because of a lack of common identity and institutions. Some scholars offer “rooted cosmopolitanism” as an affinity to the global that is grounded in individual biography and location (Kymlicka & Walker, 2012). Similarly, Martha Nussbaum sparked a debate among prominent political, social, legal, and literary theorists over the competing merits of national versus cosmopolitan affinity, and offered concentric circles of affinity from the individual to the global because the state as nothing more than a “morally arbitrary boundary” (Nussbaum, 1996, p. 14). Nussbaum later revised this position to articulate a “globally sensitive patriotism,” arguing that the sentiments that underpin patriotism can be used to rescue the concept from its chauvinistic variants, allowing it then to play a role in creating a “decent world culture” (Nussbaum, 2008, p. 81). But for most of these scholars the state is the starting point for either advocacy or critique of GC.

There are other scholars in the analytic tradition attaching to GC a notion of cosmopolitan right, meaning the restriction of individual freedom so that it harmonizes with the freedom of everyone else. For Luis Cabrera (2008) this is an important step toward developing an overarching conception of cosmopolitanism, one that details appropriate courses of action and reform in relation to individuals and institutions in the current global system. The collapsing of GC and cosmopolitanism as synonymous is for Cabrera a mistake. There are clear differences between them, as well as different conceptual inflections within them. Within cosmopolitanism, Cabrera details the institutional cosmopolitanism of Archibugi and Linklater, which is concerned with the creation of a comprehensive network of global governing institutions to achieve just global distributive outcomes; and moral cosmopolitanism, which as we see in Appiah, Pogge, and Parekh is concerned not with institution-building but with assessing the justice of institutions according to how individuals fare in relation to them. Cabrera’s claim is that individual cosmopolitanism should be understood as GC. GC for Cabrera is a moral orientation toward and a claim to membership of the whole of the human community and a theory of citizenship that is fundamentally concerned with appropriate individual action. In other words, Cabrera is offering a theoretical framework for the operationalization of GC which offers guidelines of “right action” for the global human community. “Right action” can be objectively known for Cabrera following the analytical tradition and particularly the liberal thought of John Rawls. On the question of the world state Cabrera equivocates. He argues that GC is the ethical orientation guiding individual action in a global human community and not preparation for a world state, but he nevertheless advocates for a world state because of the biases against cosmopolitan distributive justice inherent in the sovereign state system. For Cabrera GC identifies the very specific duties incumbent on all humankind to promote the creation of an actual global political community up to and including the creation of a world state.

The question of empire is conspicuously absent among these scholars, while other scholars fully implicate Western imperial history in their account of GC. James Tully (2014) is the only political theorist of GC to pay close attention the role of European empire in constructing, globalizing, and making modular civil citizenship. With a focus on language and meaning as the sites of political contestation, Tully sees GC as articulating a locus of struggle, noting that because of empire, most of the enduring struggles in the history of politics have taken place in and over the language of citizenship and the activities and institutions into which it is woven. GC for Tully is neither fixed nor determinable, as it is for Cabrera; it contains no calculus or universal rule for its application in particular cases. Rather it is a conjunction of “global” and “citizenship” that can be regarded as the linguistic artifact of the innovative tendency of citizens and noncitizens to contest and create something new in the practice of citizenship. Basing his account of “public philosophy” on a philosophy of language drawn from Wittgenstein, Skinner, and Foucault, in which language is constitutive of human social and political relations, Tully regards freedom and democracy as practiced through language. Language is inseparable from cognition, and in practices of meaning-making human beings continually (re)negotiate their circumstances, and in so doing have the capacity to change the language, and in changing the language, change the game. Tully offers a political theory of GC that builds on the open-endedness indicated by Linklater and Falk, and sees in the multitudinous expressions of transnational political activism the possibility of different, more democratic political arrangements. This is consistent with decolonial scholarship in IR, postcolonial scholarship in education, and critical scholarship on sustainability, which argue that the modernistic, dualist language of science is part of the problem in that it hinders the ability of scholars and citizens to conceptualize life differently. To change social reality, they argue, we have to change our language (Shallcross & Robinson, 2006), and for many critical scholars GC is part of this conceptual shift.

The Study of GC

Research on the practice of GC can be roughly divided between the normative theoretical and the phenomenological empirical and contains a tension between GC as actually existing and needing to be produced. Scholarship has expanded substantially since the 1990s and moved away from an association with cosmopolitanism toward a direct engagement with GC as a concept and field of study in its own right. Contributions to the field have appeared in Media and Cultural Studies (Khatib, 2003; Nash, 2009), International Law (Hunter, 1992; Torre, 2005), Psychology (Reysen & Hackett, 2017; Reysen & Katzarska-Miller, 2013), and Citizenship Studies (Arneil, 2007; Bowden, 2003; Soguk, 2014), but the bulk of the scholarship appears in International Relations (IR) (residing in roughly the subfields of Globalization, Global Governance, Social Movements, and Global Civil Society) and in educational scholarship (residing in pedagogical scholarship but also emerging interdisciplinary fields where educational scholarship is overlapping with International Political Economy, IR, and International Political Sociology) (Armstrong, 2006; Ball, 2012; Dale, 2000; Desforges, 2004). Methodologically, most of the scholarship has been qualitative and interpretive or critical, with a handful of quantitative approaches just emerging in Psychology seeking to measure global citizen attributes, and one study providing a quantitative aggregate account of the appearance of “GC” in textbooks (Buckner & Russell, 2013; Katzarska-Miller & Reysen, 2018; Reysen & Katzarska-Miller, 2013). Debates across much of the scholarship follow an optimistic–pessimistic or normative–critical dichotomy.

Sociological scholarship on globalization going back to the 1990s describes a growing global awareness that can be causally attributed to information communications technologies (ICTs). ICTs play a central role in all accounts of “observable” GC, even if operating in the background as the necessary sufficient conditions for transnational cooperation and mobilization. This sociological approach sees in the massification of communications technology a distribution of symbolic resources that inform how people see themselves and their knowledge of others in time and space. This is in keeping with 20th-century scholarship in the fields of nationalism, communication, and the histories of knowledge which have posited the constitutive nature of communications technology and identity (Anderson, 1983; Foucault, 1982, 2000; Lule, 2015; Martin, Manns, & Bowe, 2004; Norris, 2009). For Urry, Pippa Norris, and others, just as national broadcasting can be causally credited with the development of national citizenship, so can ICTs be credited with the rise in global affinities, cosmopolitan worldviews, and self-identification as a global citizen. In addition to transforming the possibilities for transnational interaction, mobilization, and governance and the market across terrestrial space, ICTs enable visibility, the spread of knowledge and shared experiences, the perception of threat, and a sense of the world as a whole. For this approach there is a historical connection between ICTs and democracy dating back to the social upheaval in Europe that went with the introduction of the printing press. When ICTs are global, they enable more political transparency through the identification and exposing of wrongdoing. Harmful backstage behavior can be revealed, put on display, and represented over and over again. This has been done to states and corporations over their environmental and human-rights transgressions and has fuelled the activities of new social movements. Such revelations contribute to the knowledge base of those claiming to be global citizens, and of those being so characterized in the scholarship.

Communications technology is one of the structural factors making it possible to uncouple citizenship from the territorial state. Advances in ICTs have also created the technical capacity to make GC an institutional reality. The volume Debating Transformations of National Citizenship devotes a section to debating the possibilities inherent in blockchain technology to confer a grant of citizenship to all humanity through a universal digital identity. Blockchain technology provides the technological capability, international law provides the global juridical framework (Article 25(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), according to which every citizen should have the right to participate in the conduct of public affairs), and the Sustainable Development Goals articulate a political will and policy framework (goal 16.9 aims to provide a legal identity for all, including birth registration by 2030). For optimists, blockchain technology would provide universal recognition of personhood; enhance individual freedom by allowing people to create self-sovereign identities with control over their personal data; mitigate against the increased politicization of citizenship; and could have the benefit of protecting human rights and stateless persons, assisting in the fight against human trafficking, and even mitigate the tendency of states to monetize naturalization (De Filippi, 2018). In addition, it contains the possibility for emancipatory movements to mobilize across territorial borders. The creation of multiple cloud communities would allow for experimentation with democratic utopias and would enable a direct global democracy by creating the possibility of a one-person-one-vote participation in global governance (Orgad, 2018). By extending decision-making power to individuals and communities that are currently excluded, it contains the potential for the realization of cosmopolitan democracy as envisaged by Linklater and Archibugi. For pessimists, this would require a globalization of communications technology that is not environmentally sustainable and would centralize power in the hands of states and corporations.

Moving beyond technological determinism, a common refrain in the study of GC is that it is organically expressed, manifested and spread by the globalizing of civil society and transnational advocacy networks (TANs) (Armstrong, 2006; Carter, 2001; Desforges, 2004; Meutzelfeldt & Smith, 2002). Here, the attribute of causality is not necessarily with the individual, but with the variety of political arrangements that have emerged to address transnational issues. According to April Carter, “amnesty as an organisation can be seen as a collective global citizen” (Carter, 2001, p. 83). While not all the groups that fall within the designation Global Civil Society (GCS) can be associated with GC, it is the groups which are engaged in political lobbying, policy work, volunteering, campaigning, fundraising, and protest on social justice issues to do with poverty, inequality, and human rights that are regarded as sites for the study of GC because they are ostensibly motivated by identification with the whole of humanity, cosmopolitan values, a concern about injustice, a willingness to act collaboratively and cooperatively. Moreover, their activities are undergirded by and contribute to the operationalization of a universal system of human rights. They assist local populations in making claims against state governments and they make claims against global institutions for redress of problems. Participants in these networks are transnationally mobile through associations which facilitate the production of knowledge, the formation of “epistemic communities,” and consensus therefore around the policy response to the transnational issues around which they are organized (Haas, 1989, 1992).

A circular logic is at play here. Activists who care about social justice issues comprise the personnel of groups which create networks for the purposes of making change. These networks in turn are new forms of association wherein participation engenders the sorts of values and attributes which can be assigned to the global citizen (Pallas, 2012). This logic of learning through participation is a common refrain across political theory, constructivist IR, social movements, and education scholarship (Finnemore, 1993). These developments in transnational collective action underpin the claim that changing patterns of global governance create new consequences for citizenship. Much of the scholarship regards this as a democratic trend because many of the groups which inhabit these networks are (semi)autonomous from states and governance structures; use knowledge gathered from grassroots and professional experience to highlight global issues to shape public opinion in such a way as to put pressure on states and corporations responsible for abuses; or push global public policy around health, education, and development in the direction of a more equitable distribution and access and inclusion. Even when the policy preferences of TANs make it onto the global agenda (such as happened with educational access and inclusion and GC education via the Sustainable Development Goals), these groups can continue to apply pressure by also monitoring the operation of UN agencies or national compliance with particular international agreements: the Global Education Monitoring Reports and a special issue of Global Policy (volume 10, supplement 1, September 2019) are good examples of this. TANs are regarded as strengthening international society and linkages between states (mitigating the structural condition of anarchy initially posed by IR). For scholars, these spaces of activity embody GC by promoting a world order based not on state interests but on human rights, and acting as a vehicle for strengthening the legitimacy of global institutions and international law (Jelin, 2010; Shallcross & Robinson, 2006). The interaction they create between the bottom-up and top-down in an expanded architecture of global governance divided by policy specialism is evidence of Alexander Wendt’s claim that a world state is inevitable (Wendt, 2003).

However, civil-society groups and TANs are not the only nonstate actors laying claim to the label “global citizen.” Corporations and their representative organizations (e.g., the World Economic Forum) are also adopting the label, and the literature on Global Corporate Citizenship cites the same set of circumstances regarding the pressure that globalization has put upon state capacity. In the circumstance of a “global regulatory deficit” that has been created by financing conditions that required the shrinkage of the state, corporations have a choice between exploiting that deficit for gain, or exhibiting “enlightened self-interest” by recognizing that they have social responsibilities as well as rights. Corporations act as global citizens, according to this literature, by assuming responsibilities of a state, such as the provision of public-health programs, education, and protection of human rights through working conditions while operating in countries with repressive regimes. Global corporate citizens engage in self-regulation to ensure the peace and stability required for continued realization of profits (Henderson, 2000; Schwab, 2008; Sherer & Palazzo, 2008). Considering that much of the activism of social movements against neoliberal globalization has been directed against corporations and the global institutions promoting their preferred policy agendas, this raises a question in need of further exploration. How can the site of the trouble provide ostensibly the solution? Should observers be relieved by the corporate recognition of social justice issues when economic nationalism is on the rise, or should it be regarded as an instrumental attempt at co-opting?

Here lies a central cleavage animating both the endorsement and the critiques of GC. Does capitalism underwrite democracy through economic growth, or does it erode democracy by facilitating monopolies which put power and wealth in the hands of a few? For many commentators, the expanded networks of global governance are not democratic, because they are inhabited by powerful actors with asymmetric bargaining power and the ability to ensure that whatever compromises are made do not trouble the logic of the existing system (El Bouhali, 2015; Caballero, 2019). The spaces inhabited by global citizens are not in fact spaces of negotiation open to all, and particularly as they are formalized and professionalized, they create an elite (Pallas, 2012) of what are effectively bureaucratic functionaries of global governance. Moreover, these elites are primarily from the Global North and are criticized for pursuing an elite-led advanced economy agenda for the international system. Structural imbalances are often cited between Southern and Northern participants because participation requires resources and this creates a Western bias (Gaventa & Tandon, 2010). Rather than seeing these actors as representing and advocating on behalf of voiceless constituents, Pallas (2012) sees a moral hazard and a lack of accountability in “global citizens” who propose policy solutions for which they may not bear the costs by intervening in problems that do not affect them directly. Participants may mistake as “global connectedness” what is in effect identity-sharing among elites. In addition, it is the institutional structure and the funding models of GCS, which have long been subjects of critique, that limit the ability of these groups to entreat the public to behave as global citizens (Desforges, 2004).

Richard Falk’s 1993 essay “The Making of Global Citizenship” describes the global citizen as “a type of global reformer: an individual who intellectually perceives a better way of organizing the political life of the planet” (Falk, 1993, p. 41). This brings us to the assumption of causality which individualizes the emergence of GC in a quintessentially modern gesture which sees GC born of individuals who think critically and do not accept the organization of political life as they find it, but instead ask foundational questions and engage in utopian visions. Falk describes GC as “thinking, feeling and acting for the sake of the human species” (Falk, 1993, p. 20). GC is thus an orientation toward the collective which begins in the individual with a specific kind of attitude, aptitude, and knowledge. Something peculiar is happening with the consolidation of GC discourse and scholarship. With its uniform emphasis on activism, the global-citizen discourse, whether it occurs in international organisations, corporations, global civil society, individuals or scholarship, has the effect of normalizing and shifting the normative orientation around political activism. This is a significant development given the context of the proliferation of political activisms since the 1960s and the wide variety of political mobilizations occurring on both the right and left of the spectrum in the 21st century. Moreover, the global-citizen discourse has the effect of legitimating the transnational agendas of certain activists (Pallas, 2012), and has resulted in a significant normative shift within global institutions in favor of the issues first brought to attention by antiglobalization activists of the 1980s and 1990s. This could be regarded with considerable skepticism as a form of co-opting, or with some relief as a welcome salve to chauvinisms of all varieties. Under the rubric of “GC,” the notion that globalizing capital might have any causal connection to political instability, environmental and health catastrophes, and growing inequality is seldom entertained, even as GC’s insertion into the Sustainable Development Goals sees the production of global citizens as the solution to global problems through the production of global “change makers.” Either way, there is a marked tension between two areas of scholarship in education and political science, where one sees in transnational advocacy the existence of global citizens, and the other sees in the globalization of education policy a strategy for their production.


The conceptualization of GC informs how it is studied. Optimistic scholarship observes what it considers to be organic expressions of GC in social movements, transnational advocacy networks, global governance, and among elite actors. Pessimistic scholarship observes the promotion of GC by elites and through private and governance institutions as a hegemonic strategy to contain and displace social movements; to institutionalize an epistemic paradigm which forecloses on critical thinking and non-Western, particularly indigenous knowledges; and to create a political subject which is amenable to globalizing capital (Bowden, 2003; Chapman, 2018). Across all this scholarship there are differing accounts of causality which traverse assumptions around human agency, social structure, technological change, and social engineering (Wendt, 1987). Technological determinant accounts attribute change to communications technology, top-down accounts attribute change to institutions and governance, and bottom-up accounts attribute change to individual and group agency. The latter two are complicated by the now very large field of GC Education, which has emerged from a combination of elite-led and social movement approaches to education in the 20th century. What is common to all is a characterization of GC as a change in the political subject. Despite the variety in conceptualization and definition of GC, the active, collective, and public element is consistent throughout. Across all the scholarship and debate there appear to be two central issues which require more systematic engagement. The first is the assumption that all forms of political activism are politically “progressive” (that is, in favor of human rights, political freedom, democracy, and equality); and the second is the assumption that GC is inherently neoliberal and therefore also inherently imperial.

A continuing blind spot in much of this scholarship is the concurrent rise of the right-wing political mobilization in various locations. This issue is debated in a volume in dialogue with Tully’s essay “On Global Citizenship” (Tully, 2014), and forms a substantive limitation in Tully’s account. Tully is overly optimistic that all forms of nonviolent contestation of civil citizenship are aimed at democracy, freedom, human rights, peace, and equality. He does not consider that alongside more “progressive” globally networked forms of activism are equally regressive forms of negotiation for more conservative and chauvinistic aims, sometimes enacted through violent means (Comas, Shrivastava, & Martin, 2015). Duncan Bell makes this criticism as well as raising the question of subject formation, which Tully leaves unaddressed (Bell, 2014). This is a notable absence in a time when the social engineering of GC is an active multilateral project. Part of this multilateral project is also an attempt to recapture youth mobilization away from the mobilizing tactics of various far-right or terrorist groups (Bersaglio et al., 2015; OECD, 2018; Sukarieh & Tannock, 2018). In the production of the “global citizen,” then, is also a contestation over what counts as politics, and Tully and other global citizen optimists fail to account for the potential weaponization of the political orientation and allegiance of young people.

Equally, Tully’s engagement in favor of GC is in tension with critical scholarship which sees in GC the continuance of an imperial project. Tully’s understanding of empire is reduced to Western European empire (as is it for most scholars critical of the Western tradition, including both postcolonial and decolonial). This is both one-sided and ahistorical and fails to consider the world historical development of empires in the plural and the fact that what Europe colonized at its periphery was, in many cases, other empires (Burbank & Cooper, 2010). There is a growing body of scholarship in International Relations (IR) which attempts to grapple in various ways, some more successful than others, with the peculiar absence of the history of empire from the discipline (Barkawi, 2010; Blanken, 2012; Colas, 2010; Dillon Savage, 2010; Go, 2011; Nexon & Wright, 2007; Spruyt, 2016); a growing body of scholarship which is calling for disciplinary decolonization (Abdi et al., 2015; Apffel-Marglin, 2004; Go, 2013; Gutierrez et al., 2010; Hudson, 2016; Taylor, 2012); and a growing body of historical scholarship which takes a comparative approach both to empires and to their role in constructing the international system (Burbank & Cooper, 2010; Darwin, 2007; Alcock et. al., 2001). The problem with the GC-is-imperial critique is that it has been made without a systematic engagement with the theoretical and methodological problem that empire poses for the social sciences. Equally, scholarship within IR that has begun to broach this question has done so without contending seriously with what postcolonial scholarship has done to further such an endeavor, or with how the reintroduction of empire poses serious problems for the very foundations of the discipline of political science (Biccum, 2018a; Barkawi, 2010; Barkawi & Laffey, 2002; Mitchell, 1991). The recognition of empire and state co-constitution, which is made legible by the scholars who (in both history and historical IR) have begun to make empire an inescapable foundation of inquiry, necessitates a denaturalization of the state. Once the nation state is properly historically contextualized as embedded in imperial politics, the cosmopolitan debate over whether individual allegiance and identity is owed to state or humanity becomes remarkably hollow.

But equally, the state is as much a conceptual variable as GC, and a common critique of the methodological nationalism of much Western political thought and of the social sciences is that it has contributed to a normalization and naturalization of the state which is not consistent with the historical facts of the international system (Ferguson & Mansbach, 2010; Mitchell, 1991). Once this foundational problem that empire poses for how the social sciences have traditionally understood the state is properly engaged, scholars who value democracy, human rights, and justice have no choice but to normatively endorse GC, or perhaps, following Vandana Shiva, Earth Democracy (Shiva, 2005). In addition, scholars need to be careful about continuing to brandish critiques of GC under the rubric of “neoliberalism” in an age of hegemonic decline (Biccum, 2020). If GC is indeed imperial, this claim must be made with a very robust understanding of what is meant by empire, which is among many other things, after all, also a concept (Biccum, 2018a). Scholarship on GC needs to continue, as it has begun to do, to empirically map its usage, operationalization, and institutionalization, with a particular focus on how concepts do political work. The field, practice, and use of the concept is growing. Future scholarship should be paying close empirical attention to how, by whom, and to what purposes it is being used while engaging robustly with questions of norms, methods, and the politics of knowledge. Scholars across the different fields and different normative, theoretical, and empirical divides need to begin to speak to one another. Most importantly, scholars need to keep as the focal point of their inquiry how the concept of GC itself raises important foundational questions about how we should live.


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  • 1. Derek Heater acknowledges that similar themes advocating world community and government can be found in the Indian, Chinese, and Japanese intellectual traditions (Heater, 1996).

  • 2. This view has been problematized by scholarship occurring at the same time which examines the ways in which globalization has changed the state through the very same transnational governance structures that contemporary scholarship regards as empirical evidence for the existence of GC. For an account of globalization and the state see Clark (1999).