‘Citizenship on the Edge’

In a new book, anthropologist Deborah A. Thomas and political scientist Nancy J. Hirschmann look at who’s kept out of social governance and belonging.

A book cover depicting a woman wearing a striped top and face and body paint. She is holding a rainbow flag. The book cover reads: Citizenship on the Edge: Sex/Gender/Race
A new book by anthropologist Deborah A. Thomas and political scientist Nancy J. Hirschmann compiles a series of essays examining citizenship from an interdisciplinary lens. 

What does it mean to talk about citizenship on the edge? In a recent book of the same title, Deborah A. Thomas, the R. Jean Brownlee Professor of Anthropology, and Nancy J. Hirschmann, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor in American Social Thought, compiled contributed essays examining the topic from multiple disciplines, including Africana studies, anthropology, disability studies, film studies, gender studies, history, law, political science, and sociology. 

The project grew out of a yearlong series of seminars and workshops for what is now called the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy in cooperation with Penn’s program on Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. Against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential election season, marriage equality, voting rights, and police violence, participants discussed citizenship in the 21st century. Who counts as a citizen? What are the ways in which citizenship and its rights are controlled or denied to different groups? 

Thomas and Hirschman spoke with Penn Today about these ideas and their 2022 book, “Citizenship on the Edge: Sex/Gender/Race.”

two side-by-side images of the editors
Hirschmann, left, and Thomas, right, are both affiliated with the program in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. 

You write: ‘Citizenship is, at its base, a practice and process of boundary making.’ What are the purposes of these boundaries, and who do they benefit?

Thomas: Who benefits is who sets it up. Always. For example, who benefits from a system of citizenship in which African Americans are considered three-fifths of a person? Obviously, the people who own African Americans as slaves. But I think the important part of that sentence is the part that understands citizenship as practice and process, as a political concept that emerges within particular historical contexts and one whose meaning changes over the years. To understand citizenship, community, and world-building as dynamic processes, not as static entities, is critical. What’s interesting to me, and I know to Nancy and to many of the people that we brought together, is that process of change. 

What factors have been brought to bear on the articulation of who belongs at any given moment? What does this have to do with an economic system? What does it have to do with global migration patterns? With the changing role of women in the society? With new legislations related to marriage, for example? These are the kinds of questions in which the contributors to the volume were particularly interested, these questions about process and practice and the dynamic nature of citizenship and what kinds of claims people can make on the state in different moments.

Hirschmann: The main focus of the seminars and conference was to highlight the myriad ways that various groups were pushed to the edge of the polity, to the edge of being denied citizenship. Of course, if we didn’t have the ability to change our understanding of citizenship, there would be no point in doing the work that we do. One of the issues about citizenship and democracy that we have to be hopeful about is that there’s enough porousness in the system that these ideas can have an impact and can move the needle in terms of expanding inclusiveness and expanding the depth of our understanding of the ways in which various groups are excluded from citizenship and pushed to the edge.

In an ideal society, what would citizenship look like, and what rights would it convey?

Hirschmann: That really depends on your perspective. If you’re a cosmopolitan and citizenship is membership for the world, it’s just being a human being.

If you want to stick to nationalist conception that the world works best when every nation has its own sovereignty—the dominant view today that is becoming more and more entrenched—a starting point would be addressing racial, gender, and class inequities within those nations and the ways those inequities are systematically creating blockages to rights, entitlements, and access for large groups of people.

Thomas: Much of the important mobilizing around these questions is really anchored in an approach to citizenship that extends beyond the nation state, which is what Nancy was alluding to just now. If one looks historically, the nation state does not become the normative container for political aspirations or the distribution of social and economic resources until after World War II, which in the scheme of global history is merely a blip in relation to other forms of governance and social organization throughout the long durée of human society. For me, and for many of the contributors, the more interesting and egalitarian visions that people have for organizing ourselves politically, socially, and economically do not tend to privilege the nation state as the container for political aspirations. 

That said, of course, it does matter who is in the office of leadership for any given nation state and it is important to continue to put pressure on the structures of the nation state in order to create space for more egalitarian modes of living in the present.

‘Citizenship on the Edge’ was written against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential election. If you could add another chapter in response to more recent events, what would that be?

Thomas: Certainly, the legacies of the forms of white nationalism and non-democratic action that were sanctioned by President Trump, with gendered effects, and how these legacies have publicly reinforced a certain form of racism. I think that will have really long-lasting effects.

Hirschmann: We did try to briefly introduce those issues in our afterword, but they would have played a much more powerful role in the volume as a whole, Deb is absolutely right. There would also have to be something on Roe, of course, given the travesty of the Dobbs decision. There would also need to be an essay on the pandemic--though I think most of the essays would have been written with that in mind--and particularly the burden that the new rifts revealed in the sexual division of labor. 

You would think that the pandemic was a tailor-made opportunity for bringing men more into care work because everyone was at home. The sexual division of labor should have been more equitable, and the pandemic should have ushered in a real feminist transition. Instead, it just deepened and widened the rift and made it more apparent. Women had much more of a burden than men in terms of balancing paid work with unpaid work for the family. Many women ended up leaving the labor force for child-care reasons and, indeed, four times as many people left the labor force for elder care as left for child care. 

These sorts of divisions are unsustainable, and both affect and reflect women’s second-class citizenship status across all races and classes, though obviously race and class severely deepened many of these burdens and pushed many women’s citizenship even further to the edge.

Deborah A. Thomas is the R. Jean Brownlee Professor of Anthropology and director of the Center for Experimental Ethnography at the University of Pennsylvania. She is core faculty in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies in the School of Arts & Science and holds a secondary appointment with the Graduate School of Education.

Nancy J. Hirschmann is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor in American Social Thought and core faculty in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Penn.