Citizenship, civil society and rule of law have been linked historically as pillars of the "constitutional state" and, more recently, as bases for "good governance" and as remedies for ills as diverse as social and economic inequality, terrorism, fundamentalism, anti-social behaviour and the crisis of representation. But they mean different things to different people, the relation between them is far from obvious, and it is unclear what if anything they offer – separately or together – to the contemporary world. The Centre has produced a conversation among scholars in theoretical, empirical and applied fields across the social sciences and humanities, as well as non-academics from a range of backgrounds, that aims to:
- consider the meanings of citizenship, civil society and rule of law in theory and across historical and contemporary contexts
- re-examine the links between citizenship, civil society and rule of law
- identify the limits of citizenship, civil society and rule of law, both in theory and in practice
Meanings Scholars and policy-makers often treat citizenship as the rights pertaining to members of nation-states; civil society as organisations outside government; and rule of law as states ruling through law. But all three have meant other things. To begin with, citizenship has not always been about nation-states or even rights; civil society has been distinguished not just from government but also from uncivil society; rule of law has meant everything from "law and order" to the ability to hold power of all kinds to law. CISRUL explores what citizenship, civil society and rule of law has meant in the theory and practice of other times and places – such as medieval Scandinavia, early modern Poland-Lithuania, revolutionary Haiti, contemporary Mexico, Scotland and the Middle East - as well as considering what they might offer for the future.
Links Citizenship, civil society and rule of law have rather different histories, both within and beyond Europe. That may help to explain, for example, why "transitions to democracy" are often characterised by advances in voting rights while the rule of law gets left behind, and why global civil society seems a more likely prospect than global citizenship or rule of law. CISRUL scholars ask how citizenship, civil society and rule of law relate to each other in historical and contemporary contexts, as well as how they relate to such notions as human rights, democracy, justice and multiculturalism.
Limits Citizenship, civil society and rule of law have long been mere niceties for many of the world's inhabitants, while theorists have challenged many of the concepts at their heart. CISRUL members seek, among other things, to learn from the medieval and early modern Europe in which citizenship, civil society and rule of law were (often painfully) gestated; investigate whether they have anything to offer people in contexts of poverty, exclusion and violence (including among immigrant groups in Europe); consider a range of theoretical as well as empirical challenges to citizenship, civil society and rule of law.
One theme that cuts across the work of CISRUL members – and the study of citizenship, civil society and rule of law - is the question of religion. Older debates about the place of religion in civil society, the way citizens should express their religion, and the status of religious law, have revived in controversies over 'political Islam', the US Christian Right, and the use of laicité against immigrants in France. CISRUL members address these controversies, for example by examining the theological discourses that sustain many versions of citizenship, civil society and rule of law. But we are also exploring how "religion" gets distinguished from "secular" in the first place, asking what happens for example when schools consider the hijab to be "cultural" rather than "religious".
1. Citizenship: broadening the terms
Citizenship is currently an obsession of government and inter-government agencies as well as countless non-state organisations. Scholars have picked up on citizenship but have often begun with a definition – usually the rights of members of nation-states – although some have noted that citizenship can also be urban or transnational. CISRUL members go further by investigating the many different notions of citizenship that exist within a single society let alone across the world. We ask, for example:
- whether citizenship is always lived as a relationship with the state and state-like bodies or, for example, as a space of freedom or of moral obligations to fellow-citizens
- how the particularist dimensions of citizenship (in terms of nation, language, religion, or way of life) sit with its universalist dimensions (such as civic responsibility and equality as individuals)
- how the idea of the citizen as abstract individual – acting as a citizen rather than as a women, indigenous person, aristocrat or Muslim – has worked in particular contexts
- whether citizenship really produces equality or generates new kinds of inequality (between citizens and non-citizens and among different kinds of citizens)
CISRUL scholars are also engaged in debates about how religious and secular citizens relate to each other, while questioning the very idea of "religion" as a problem for citizenship – for example, by examining ideas of religious freedom, past and present, and of religion as something that can be set aside when people act as citizens.
2. Civil society: autonomy, civility and beyond
Citizenship is often linked to civil society but previous CISRUL events showed that civil society is itself an ambiguous concept. The term has long been used, for example by Enlightenment writers, for a society that embodies civic virtues. By contrast, social scientists tend to use it for organisations that are autonomous of government, although they are still reluctant to use it for organisations considered uncivil, such as criminal gangs and "extremist" movements. Meanwhile, states try to appropriate civility, for example by teaching Civics (or Citizenship) in state schools.
CISRUL members have also probed the links of civil society to citizenship and rule of law. It was noted at a recent workshop that civil society has been accused of being unrepresentative yet often invokes some kind of equality as its objective. That led to a discussion of how civil society's version of equality relates to equality as citizens or equality before the law.
Again, the question of religion is of interest. For example, early notions of "civil society" arose in non-conformist churches, and the "civil society" credited with the Velvet Revolutions of 1989-90 and with resistance to military rule in Latin America had its locus in the Catholic Church. Yet CISRUL members have noted that civil society is still often distinguished from religious society, even if the distinction is blurred by terms like "faith-based organisations" – which allows organisations affiliated to churches to pass for civil NGOs.
3. Rule of law and the constitutional state
Rule of law is, for some, the third pillar of the constitutional state. For others it is an ideology that serves to enshrine liberal values or to exclude, oppress and exploit people across the globe. CISRUL members are examining multiple notions of rule of law, as well as asking how different notions of rule of law work in particular contexts. They are also considering the complex links between rule of law and citizenship and civil society. For example, is law necessarily state law or can it be subject to some kind of citizen power or to civil society? And how do the formal equality of citizens and equality before the law relate to each other? Meanwhile, varieties of civility and citizenship have also been used to justify "political obligations" to obey the law, but the tradition of "civil disobedience" has justified illegal protest on civil grounds.
Religion might seem of less relevance to rule of law than to citizenship and civil society, but CISRUL scholars have noted that "religion" has long been a crucial category of Western law. In the contemporary UK, for example, a judge may reduce a sentence if "religious motivation" is proved but increase a sentence if the victim was targeted because of "religion". Meanwhile feminists have complained that "religion" is treated as an autonomous sphere in which gender and other hierarchies can reign, and the success of shari'a law has raised larger questions about the supposed secularity of Western rule of law.
Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and Rule of Law
Taylor Building A13
University of Aberdeen