Nielsen challenges assumptions about citizenship  

By Karen Herland

Generally, we define citizenship as a status, which confers a set of rights and obligations. Sociology Professor Greg Nielsen has been working with Engin Isin over the past several years to expand that definition in light of what Nielsen calls “the global anxiety around citizenship.”

From American legislation on immigration to France’s struggles with the sans-papiers to provincial debates about reasonable accommodation, the assumption that insider/outsider status is a “natural” division is being challenged.

Nielsen, who is the Director of the Concordia Centre for Broadcast Studies, began thinking through these questions with Isin when the latter was at York University’s Citizenship Studies Media Lab.

Acts of Citizenship, co-edited by Nielsen and Isin (Zed Books), takes the notion of citizenship beyond the twin poles of status and practices. Instead of seeing citizenship as something that is “natural” or static, they consider the ways divisions between insider/outsider status can be challenged.
Shifting the focus to those who fall outside of citizenship definitions, the book considers the actions individuals or groups take in order to gain the status and rights they are excluded from. “If language and institutions create subjects, how do the subjects create acts?”

Although citizenship’s ties to nationality are considered, the book also explores various social and aesthetic constructions of citizenship and identity, like eco-citizen, aboriginal-citizen, global-citizen, and many more.

The book is a theoretical foundation built on examples from philosophical, historical and sociological perspectives. Nielsen is interested in analyzing these acts as a creative moment that signals a break from the past and carries the potential for sustained pressure into the future.

“These acts change existing structures, so there is a movement into the unknown. It’s about standing up and claiming the right to have rights.”
Whether the actual act involves moving to a seat in the front of the bus or the current No One is Illegal movement, the potential for changing established practices is inherent in the action and its follow through.

Both editors share an interest in media. In fact, many acts of citizenship could not exist unless they were transmitted beyond their immediate environment. “But this creates a mediated version of the act. Mainstream media may cover forms of social exclusion but they are not writing directly for the people who experience it.” A news story about the poor is not the same as writing directly to the poor.

Nielsen is interested in the ways in which journalism itself is challenged by the increasing multiplicity of outlets, fragmentation of audiences and changing parameters of the field.

After researching issues around mediated citizenship during a year as a Visiting Fulbright Research Chair in the Department of Journalism at New York University, he returned and began informal discussions with professors Mike Gasher and Brian Gabrial from the Journalism Department as well as Dominique Legros (Anthro-pology/Sociology), Lorna Roth (Communication Studies) and Elena Razlogova (History) about the changing face of journalism. His interest is in determining what should change and what should be retained.

“How can you take the rigor and verification of facts from traditional journalism and create something that is more culturally inclusive?”


Concordia University