Alana Ryan, Towards a More Inclusive Social Citizenship: The Role of Language in the Exercise of Social Rights

The complex and conditional nature of social citizenship defies an easy explanation. Despite its centrality to debate on the role of government and the workings of the welfare state, the term is both highly normative and contextually variant. Unlike civil and political citizenship rights, which can be codified and delineated with some degree of clarity, that which constitutes a ‘social right’ is far more ambiguous, relying in part on what we understand broad philosophical concepts such as justice, fairness, equality and liberty to mean. For the British sociologist and scholar of social class, T.H. Marshall, social rights were the final stage in the citizenship trajectory and included all rights ranging from ‘the right to a modicum of economic welfare and security to the right to share to the full in the social heritage and to live the life of a civilized being according to the standards prevailing in the society’, yet the broad scope of this definition allows for multiple interpretations as to the precise role of the state in guaranteeing the welfare of those based within its borders.1 Similarly, in a globalised world characterised by the free flow of goods, capital, services and crucially, people, to speak solely of ‘citizens’ seems archaic and out of touch. Within this conflicting framework language becomes crucially important. How words are used, and subjects defined, contributes to a cultural environment which delineates between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, a subtle ploy to legitimise the stratification and differentiation of social citizenship. Here language operates as an exclusionary tool of government with public discourses often centring on the highly arbitrary concept of ‘deservingness’. Yet language also has the power to generate a most positive and encompassing understanding of citizenship which can be instrumental to the realisation of social rights. Constructing that discourse, however, requires comprehensive engagement with the implicit meanings attached to social citizenship and the ideologies which permeate its definitions.

Intrinsic to the notion of social citizenship is the idea that each individual irrespective of their class, gender, race or religion is entitled to lead a dignified life;2 however the definition of dignified is highly subjective, and is often tied to a particularist understanding of the role of the welfare state. If the aim of the welfare state is merely poverty alleviation, then the social rights of citizenship are minimal at best, and any intervention beyond basic social assistance is characterised as ‘an exercise of the coercive powers of government and rest on its claiming exclusive rights in certain fields’.3 Under this minimalist, liberal framework, social citizenship is defined in narrow terms and relates primarily to very basic economic support and provision of services which the market cannot efficiently provide. Here the understandings of social citizenship which governments proffer serve to reify societal divides, language operates as a mechanism through which the inequalities of the welfare state are justified and perpetuated. As Esping-Anderson notes: ‘The welfare state is not just a mechanism that intervenes in, and possibly corrects, the structure of inequality; it is, in its own right, a system of stratification. It is an active force in the ordering of social relations.4 Building on this observation, it is possible to apply Michel Foucault’s concept of bio-power – as recognisable by truth discourses, strategies of intervention and modes of subjectification – to aid understanding of modern social citizenship.5 Using this theoretical framework one can see the emergence of a poverty truth discourse, which involves the problematisation of the poor by government actors in order to facilitate the stratification of social citizenship. Social citizenship thus becomes a discriminative tool which has the potential to ‘foster or disallow life’ depending on how ‘the right to a modicum of economic welfare and security’ is defined by the state’s elite.6 In applying a narrow criteria to the delivery of social rights, the state is exercising its power to define what is and isn’t acceptable in relation to a socially constructed, and arbitrary, ‘norm’ of what constitutes ‘the good citizen’. The promulgation of this ‘norm’ acts a powerful yet insidious narrative which enables government actors to shift public sphere attitudes to suit their ideological agenda. Indeed, given the ubiquity of the messaging, this restrictive discourse is then absorbed and further disseminated by the body-politic, either consciously or inadvertently. Furthermore, the pervasive nature of the poverty truth discourse, with its corollaries in ‘deservingness’ and ‘benefit exploitation’, is frequently racialised and this too is used to legitimise additional reductions to social citizenship wrought by market orientated reforms.7

Yet this exclusionary use of language, and its narrow understanding of social rights, is not universal. Where the prime function of the welfare state is to redress the inherent inequalities of the market then the state’s aim when it comes to social rights, by definition, has to be more ambitious than pure poverty alleviation. It is within this context, often associated with the social democratic Nordic welfare regimes, that social citizenship discourses acquire a meaning and application which is substantive enough to merit closer scrutiny.

To understand how this more expansive idea of social citizenship is constructed, it is helpful to consider the social rights of citizenship as tied to ideas of social inclusion and empowerment.8 The latter refers to ‘the process of awareness and capacity building, which increases the participation and decision making power of citizens and may potentially lead to transformative action which will change opportunity structures in an inclusive and equalising direction’.9 This emphasis on ‘capacity building’ implies a set of rights which are more facilitative than prescriptive, rights which aim to enable the individual to realise their potential rather than just providing an avenue to legal redress if infringed.

If the effectiveness of social rights is contingent on their ability to grant choice and opportunity to all members of society then an econ-centric understanding of social citizenship is not sufficient. Where the state promulgates a blinkered conception of social rights as the simple redistribution of income through the tax credit system or social assistance measures, the potential to realise a more expansive conception is considerably circumscribed. While a focus on economic conditions is appropriate to a degree, it is but one factor in ensuring residents can be ‘full members of a community’, as Marshall envisioned.10 Unless discourses around rights recognise and address social and cultural variations in needs, the ability of social citizenship to facilitate societal participation is limited at best. Gender theorist Anne Philips argues with respect to identity politics: ‘exclusion operates not just through the more tangible mechanisms of economic and social deprivation, but through denying people their specificity and voice’.11 Referencing Nancy Fraser, Philips notes that redistribution must be accompanied by recognition, a ‘perspectival dualist’ analysis of justice which is highly relevant to generating an inclusive understanding of social citizenship insofar as it highlights the intersectionality of many societal problems to participation.

In order to develop a facilitative framework which is supportive of this expansive understanding of social citizenship, public debates must engage with the complexity of marginalisation and the multiple axes of exclusion which inhibit certain sectors of society from exercising their rights. As the influential political theorist Nancy Fraser argues, societal barriers relating to gender, race and class can’t be resolved through state redistribution or recognition solely.12 Therefore, and with regard to the latter, if ‘full membership’ is the desired outcome, a simple focus on redressing class inequality through redistributive mechanisms neglects the role prejudicial societal attitudes play in perpetuating the poverty cycle. As Fraser observes ‘to build broad support for economic transformation today requires challenging cultural attitudes that demean poor and working people, for example, “culture-of-poverty” ideologies that suggest they simple get what they deserve’.13 If we use language to construct social citizenship as relating to just one aspect of the social structure, for example the class cleavage, not only do we run the risk of ignoring other crucial axes of exclusion, but we also limit the scope and depth of the rights we attach to it. Thus, social citizenship in the expansive sense should refer to a broad spectrum of rights relating to economic, social and cultural needs which cannot exclusively be satisfied by welfare state provisions, but in addition must also be supported by equality legislation and an inclusive cultural attitude. If this holistic vision of social citizenship is to be achieved it requires that political rhetoric and societal discourses recognise the multiplicity of obstacles to participation.

Although T. H. Marshall theorised that social rights only came into existence after civil and political rights were achieved, their centrality to the democratic process cannot be dismissed. One of the most striking arguments in favour of defining social citizenship in more encompassing terms stems from its ability to equalise relations between different factions within society such that each individual is aware of their legal rights to redress and their personal political power. Indeed, our ability to exercise the full scope of our citizens’ rights is affected by the economic circumstances in which we live, therefore any definition of social citizenship must include reference to its capacity to strengthen awareness and even improve our experience of the other rights we receive as members of civil society.14 As Yural-Davis observes, ‘citizenship rights are anchored in both the social and the political domains. Without “enabling” social conditions, political rights are vacuous’.15

Tangential to this, it is important to recognise that the distribution of wealth within society can influence the public’s general conception of citizenship and the legitimacy of the state’s institutions. A more comprehensive social citizenship which attempts to reduce economic inequality has the capacity to mediate tensions between the political elite and the general public. Research shows that in European countries with greater levels of income inequality, citizens – particular those on the political left – have a more negative attitude towards the state and less faith in its practices. This suggests that ‘reactions to inequality appear to be more a function of fairness than its actual economic consequences’.16 Therefore to discuss social citizenship as primarily relating to individual wellbeing and participation in society is to ignore its broader consequences for democratic engagement and political trust. This suggests that debates around social citizenship must consider the concept in a holistic sense – where discourses focus on the individual level effect their potency is reduced. This is because social citizenship can play a crucial role in generating social capital at community level within a nation.

Given the increased porosity of borders, there is scepticism as to the oft-stated link between social rights and solidarity. Indeed in ‘the enabling state’ the emphasis is now on civic responsibilities in local communities for engendering a sense of partnership.17 However, this type of approach, which is perhaps best exemplified by the British Prime Minister David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ campaign and its community empowerment rhetoric, can at best provide a short-term solidarity and does nothing to tackle the underlying inequalities implicit in the state structure. Furthermore, to articulate a vision which constructs civic responsibilities as the pathway to solidarity is to propose a one dimensional causal chain which is quite contentious. Civic engagement and communal participation are conditional upon trust, and trust patterns within a community are strongly affected by economic inequality.18 Examining this in the American context, political scientists, Uslaner and Brown found that:

Where inequality is higher the poor may feel powerless. They will perceive that their views are not represented by the political system and they will opt out of civic engagement. Secondly, trust in others rests on a foundation of economic equality. When resources are distributed inequitably, people at the top and at the bottom will not see each other as facing a shared face. Therefore, they will have less reason to trust people of different backgrounds.19

The result is that income inequality contributes to a ‘fraying social fabric’ which in turn can lead to polarised politics, a finding which would suggest that an effective social citizenship that tackles wealth discrepancies and facilitates the participation of marginalised groups is vital for the full functioning of civil society.

Social citizenship is therefore vital not only for individual participation in society, but also for civic engagement and national cohesion. On the most fundamental level it relates to the day-to-day lives of citizens and residents, their choices and opportunities – which are increasingly threatened by the market orientated reforms of the stripped back welfare state. As political actors seek to emphasis responsibilities over rights and deliberately narrow the principles on which social citizenship is predicated, the imperative to generate an inclusive discourse becomes even more pressing. Yet understandings of social citizenship are as much a product of civilian discourse as they are of political rhetoric, and the constraints these understandings impose on the societal participation of marginalised individuals are those which have been legitimised, both consciously and unconsciously, by the population as a whole. Thus, in order to overcome this stratification of society’s members, the core concepts of ‘inclusion’ and ‘empowerment’, ‘recognition’ and ‘redistribution’ must be emphasised across all social spheres.

Alana Ryan is a graduate student at the University of Oxford, studying for the MSc in Comparative Social Policy. She is the 2013 winner of the Trinity Trust Prize for Politics and Sociology.

1 T.H. Marshall, ‘Citizenship and Social Class’ [1950], in The Welfare State Reader, ed. Christopher Pierson and Francis Castles (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006), p. 30.

2  See Article 22, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) <; [accessed 24 October 2014].

3 Friedrich Von-Hayek, ‘The Meaning of the Welfare State’ [1959], in The Welfare State Reader, ed. Christopher Pierson and Francis Castles (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006), 90-95, p. 91.

4 Gosta Esping-Anderson, ‘The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism’ [1990], in The Welfare State Reader, 160-174, p. 165.

5 Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose, ‘Biopower Today’, BioSocieties, 1 (2006), 195-217.

6 Michel Foucault ‘Right of Death and Power over Life’ [1976], in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), p. 261.

7 Stephen Castles and Carl-Ulrik Schierup, ‘Migration and Ethnic Minorities’, in The Oxford Handbook of The Welfare State, ed. Francis Castles and others (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

8Jon Anderson and Biirte Siim, The Politics of Inclusion and Empowerment: Gender, Class and Citizenship (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

9  Ibid., p. 2.

10  Marshall, p. 34.

11 Anne Philips, ‘Identity Politics: Have We Now Had Enough?’, in The Politics of Inclusion and Empowerment, 36-48, p. 37.

12 Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth, Redistribution or Recognition?: A Political-Philosophical Exchange (London: Verso, 2003).

13  Ibid., p. 24.

14  See Philips.

15 Nira Yural-Davis, Gender & Nation (London: Sage, 1997), p. 21.

16 Christopher Anderson and Matthew Singer, ‘The Sensitive Left and the Impervious Right’, Comparative Political Studies, 41 (2008), 564-599, p. 585.

17 Neil Gilbert, Transformation of the Welfare State: The Silent Surrender of Public Responsibility (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 169-172.

18Eric M. Uslaner and Mitchell Brown, ‘Inequality, Trust, and Civic Engagement’, American Politics Research, 33 (2005) 868–894.

19Ibid., p. 869.

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