Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Nick Ellison (2000) 'Proactive and Defensive Engagement: Social Citizenship in a Changing Public Sphere'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 5, no. 3, <>

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Received: 26/9/2000      Accepted: 16/11/2000      Published: 31/11/2000


Arguing that the nature of citizenship is changing as a result of the progressive fragmentation of the public sphere in late modern societies, this article suggests that contemporary citizenship is best understood as a series of 'temporary solidarities' contained within a social politics characterised by 'defensive' or 'proactive' forms of engagement. Beginning with a theoretical discussion which explores some of the reasons for the fragmentation of the public realm as well as its possible impact on citizenship and the conduct of social politics, the article subsequently considers a number of examples of defensive and proactive engagement in the general area of welfare. The article then moves on to examine the implications of a theory of citizenship as defensive and/or proactive engagement for contemporary understandings of social divisions, before concluding with a brief consideration of how this approach of citizenship might also contribute to a more detailed understanding of social inclusion and exclusion.

Citizenship; Engagement; Fragmentation; Public Sphere; Solidarity; Welfare


Amidst the numerous contributions to the debate about the nature of citizenship in late modern societies two related conceptions of the idea stand out. First, citizenship continues to be defined as a socio-legal status conferring certain universal rights and duties on members of a particular – usually national – community. As a core dimension of this status, social citizenship is associated, following Marshall (1992), with specific sets of social rights (which will vary according to the particular configuration of national social policy) – most obviously to a variety of social goods and services. Second, however, social citizenship is becoming evermore closely connected to changing patterns of participation and belonging as complex forms of 'social politics' emerge in an increasingly complex and fragmented public sphere (Lister, 1997; Calhoun, 1999). This article suggests that rapid change – economic, social, political – affecting many areas of the public realm has reduced the salience of citizenship as purely a socio-legal construct and shifted contemporary understandings away from their Marshallian roots. The argument here is that rapid change transforms the nature of citizen participation and 'encourages' engagement, willing or not, in the pursuit, or defence, of particular interests and/or social rights. In short, both the capacity to engage, and the differential nature of engagement itself, are rapidly becoming the most significant features of a citizenship conceived as a series of fractured 'contiguous belongings', located in the ambivalent space between 'the locally different and the nationally same' (Calhoun, 1999: 219) – and in some instances entirely transcending these spatial parameters.

The differential nature of engagement is important. Because social actors are increasingly involved across a range of possible public arenas (Urry, 2000), it is unlikely that they will participate evenly, let alone equally, in different areas of activity. Rather, actors will engage as citizens in one of two ways, depending on how the prevailing social and political context and the particular configuration of demands either promotes or inhibits collective action and the creation of new forms of belonging. First, citizenship can be understood as 'proactive engagement'. Here social actors are able to exploit a particular political 'conjuncture' to further their own interests (or those of others) through significant interventions in those dimensions of the public sphere which privilege or 'recognise' these particular types of action. Proactive engagement might take the shape of new demands, or the introduction of new ideas or practices, which herald new forms of political action and reshape public agendas. Such interventions could include the promotion of new kinds of democracy or the voicing of demands for the recognition of 'differences', or special status, in an effort to promote the interests of particular 'solidarities'.

Second, and perhaps more significantly, citizenship can be characterised as 'defensive engagement'. 'Defence' has always been an integral aspect of citizenship, but its meaning has been radically transformed from earlier associations with universalist, state collectivist and, above all, passive forms of defence against specified risks, particularly in the context of the socially protective Keynesian Welfare State, to an association with the defensive strategies of collective actors. 'Engagement' is used to denote the fact that citizens increasingly have to defend themselves against the erosion of their social rights created by the persistent and occasionally dramatic demands of rapid economic, social and political change. The key element is consequently that of 'active defence', which takes the form of a series of, frequently forced, interventions in the fragmented social politics of the public sphere.

Defensive and proactive engagement are used here to denote different types, not different areas, of citizen activity. These forms of participation may be found in any part of the public sphere, whether this involves debates around, say, ecological issues, particular sub-group demands or the impact of social legislation. Whatever the focus of attention, the distinction lies between those whose power location creates an 'ability' to intervene in ways that can transform their position in a particular area of the public sphere, and those lacking access to relevant power networks who find themselves engaged in efforts – perhaps to maintain a status quo, or to develop new arrangements – simply to preserve existing interests and entitlements. 'Power' as the concept is used here, does not directly relate to the possession of specific resources – economic, cultural and so on. While access to, say, economic resources could have a significant bearing upon the success or otherwise of particular citizen activities, it would not be correct simply to equate proactive forms of engagement with economic strength and defensive forms with economic weakness. Large trade unions, for example, can be economically powerful, but the forms of engagement they adopt have tended to be defensive. Again, citizen groups with little economic capacity (or for that matter with little in the way of educational or cultural resources) can nevertheless engage proactively – as we shall see below. Significantly, for this understanding of citizenship, power relations, resource levels and thus the capacity for action are likely to differ depending on the particular area in question. Moreover, in a fragmented public realm individual citizens will almost inevitably find themselves on different sides of the defensive-proactive divide at different times, depending on the nature of the issue at hand and the context in which the public debate is conducted.

If this reconceptualisation of the nature of social citizenship contributes to a more variegated understanding of what it means to be a 'citizen', it also permits clearer knowledge of the dynamics of contemporary social politics in a changing public sphere. Marshallian assumptions about the nature of citizenship not only obscured the faultlines of difference in the name of an anodyne universalism, but did not question the parameters of citizen engagement. Their removal allows for a more detailed analysis of the changing conditions of citizenship (particularly of changing patterns of social inclusion and exclusion), as well as for a better understanding of the types of social and political action that are likely to develop around increasingly porous social and political identities. Examples of the kinds of interventions that typify defensive and proactive citizen engagement, as well as the structural parameters within which such action takes place, will be discussed below. In the meantime, however, it is important to consider, first, the key factors that have contributed to the changes in the nature of citizenship outlined here and, second, theoretical accounts of the impact of these changes on the nature and conduct of social politics.

The Changing Context of Citizenship: the declining nation-state

What factors have contributed to the changing nature of contemporary citizenship and social belonging? If an important aspect of the answer to this question is 'globalisation' we need to be careful about how this term is defined and utilised. Following Albrow (1996: 93-4) and others (e.g. Giddens, 1991; Pieterse, 1993), it is possible to conceive globalisation as involving 'a relativisation and destabilisation of old identities, whether nation-states, communities or individuals, or…[stressing] the creation of new hybrid entities, transnational phenomena like diasporic communities.' The potential areas encompassed in this statement suggest that the term is likely to remain ambiguous, opening onto a range of phenomena which may be only tangentially related. However, if Albrow recognises that 'the metaphorical nature of the reference to the globe brings us…close to the root indeterminacy of the idea of globalisation', he nevertheless concedes that 'the transcendence of nation-state boundaries is the most potent of the meanings of globalisation' (Albrow, 1996: 91) and it is this aspect in particular, intimately bound as it is to complex forms of social and political belonging associated with the nation-state, that bears most centrally on contemporary changes in the meaning and practice of citizenship.

These boundaries can be transcended on at least three dimensions – the economic, the political and the cultural – each impacting on existing assumptions about social structure and forms of social belonging. Whether they accept the full logic of the globalisation thesis (Giddens, 1991; Ohmae, 1995) or prefer to think in terms of 'internationalisation' (Hirst and Thompson, 1996; Boyer, 2000), many commentators agree that changes at the global level challenge accepted notions of national sovereignty. This is not to say, of course, that the various phenomena contributing to 'globalisation' have produced a 'homogenised global economic space' which has entirely eclipsed the nation-state. As Mann (1997: 478-80, original italics) makes clear, although 'in a formal geographic sense capitalism is now more or less global', this 'geo-economic order [is] dominated by the economies of the advanced nation-states', particularly those of Northern Europe, the USA and East Asia. For Mann, 'clusters of nation-states provide the stratification order of globalism' ensuring the persistence of inter- national networks of economic interaction. What has occurred, however, is a re-ordering and reorganisation of the regulatory potential of nation-states in an environment in which the flexibility of capital in terms of time and space means that it can 'escape the control capacities of most state-based and state-oriented political forces' (Jessop, 2000: 350). Because, as Hirsch (1995: 269) argues, 'the liberalisation of capital, commodity, and service-sector transactions subjects national policies to the dynamic of the world market and international corporate strategies with increasing suddenness' it becomes more difficult to maintain the effectiveness of 'regulatory models' based, for example, on the Keynesian Welfare State.

It seems reasonable to suggest, then, that 'in the 1990s, nation-states have been transformed from sovereign subjects into strategic actors' (Castells, 1997: 307) – Castells' point being that, while nation-states continue to 'marshall considerable influence', they 'barely hold power by themselves, in isolation from supranational macro-forces and sub-national micro-processes.' Developments in the formal (and informal) regulatory powers and influence of the European Union over member states provide an example of Castells' dictum, while the rising prominence of inter-national regulatory networks such as the IMF, the G8 and the World Bank, which also exercise a defined, if 'softer', influence (see Mann, 1997: 480) over the global capitalist economy, provide another.

In this developing environment it is possible to detect certain key social and political changes, which may legitimately be associated with the shifts in economic role of the nation-state discussed above. The loss of regulatory capacity has contributed to the fragmentation of the domestic public sphere, creating greater political space for the emergence of a variety of forms of social belonging, and social and political action, that do not depend – or at least do not depend so much – on the formal rights and duties associated with 'national' citizenship. Theoretically, the changing relationship between citizens and the nation-state can be understood as a progressive loosening of the traditional ties that privileged 'universal' forms of social solidarity over particularist demands. The point here is not that the state has somehow ceased to be a focus of social and political engagement (although supranational forms of engagement have certainly increased); rather it is that the state no longer appears able to regulate the public sphere so closely, the result being the progressive fracturing of social and political structures in the public realm. What follows is a brief summary of recent work by Touraine, Rose and Urry which, read against the backdrop of this 'de- centring' of the nation-state, can be understood as attempts to redraw the parameters of the public sphere better to accord with perceptions of the increasingly complex and ambivalent forms of citizen participation.

The Changing Public Sphere

For Touraine, the demise of the 'social state' is transforming the transcendental subject of Enlightenment modernity, into a reflexive social actor. He argues that, 'individuals [today] are increasingly determined by their movements rather than by their belonging, by the relations of competition, co-operation and conflict in which they are involved rather than by membership in collectivities that could be identified on the basis of values or a distinctive history' (Touraine, 1992: 181, my emphasis). In Touraine's (1995: 230) iew the decline of 'metasocial guarantors of social action' has lead to 'the appearance of creative human beings who…seek and find themselves thanks to their ability to invent and construct, and thanks also to their will to resist the logic of technical objects, instruments of power and social integration.' This is not 'a self-absorbed individualism' but one which resists 'the rule of the state and of social power in all its forms' – that is, resists the erstwhile appeal to the universal and the collective which, as Touraine (1992: 191)notes, 'only recently…appeared liberating.'

From a Foucauldian perspective, Rose believes that, although the individual must inevitably remain constrained, the emergence of 'new modalities for 'folding authority into the self' (Rose, 1996: 320-21) creates a greater sense of freedom and choice. He charts the transformation in conceptions of 'freedom' away from its mid- twentieth-century association with 'positive liberty' and the social state to a position of 'advanced liberalism' where 'freedom is seen as autonomy, the capacity to realise one's desires in one's secular life' (Rose, 1999: 84). The individual is now 'presumed to be an active agent, wishing to exercise informed, autonomous and secular responsibility in relation to his or her own destiny.' One aspect of this process is that 'strategies no longer seek to ensure [security, tranquility, national well-being] by acting to enhance the 'social' bonds that link one individual to another, but [work] through activation of the self-promoting strivings of individuals themselves, in which each is to become an entrepreneur of his or her own life' (Rose, 1996: 322).

Their different epistemological positions notwithstanding, the common ground between Touraine and Rose lies in the fact that both perceive a trend towards 'individualisation' and regard it as inevitably fragmenting – a view they share with others such as Beck (1997, 1998) and Giddens (1994). A significant aspect of this trend lies in the possibilities it holds for the development of new forms of citizen action, understood either as a capacity to resist changing systemic demands (Touraine), or the ability to establish greater authorship over life strategies (Rose). Touraine (1995: 356), for example, discusses the new potential for human action and creativity where 'a Subject defined in terms of the individual's relationship with the self and not in terms of participation in an essence or community' can, through combination and collective action 'reanimate a social space which seemed to have been…squeezed between an internationalised economy and a privatised culture' (Touraine, 1995: 374). For Rose, too, 'as the twentieth century draws to a close, political reason from all quarters no longer phrases itself in the language of obligation, duty and social citizenship.' Citizenship as a public status is 'no longer primarily realised in a relation with the state, or in a single 'public sphere' but in a variety of private, corporate and quasi-public practices from working to shopping' (Rose, 1999: 166). State withdrawal makes way for multiple 'spheres of publics', to paraphrase Calhoun (1995: 242), the point being that in this pluralised environment there can be no 'point of arrival' consistent with the development of a stable, universal citizenship of the kind anticipated in the postwar era. As Rose (1999: 178) acknowledges, 'the uniform social citizenship of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is challenged by a diversity of forms of identity and allegiance no longer deferential to such an image of national and territorialised civic culture.'

The capacity for 'disorganisation' contained in these perspectives is captured in Urry's recent work, which conceives contemporary citizenship in terms of mobility and flow. Urry (2000: 167) understands citizenship as an increasingly fragmented set of globally reinforced human rights organised around changing perceptions of cultural rights, minority rights, ecological rights and responsibilities, a cosmopolitan awareness of the rights of others and consumer rights. He suggests that 'these alternative conceptions are citizenships of flow, concerned with the mobilities across various borders, of risks, travelers, consumer goods and services, cultures, migrants and visitors, and of the rights and duties that such mobile entities should enjoy (Urry, 2000: 167). To be sure, Urry does not predict the total demise of the nation-state, but he does argue that 'new hazards, rights and duties criss-cross the conventional national, conception of citizenship, and the socio-spatial context within which people can imagine themselves being fellow-citizens may be partly shifting from the nation to the globe' (Urry, 2000: 186). In this regard he specifically considers 'developments of the mass media that may prefigure a shifting sense of identity, loyalty and attachment' (Urry, 2000: 186-7), the implication being that pluralised forms of belonging, if they are to be contained at all, are more likely to be so through global rather than national institutional frameworks.

These theoretical viewpoints provide significant insights into the fragmented nature of the public sphere which help us to rethink the character of contemporary citizenship. Most importantly, by suggesting a greater space for agency they raise questions about how social actors might participate in less formal or traditional social and political environments. However, none of these approaches fully explores the nature of emerging forms of participation in such a pluralised environment, preferring instead to identify particular 'vehicles' of change amongst a range of social groups in the context of a burgeoning 'lifestyle politics'. Touraine, for example, looks to 'invented' social movements while Rose, who warns against attempts to identify specific agents of change, nevertheless believes that those at the margins – 'insurgent, minority or subaltern forces that have resisted the temptations of party and programme' may be engaged 'in particular relations of force and meaning' in ways that allow them to act 'as laboratories for alternative futures' (Rose, 1999: 279). Only Urry, when considering the implications of a 'world of global flows', hints at the fractured and indeterminate quality of citizen participation, and thus the potential complexity of patterns of engagement.

The point here is that it is important to push beyond a preoccupation with identifying possible vehicles of change to a position which seeks to understand the nature of contemporary social politics through the forms of engagement 'available' to inherently unstable citizen groups – and instability is a key factor. In contrast to the postwar period, 'permanent solidarities' (particularly of class) linked to specific forms of engagement embedded within defined citizen groups, have become difficult to sustain in a fragmented public realm. As we have seen, the economic 'de-centering' of the nation-state has destabilised hitherto accepted social and political arrangements and, in so doing, has challenged the erstwhile 'fixedness' of social and political identities. This loosening of identity and perceptions of belonging may well have increased opportunities for citizens to engage actively in the public sphere, but the resulting 'solidarities' are likely to be temporary. While citizens may inhabit a range of solidarities simultaneously, these existing contiguously with others, affiliations will remain open to dissolution or 'reconstitution' as new challenges and changing perceptions of interests (perhaps exogenously imposed by the media and other forms of public discourse, or endogenously developed through dialogue) demand new responses. These solidarities will be constrained to a greater or lesser extent depending on whether or not citizen groups are able to engage proactively in the relevant area of the public sphere.

This theoretical consideration of the changing nature of citizenship has developed a conception of contemporary social politics which is highly fractured and motile. The abiding image is one of an infinite plurality and complexity of citizen groups 'framed' by types of social and political action which are best understood as proactive or defensive forms of engagement. It is from this depiction of a radically diverse public sphere, however, that we can begin to develop a more articulated understanding of the kind of social divisions that we can expect to encounter in the contemporary public realm – how, in other words, shifting patterns of proactive and defensive engagement, and the temporary solidarities contained within them, disrupt and reconfigure accepted social categories. The following section will take the changing nature of Western welfare regimes as a background against which to examine different examples of engagement before moving on to consider how this approach to citizenship could allow a more detailed understanding of the increasingly complex nature of social divisions in contemporary societies.

Changing Forms of Citizenship in National Welfare States

As welfare regimes in many (post)industrial societies move ever further away from their Keynesian, social protectionist character towards more individualised, market-oriented alternatives (Jessop, 1994, 2000), defensive and proactive forms of engagement become increasingly visible. This transformation of the postwar social state has created new, though by no means secure, spaces for the greater expression of particularist claims based not only on social class but on a variety of cross-cutting social divisions. If gender and ethnicity, for example, have come to be accepted as major faultlines in contemporary social politics, increasingly these divisions exist alongside other solidarities organised around sexuality, disability and so on.

Of course, welfare states, particularly in Western Europe, did not initially develop in response to a multiplicity of demands arising from a diverse range of social groups, but rather from a recognition by the working classes, as well as large segments of the middle classes, that a range of individually-experienced 'risks' amongst which unemployment, industrial injury, ignorance, sickness and old age were the most prominent, could be offset by state- based social provision (Baldwin, 1990; Esping-Andersen, 1990). For thirty years or so, the mature welfare states of Northern and Western Europe were successful in producing a panoply of social policies which, in their different ways, reduced these risks for large sections of their populations. These regimes operated, however, in what was thought to be a familiar environment, where risks were regarded as predictable and where predictable ways of dealing with them were thought to exist. Full (male) employment could be maintained, it was believed, by the adoption of Keynesian techniques of demand management, while the poverty resulting from market forms of allocation would be tackled by policies which ensured 'that each person had sufficient resources to be able to survive in this competitive arena' (Room, 1995: 6). The vision, if not always the practice (see Le Grand, 1982), was one of a 'top-down' redistribution of income and wealth from the better off (and employed) to 'the poor' (either on low wages or unemployed), together with the provision of appropriate goods and services, in the interests of reduced class conflict and greater social integration.

Much contemporary social policy research acknowledges that this conception of state-based welfare is now outdated. In place of what now appears as a rather static analysis of social structure in which the boundaries of class, and thus exposure to, as well as experience of, social deprivation were perceived as hermetic, Leisering and Walker (1998: 13), argue that poverty and unemployment have become 'temporalised' and 'democratised'. In their view, these risks are 'no longer confined to members of the lower classes but [reach] well into the middle classes if only as a temporary experience' (Leisering and Walker, 1998: 13). It may be ironic that, just at the moment when levels of social inequality, exclusion and disintegration began to rise, declining national welfare systems proved increasingly reluctant to bear the necessary costs of social protection, but the privatisation and quasi-market strategies of the 1980s and 1990s provide a clear indication that governments are both less willing and less able to provide a comprehensive range of state welfare services in an economic environment dominated by faith in the market. Rhodes' (1996: 308) observation that 'among politicians of all parties there is a profound loss of confidence in "collective", public sector solutions in favour of either privatised or "marketised" social services' extends to every developed welfare regime, including the Scandinavian countries as well as the United Kingdom and, more recently, Germany.

These changes are of fundamental significance for a developed understanding of the nature of proactive and defensive engagement. Characterised by Le Grand (1997: 159) as 'the replacement of what might be called knight-and- pawn strategies with knavish ones', they have led to systems of welfare provision which privilege self- interest above previously held assumptions about the value of social solidarity and collective action. Where, as Klein and Millar have suggested, 'social policy is becoming part of the do-it-yourself industry' (Klein and Millar, 1995: 304) – the phrase indicating the capacity for individualisation and fragmentation contained in contemporary welfare policies – we can anticipate a different social politics with new forms of citizen action based upon different modes of social and political engagement. The authors' subsequent warning that DIY social policy requires 'a strong framework of public policy and regulation to ensure that individual interests are harnessed to collective interests rather than being allowed to subvert them' (Klein and Millar, 1995: 314), simply serves to point up the problem – for it is precisely these collective social relations of welfare that can no longer be guaranteed. Current trends in a number of nation-states (including those in Eastern Europe) support this view.

Some examples will help to illustrate the above issues. Where collectivist forms of social provision are either cut back or removed, the resulting vacuum is likely to be filled by new, 'fragmented' forms of social politics. Pensions are a case in point. Referring to the erosion of state-based pension arrangements, Cox (1998) notes that a law passed in the Netherlands in 1994, allowing workers to place up to 1,580 guilders per year in special savings accounts, led to a large take-up due to the tax incentives associated with the scheme. Again, in the 1980s, British Conservative governments' antipathy to state pensions and their enthusiastic support for private pensions arrangements did much damage to the postwar vision of collective security in old age, while New Labour's 'stakeholder' pensions for those lacking occupational provision represents a further move in this direction. These changes in pension regimes are not restricted to Western European welfare systems. Similar moves are currently taking place in some of the ex-Communist countries of Eastern Europe where, as Ferge (1996) notes, conservative or neo-liberal governments are attempting to dispense with the legacy of Communist 'social policy'.

Of significance here are the consequences of these policy shifts for traditional conceptions of solidarity. For Cox (1998: 9), the Netherlands law encouraged the 'individualisation' of benefits by encouraging contributors to participate on the basis of individual gain, 'these changes directly [confronting] the idea of solidarity embedded in many pensions systems.' Ferge (1996: 108), too, argues that proposals to reform Eastern European pension schemes have not only entailed 'a lowering in the standards of contributions and benefits, [but] the elimination of "solidaristic" elements, and the preferential treatment of private pension schemes.' In Britain, with the value of the basic state pension in Britain continuing to decline, the decision to hand administration of the new stakeholder pensions to the private sector ('stakeholders' being left to make their own arrangements with the companies) means that the state has effectively abandoned a collectivist income maintenance strategy for older people.

To establish the relevance of this example for the present discussion, we need to appreciate that the erosion of solidaristic pension regimes per se is not the main concern here. Collectivist pension decline may well be regrettable, but the main issue is how citizens involved in the social politics of this segment of the public sphere respond to this loss. If developments of this kind are considered less in terms of a rapidly receding universalism and more in terms of citizen engagement, it is possible to gain a clearer understanding of their contemporary relevance – how, for instance, different citizen groups might engage either defensively or proactively in a 'social politics of pensions', the form of engagement varying according to the economic, social and cultural resources available to the actors involved.

Jordan provides an indication of one type of response when commenting that, 'the new orthodoxy argues that there should be scope for self- responsibility and private provision, but it does not address the implications of the greater sovereignty of self-interested actors or the 'clubs' they form to pool risks and co-operate to their mutual advantage' (Jordan, 1998: 116). Like Cox and Ferge, Jordan's main concern is that universal social justice is jeopardised where certain actors, engaging proactively, are able either to 'go it alone', or to pool risks in their particular interests. As already intimated, such a holistic conception of 'social justice' may have retreated beyond salvation; the point here is that this kind of restless search for positional advantage, with citizens acting proactively or defensively in different areas of welfare, is inevitable in the context of a fragmented public sphere. The resulting complexity will be characterised by the constant playing out of proactive and defensive forms of participation, citizens responding differently to different contingencies, which will range from policy changes produced by exogenous economic and political factors to shifts of perception occurring within particular groups or collectivities. Emergent forms of belonging will remain unstable in this environment, either dissolving entirely or requiring constant 'reinvention' as new issues arise threaten to undermine existing allegiances.

A number of examples, relating directly to welfare, can be used to illustrate these points further – the significant issue being the differential inhabiting of defensive and proactive forms of participation in a context of persistent instability.

Forms of Defensive Engagement

Forms of defensive engagement can result from state social policies which target certain disadvantaged groups, demanding 'specific performance' for the provision of particular goods. Targeting, now an integral part of welfare policy in the UK, as well as in the United States and elsewhere, reinforces defensive patterns because those already subjected to the security-depriving effects of economic and social change are increasingly confronted by 'regeneration agendas' that frequently involve compulsion to take up 'opportunities' offered by the state (Finn, 2000). As Jordan (1998: 182) has noted, these agendas can stimulate forms of 'rational resistance' on the part of the 'targets', whose own strategies for dealing with insecurity and the threat of social exclusion may not coincide with those of political elites, their potential efficacy being reduced or destroyed in the process. Permanent solidarities will prove difficult to sustain in this type of environment for one of two reasons. First, where they are taken up (or imposed), state-organised regeneration schemes tend to undermine forms of social politics of which governments do not approve. In this regard, MacGregor (1999: 109) has noted the tendency to 'increased intervention in the lives of the poor' and the expansion of schemes which increase 'challenges to their behaviour.' Second, where imposed solutions are resisted, defensive engagement (here taking the form of Jordan's 'rational resistance') will be compromised by rapidly changing social, economic and political circumstances, which alter the nature of the perceived issues and interests at stake, weaken the memberships of particular solidarities and reduce the range of relevant resources available to citizen protagonists.

Current challenges facing claimants' unions in the UK incorporate significant elements of the above issues. The unions may be understood primarily as a form of defensive engagement because they are 'solidarities' involving citizens as welfare recipients acting collectively either to increase, or obtain correct levels of, state financial support. Their actions are clearly pitched against powerful state agencies, which have the power continually to redefine eligibility criteria for benefit receipt, benefit levels and so on – and these agencies are themselves part of a wider system that, where the worst-off are concerned, persistently demands the performance of certain duties in return for the provision of increasingly prescribed rights. By their very nature, the local unions are 'temporary' because claimants may find employment, move to another area or cease being members for a variety of other reasons – including becoming ineligible for state support. Similarities can be drawn with the experiences of tenants associations, credit unions and other groups formed to take action in order to defend particular social interests – and, of course, the general point by no means applies solely to the UK (see Van Berkel, et al, 1997).

From Defensive to Proactive Engagement

Looking to other areas of welfare, education offers a more complex example because the kind of solidarities that may emerge could be defensive or proactive depending on the kind of resources parental groups have to hand and the type of issues which arise. In poorer areas parents may find themselves literally 'on the defensive' if they attempt to resist decisions to close 'failing schools', for example, or challenge local education authority efforts to redraw catchment areas. Elsewhere, however, parent groups with greater access to resources may be better placed either to engage proactively, perhaps developing novel means of influencing local education policy or making demands on their local schools for the adoption of particular practices such as the wearing (or not) of school uniforms, or defensively – but with a realistic hope of, for instance, maintaining current levels of resourcing, or resisting unwanted changes.

That defensive and proactive engagement should not simply be regarded as the respective forms of participation adopted by economically poorer and better-off groups (which would make the distinction dependent purely on access to key resources) is borne out in the area of education. Those lacking formal economic and/or cultural capital, for instance, might nevertheless develop proactive forms of intervention to further their children's educational interests because the local educational environment could be sufficiently spatially constrained and power sufficiently diffused to support them. Parent-citizens are likely to be able to develop temporary solidarities around demands for, say, the development of after-school facilities, or certain extra- curricular activities, more easily than members of claimants unions would be able successfully to demand changes in national benefit levels. The general point, however, is that different groups of parents can intervene in the educational area of the public sphere for different reasons at different times, these parent-citizens combining and recombining to form temporary solidarities with respect to specific issues, their interventions being either defensive or proactive depending on the prevailing policy context and the balance of (essentially local) power relations.

A further, specific example of proactive engagement comes from an analysis of a particular intervention in the racial politics of a specific locality. Gilchrist and Taylor (1997) report on an instance of 'community networking' around the development of the Festival Against Racism (FAR) by the Bristol Anti-Racist Alliance. According to these authors (Gilchrist and Taylor, 1997: 166), 'the aim of the Festival was to embed anti-racism into the lives of ordinary citizens and the policies and practices of Bristol's civic institutions.' In a similar manner to this article, Gilchrist and Taylor (1997: 165) locate their discussion in the context of a society 'characterised by diversity and difference, fragmentation, discontinuity and individualism.' They suggest that by mobilising a range of networks and relationships to support the initiative it was possible to develop 'horizontal, vertical and cross-cutting links between different sectors and levels of Bristol civil society' which were seen 'as contributing to the longer term development of a local movement against racism' (Gilchrist and Taylor, 1997: 170). By utilising available resources in novel ways, particularly around the 'new circuits of power' residing in community networks, the FAR provides an example of proactive engagement in a specific area of social politics. The likely 'temporariness' of such an endeavour is witnessed, however, in the fact that the impetus which contributed to the first 1994 FAR could not be sustained to 'reproduce' the Festival in 1995. Significantly, too, 'a different kind of festival was mounted…in 1996' in which 'most people were passive rather than active participants' (Gilchrist and Taylor, 1997: 179 and 174). As the authors point out, networks are vulnerable to 'shifting allegiances, loss of interest and changing circumstances', although the main point is that, in a fragmented public sphere where identities are not fixed, forms of citizenship developing around particular issues or areas of activity will inevitably be disrupted by the emergence of new concerns, the need for citizens to shift their focus to other areas of interest and so on.

Finally, brief consideration should be given to the recent protests over fuel taxation in Western Europe. Developing out of the proactive alliances formed by road hauliers, fishermen, farmers and taxi drivers, aided by the new technologies of the internet and mobile 'phones, the direct action taken by these new solidarities proved highly effective against a number of Western European governments, which have been forced to reconsider their fuel taxation policies. Leaving aside the validity or otherwise of the protesters' claims, the crisis provides a clear example of citizen engagement on the part of those who believe themselves to be adversely affected by rapid economic and social changes in the public sphere. The engagement can be categorised as proactive partly because of the extent of the protest, and forms of direct action, that were brought to bear, and partly, too, because of the novel combination of the groups involved. Despite their undoubted power, however, there is good reason to assume that these solidarities will prove temporary, mutating and/or declining in the face of a range of factors including the effects of oil price movements, changing fuel taxation policies, new arguments about the balance of direct and indirect taxation – or simply political moves to reduce the effectiveness of future direct action of the kind employed by the protesters. Once again, it is worth noting that many of those protesting about fuel taxation are also likely to be involved as parent-citizens, citizens needing health care and so on, these competing citizen identities arguably eroding the resolve to press the protest to the point where key services were unduly disrupted.

Citizenship and Social Division in the Fragmented Public Sphere

The variegated conception of social politics outlined here has implications for how we understand contemporary social divisions in late modern societies. Citizenship conceived as forms of defensive and proactive engagement, containing numerous 'temporary solidarities', provides a more kaleidoscopic image of social belonging than did traditional definitions of the idea. Closely connected with the activities of citizen groups as they struggle to exist in a volatile environment, social 'citizenship' is what social actors 'do' when they either choose, or are compelled, to engage in one or other area of the public sphere. But in the 'doing', citizen action can crosscut and therefore weaken existing lines of division. In consequence, because the perpetual process of the development and dissolution of defensive or proactive solidarities produces an increasingly fluid social and political environment, there is little chance of particular social groups being able permanently to construct citizenship as a social form that works to further their own interests. It would be difficult to conceive the idea as a 'ruling class strategy' (Mann, 1987), for example.

Does this decentred understanding of contemporary social politics mean that late modern societies, faced with the declining power of the nation-state and the disruption of 'traditional' social divisions, are threatened with a loss of coherence? To be sure, evidence of declining party loyalties (Schmitt and Holmburg, 1998) and the dramatic increase in levels of socio-political participation outside formal voting (Topf, 1998) suggests that core areas of the public realm are becoming progressively more disorganised. Again, recent debates about the continuing relevance of 'class' (see Lee and Turner, 1996) also suggest that the explanatory value of this key foundational concept is now less secure. Alluding to the toll taken by globalisation, deindustrialisation and associated phenomena, Pahl (1996: 97), for instance, has argued that 'from informal social networks, through families, kinship links and the whole range of formal and informal associations of civil society people are engaging in voluntary solidaristic and collective activity for a variety of goals', his point being that class will cease to have much analytical purchase unless it can somehow be linked to the fragmented, episodic social politics he describes. Together with the theoretical account provided here, this kind of evidence suggests that it is becoming difficult to understand modern societies as the stable, coherent (if divided) entities of the postwar era.

This is not to say, however, that contemporary (post)industrial societies are losing all 'coherence' – but we have to reinterpret the term. A fragmented public realm and the fractured nature of the citizenship to which it gives rise makes it more likely that coherence will be achieved not at the level of society as a whole, but in the interaction between citizen groups and a range of 'discourses' or ideologies. Class, gender, ethnicity and so on will 'cohere', or give meaning to, particular citizen interventions at particular conjunctures rather than existing as material properties in their own right. Precisely how these ideologies will construct and determine citizen action, and be influenced by it, is clearly an empirical question, but one tentative observation should be made here. Defensive forms of engagement are more likely to be organised around social divisions already shaped by existing discourses, while proactive forms could push beyond these discursive parameters. Where groups of citizens are forced to defend particular sets of interests they will in many cases utilise class, gender or other accepted motifs of collective defence that appeal to an already existing, coherent sense of solidarity. Conversely, as we have seen, proactive engagement suggests a greater scope for agency and one which could be expected, explicitly or implicitly, to challenge established assumptions about social divisions in the name of differently conceived solidarities and new forms of organisation. As ever, it is important to remember that individual citizens can simultaneously inhabit class, gender and/or ethnic solidarities for defensive purposes in particular areas of the public sphere, while rejecting the logic of these belongings when engaging proactively elsewhere.


This article has suggested that social citizenship is best understood in terms of two forms of engagement – forms which embrace either more or less constrained types citizen action in a fractured public realm. Such a conception breaks with traditional notions of nation-state-based, 'universal' social rights as these were understood in the post-war era. Recognising the plural nature of modern social citizenship allows us to retain the idea itself, however, but now in a manner which invites the analysis of new and changing forms of social and political action developing (and subsequently receding) around the persistent (re)interpretation of interests, demands and entitlements in a transformed public sphere.

A final point is worthy of consideration. Conceiving citizenship is this manner allows for a clearer understanding of the complexities of contemporary forms of social inclusion and exclusion. On the one hand, the differentiated nature of temporary solidarities suggests that individual citizens could be simultaneously 'included' in certain areas of social politics while being 'excluded' in others. How particular issues affect specific citizen groups can only be discovered through empirical research – but the possibility that individual citizens are differentially affected by exclusion suggests that our understanding of citizenship, as well as the policies designed to combat social exclusion in the public realm, needs to be acutely sensitive to this consideration. On the other hand, by drawing attention to the range and patterns of citizen involvement this approach would also help to identify the permanently excluded – those who, lacking access to the appropriate power networks or resources of any kind, are unable to engage in any area of the public sphere and for whom new and different policies may be required if they are to be included in the public arena. The ability to engage defensively and/or proactively in at least some areas of the public realm is coming to be the hallmark of contemporary citizenship. An incapacity to engage at all deprives individuals of the opportunity of acting collectively – of inclusion, however temporary – and so denies them access to the variegated experience of social belonging which accompanies involvement in late modern social politics. Bauman's 'new poor', 'exempt from human community, exempt from public mind' (Bauman, 1999: 93), are a case in point.


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