Video & reading: Citizenship and participation

Citizenship and participation

The word “citizenship” is most commonly used as a legal (And the term legal often addresses only those with legal citizenship status of a nation state) relationship between the individual and the state. The relationship is causal - being a citizen means having certain duties and obligations towards the state, and having certain privileges or rights in return. Limiting citizenship just to its legal aspect can be misleading and unjust, as by doing that we are not acknowledging the role that such power structures have in dismissing the civic contributions and needs of immigrants, refugees, undocumented people, and the incarcerated and as such reinforce such political power structures [1].

For this reason, throughout the MOOC we will be focusing on a broader concept of “citizenship”, beyond its legal aspect. We will discuss citizenship as a feeling of commitment to a community that you feel empowered to contribute to and impact in a direct manner [2]. We understand citizenship as a practice, an agency – the urge of an individual to have an active role in society. 

The concept of democratic citizenship follows on from this and is based on the ideal of democratic principles and values forming the basis of citizenship. Pluralism, respect for laws that hold all people equally and the preservation of human dignity are but a few of the values that democratic citizenship seeks to uphold [2]. Democratic citizenship takes the definition of citizenship a step further, expanding on an individual's contribution to be one in which is active participation in the system of rights and responsibilities that define a democratic society [3].

So what is (active) participation?

In defining participation in political and cultural life, we must refer to the recognition of participation as a basic human right as defined by international human rights treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the declaration, there is clearly defined provision for participation rights with respect to government and free elections, cultural life in communities, peaceful assembly and association and membership in trade unions. As such, the concept of participation is a fundamental human rights principle and a condition of democratic citizenship for all citizens. 

But having the right to participate is only the prerequisite to active participation.

Sherry Arnstein defined a “ladder of citizen participation” in her 1969 text on citizen involvement in planning processes in the United States. In this ladder, she demonstrated possible participation levels from high to low based on eight ‘rungs’ classified from 1 to 8 and categorized into three distinct groups: non-participation; tokenism and citizen power. Non-participation aside, the ladder demonstrated the gap in citizen participation between real and optimum participation and that which appears to be participation but is merely token in its superficial concern and execution [4].

Building on Arnstein’s participation ladder, Roger Hart adapted the ladder with the focus on (non)participation of young people, as you can see in the image below. In his own words:

“Young people’s participation cannot be discussed without considering power relations and the struggle for equal rights. It is important that all young people have the opportunity to learn to participate in programmes which directly affect their lives. This is especially so for disadvantaged children for through participation with others such children learn that to struggle against discrimination and repression, and to fight for their equal rights in solidarity with others is itself a fundamental democratic right.” [5]

roger hart ladder

Source: Adam Fletcher from The FreeChild Project.

If you want to deepen in this topic, we propose to read about Hart’s Ladder of Participation and reflect on it.


[1] Cho, A. (2020). Digital civic engagement by young people. 

[2] Brander, P. (2012). Compass: Manual for human rights education with young people. Council of Europe.

[3] Consultation Meeting for the Education for Democratic Citizenship Programme of the Council of Europe, 1996

[4] The Citizen’s Handbook. Arnstein's Ladder of Citizen Participation.

[5] Hart, R. A. (1992). Children's participation: From tokenism to citizenship. Innocenti Essay no. 4, International Child Development Centre, Florence. 

Last modified: Tuesday, 14 June 2022, 12:37 PM