"Taking part in society the way I am" An exploration of active citizenship norms in Denmark and Norway

PhD thesis

Jdid, Noor (2021) "Taking part in society the way I am" An exploration of active citizenship norms in Denmark and Norway. PhD thesis, Centre for Women’s and Gender Research (SKOK), University of Bergen, Bergen.

Bergen Open Research Archive

Active citizenship is a seductive concept alluding to unquestionably positive values such as neighbourliness, community work, solidarity, and democratic participation. Although it might seem like a descriptive term, active citizenship is used in political rhetoric and carries normative expectations towards citizens who must demonstrate certain qualities and attitudes that are deemed desirable for the nation. In this normative way, the concept is often applied to specific segments of the population, such as the poor, disabled or immigrants, producing morally loaded differentiations between ‘desirable’ citizens who are active in the ‘right’ ways, and ‘less desirable’ citizens who are presumably passive and need to be activated.

In this dissertation, I explore how individuals living in Norway and Denmark subscribe to, contest, and resist prevalent norms of active citizenship. I focus specifically on civic engagement, looking at how the lived experiences of people impact their understandings of what it means to be an active citizen. My fieldwork is ethnographic, and consists of interviews, focus group discussions, and participant observations in five different localities in Oslo and Copenhagen with 123 individuals.

I find in my study that participation norms articulated in Danish and Norwegian policy discourses are widely asserted, yet they are also contested and resisted by variously situated individuals. On the one hand, people expect themselves and others to contribute to society in ways that are highly aligned with national policy aims. On the other hand, individuals, most particularly those occupying minoritized positions and living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, challenge and resist exclusionary participatory norms and argue for the recognition of currently ‘invisible’ ways of contributing to society.

I draw mainly from scholarship on feminist citizenship and citizenship geography that conceptualizes citizenship as a lived experience embedded in power relations, identities, and places (Desforges, Jones, & Woods, 2005; Lister, 2007; Wood, 2013; Young, 2000). By engaging in this study, the dissertation aims to advance existing research on the participatory dimension of citizenship from a perspective intended to stimulate reflections about dynamics of inclusion and exclusion in the Norwegian and Danish societies. My contribution to feminist scholarly citizenship debates is two-fold. First, drawing on the recent work of Bridget Anderson (2013, 2014), I empirically demonstrate that active citizenship is more than just a civic obligation and a democratic right; it is also a norm that creates internal boundaries between the ‘good citizens’ and the ‘not-good-enough’. Applying West and Fenstermaker’s (1995) approach of intersectionality, I analyse the multiple and intersecting power dimensions that inform active citizenship norms, and how such norms are (re)produced and challenged by individuals in both the private and the public spheres (Plummer, 2001, 2003). Second, my dissertation moves beyond binary discussions of active citizenship as either a disciplinary or an empowering practice (Isin, 2008; Newman, 2013; Newman & Tonkens, 2011; Segal, 2013) by demonstrating how people sustain, contest and resist active citizenship norms in a contextually situated way.

This doctoral research calls for taking seriously how everyday spaces of belonging and lived experiences impact practices of active citizenship and understandings of civic responsibility. By doing so, it widens the definition of what it means to be a contributing member of society to include marginalized practices and spaces that are often overlooked in dominant articulations of active citizenship. The dissertation concludes that active citizenship norms, although articulated through political, policy, and academic discourses, are also sustained, challenged, and resisted by individuals through their subjective experiences and across various spaces and scales of belonging both within and beyond the nation-state.

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