by Peter J. Spiro. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 208pp. Hardback. $29.95. ISBN: 9780195152180.

Reviewed by Rebecca Hamlin, Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley. Email: rebecca.hamlin [at]


For many years now, citizenship scholars have been furiously trying to put themselves out of business by proclaiming the death of citizenship. This book is no exception to that trend. Earlier authors have argued that citizenship is being decoupled from rights because of the spread of international norms (Soysal 1994; Jacobson 1996). In BEYOND CITIZENSHIP, Spiro moves one step up the explanatory chain and argues that globalization is causing citizenship to be decoupled from territory. This unmooring, according to Spiro, loosens citizenship’s hold on rights, allegiance, identity and community in ways that cannot be reversed. While this book may not convince every reader of the larger argument about citizenship’s inexorable decline, BEYOND CITIZENSHIP does an excellent job of illustrating, through specific examples, the ways in which globalization has simultaneously expanded and contracted America; it can be found all over the world, but the concept of America has been diluted.

As an explanatory variable, globalization is slippery. Because it is a multitude of peripherally related phenomena, some of which are as old as the hills, it is unclear when the trend towards the global began, what its endpoint might look like, and how it can be measured. Globalization sometimes means changes in formal rules, but it usually refers to shifts in the behavior of individuals and organizations. Spiro talks about both. He begins by arguing that as people have become more mobile and connected across borders, the mismatch between territory and citizenship is expanding. In that sense, he argues, citizenship is an inaccurate measure of “Americanness:” one can be just as American (whatever that still means) living in Delhi as in Miami.

To illustrate the ways in which American rules of granting citizenship are both over and under-inclusive, Spiro describes how some people born in the US may not be American in either their political loyalty or cultural identity, while others who have no claim to US citizenship are thoroughly American in all other ways. Spiro examines the residency requirements for naturalization, which were designed to ensure a modicum of assimilation. He argues that for some immigrants, these rules are ineffectual because of the strength of ethnic enclaves, which can insulate an immigrant from learning English, or about American culture. At the same time, these rules are unnecessary for other immigrants who arrive half-assimilated already, having been exposed to American culture at home. These examples are all marshaled to illustrate a major theme of the book, which is that presence on the American territory means less than it once did as a [*799] predictor of a person’s values and allegiances.

A further example (explored in Chapter 3) is the rise of “plural citizenship,” which Spiro argues has led to the erosion of the concept; if people hold multiple allegiances to nations, their commitment cannot possibly be as powerful as a monogamous one. He describes the rise of plural citizenship in the US as an unavoidable development in light of the proliferation of the practice across most immigrant-sending countries, suggesting that the US has been caught up in an international tide of citizenship plurality. In this arena, the United States has not led the way, but has followed other nations and still maintains stricter official rules about holding multiple citizenships than many other countries do.

No book on citizenship in the United States would be complete without a discussion of non-citizenship, and in Chapter 4, Spiro takes on this controversial topic. He convincingly makes the argument that the most powerful distinction in America today is not citizen versus non-citizen, but legal versus illegal. He then goes further to argue that for legal residents, “the landscape has been changing to extend protection,” and while the franchise is generally limited to citizens, there are many other rights and benefits of citizenship to which non-citizens have access (p.81). To readers in the field of immigration studies, the assertion that the protections of citizenship are expansive and inclusive of non-citizens may seem overblown given the ways in which legal permanent residents were targeted by the immigration legislation of 1996, as well as the more recent use of immigration law as a tool of anti-terrorism enforcement. Just because legality is a more relevant distinction in America today does not mean that lack of citizenship status is irrelevant. In a book with so many convincing arguments, that claim rings a bit hollow in comparison.

Readers looking for a nuanced treatment of the issue of alienage will probably prefer Linda Bosniak’s excellent recent book, THE CITIZEN AND THE ALIEN. However, in the sense that it argues that our current conceptions of citizenship and membership are incompatible with observable realities, BEYOND CITIZENSHIP is very much in the same vein as Bosniak’s work. It offers a clear articulation of the dilemmas of citizenship in the modern age, and may be more accessible to undergraduates because it is geared towards a general audience. BEYOND CITIZENSHIP is targeted at the general public, and tackles large-scale themes. As such, it would be a fitting addition to an undergraduate syllabus on globalization or American studies.

The implications of the argument in BEYOND CITIZENSHIP are really elaborated in Chapter Five, in which Spiro echoes the concept of post-national citizenship, which was fashionable among scholars in the mid-1990’s, by claiming that “membership in the state is not the only game in town” (p.110). In a manner that is both systematic and lucid, Spiro takes on a number of schools of thought regarding how America should be conceived and explains why they are untenable, or unachievable in the current world. In particular, he devotes time to working through the assumptions of liberal [*800] nationalism, arguing against the tenet that national identity is the most inclusive or lasting source of identity and membership for people. Instead, he suggests that it is one of many sources vying for people’s loyalty and attention. In today’s world, people are governed by an overlapping patchwork of regulations and obligations of which the nation represents only one component. In addition, people are governed by state and local politics, religious and cultural group membership, NGOs and international governance organizations, and corporations. He argues that more theorists should shift their attentions away from defining nationality, and focus on mapping “the relationship of citizenship to other forms of membership” (p.135).

While this argument is quite thought provoking, the way it is formulated potentially opens it to accusations of Amero-centricity. Spiro claims that citizenship as a general concept means less than it once did, but because the argument only extends to the United States context, it is difficult to discern whether the phenomenon being described is particular to this country, or exemplary of a global trend. Spiro suggests in his Introduction that America may be leading a more universal shift, but he does not explain the mechanisms of diffusion to other national contexts, especially given the different laws governing citizenship, and varying global roles played by each country. Indeed, his discussion of plural citizenship suggests that America does not always lead but can be a reluctant respondent to the evolving citizenship rules of other nations.

America is perhaps the easy case for arguing the decline of citizenship’s value, because it has always had a more amorphous character than that of other nations, and because, as Bickel reminds us, “we live under a Constitution to which the concept of citizenship matters very little indeed” (1973, at 387). Further, because of the decentralized nature of American governance combined with an extremely rich civil society, the patchwork of regulations affecting someone in the United States is particularly erratic and layered compared to those living elsewhere. These particularities raise questions about generalizability of Spiro’s theory to other nations. For example, if other countries are more unified in their governance and have far weaker civil societies, how do different identities, some of them based in a national membership and others more contested, interact with one another?

To be fair, it is a central goal of BEYOND CITIZENSHIP to get people asking just such questions. However, the book itself seems fairly uninterested in the global ramifications of the decline of citizenship, and focuses on the American story. As a result, Spiro’s description often leans toward explanation of a unidirectional threat, rather than description of an interactive global phenomenon. If, as Spiro asserts, “plural citizenship emerges as another tool in the global infiltration of American ideals,” it must also represent the infiltration of American ideals throughout the rest of the world in equal measure (p.78). While the overall claims of the book acknowledge citizenship’s changing role as an international process, the book’s rhetoric occasionally slips into phrases of lamentation such as: [*801] “once everyone is an American, no one is an American” (p.52).

The picture painted in BEYOND CITIZENSHIP will strike many readers as bleak, or at the very least, sobering. Spiro argues that the assumption that the nation state is of central importance leads both politicians and the public to place expectations on policy that cannot be fulfilled. Many of the organizations which compete for our loyalties are non-governmental and distinctly non-democratic, raising questions about how discrimination and oppression generating from these sources might be prevented.

Unlike most other scholars in the post-nationalist strain, Spiro is skeptical that “international human rights could prove instrumental in mitigating injustice in non-state membership practices” (p.157). For those readers who are frustrated by assertions that international human rights will impact non-governmental bodies, when they are only partially effective at mitigating injustice in state membership practices, this book will stand out in comparison to many others like it. Those who are looking for hope, or for policy prescriptions, will be left disappointed, because as Spiro openly admits, “this book is not intended to kindle correctives” (p.162). On the contrary, he makes a fairly impassioned argument for the impotence of domestic policy or international law to reign in the inevitable splintering of people’s identities and loyalties into endless factions. He concludes with the suggestion that because attempts to stop this shift are futile, concerned parties should turn their attentions to understanding the new world order of governance, allegiance and rights, one in which national citizenship is (if not dead) no longer robust.

Bickel, Alexander. 1973. “Citizenship in the American Constitution” 15 ARIZONA LAW REVIEW 369.

Bosniak, Linda. 2006. THE CITIZEN AND THE ALIEN: DILEMMAS OF CONTEMPORARY MEMBERSHIP. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jacobson, David. 1996. RIGHTS ACROSS BORDERS: IMMIGRATION AND THE DECLINE OF CITIZENSHIP. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Soysal, Yasemin. 1994. LIMITS OF CITIZENSHIP: MIGRANTS AND POST-NATIONAL MEMBERSHIP IN EUROPE. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Rebecca Hamlin.