Somatic Citizenship

polling_0.jpgI’d like to look look at the idea of somatic citizenship – how citizenship can be understood not only as an abstract legal idea but as something that is embodied and performed.

Citizenship is a complex business.

Formal citizenship is a particular legal status that you are either born with or you later acquire, that entitles you to different categories of rights guaranteed by a state.


Here for example are some people at a Citizenship Ceremony at Camarthen Register Office in the UK in 2011 (picture by Jeff Connell).

Citizenship ceremony at Carmarthen Regisister Office 2011. Photo: Jeff Connell

In the 1950s sociologist Thomas Humphrey Marshall described three types of rights that made up citizenship in the context of the modern western state: Political (e.g. the right to vote, stand for office); Civil (e.g. rights to justice and personal freedom), and Social (e.g. rights to welfare, health, education).

Thomas HUmphrey Marshall

But today, people who are not formal/ legal citizens may also be entitled to some of these rights. They may have what is known as substantive citizenship, the extent of which can very from right to right. For example in the UK, citizens (aged over 16) of the Republic of Ireland, Cyprus and Malta can vote in parliamentary elections as Commonwealth citizens who have leave to remain in the UK or do not require such leave.

However there are also situations in which people have formal citizenship but not full substantive citizenship – i.e. they are not entitled to all political, civil and social rights. For example in early-19th-century Britain less than 3% of the population had the right to vote. Today the figure now is around three quarters (including non citizens, children and sentenced prisoners).

Or more recently, until the Civil Partnership Act 2004 came into force in 2005 same sex couples were denied legal recognition of their relationship and the accompanying framework of rights and responsibilities. (There still isn’t full equality however)

The line between those who are entitled to a particular right and those that aren’t is normally drawn sharply by officials based, in theory, upon universal (i.e. they apply equally to everyone in all circumstances) pre-agreed criteria such as age, place of birth, year of entry into a country, gender (as decided by a medical professional) or physical and mental capability (sometimes decided by people who are not qualified medical practitioners).

But there are also circumstances where someone is legally entitled to a right but there are physical or environmental factors that make it hard or impossible to enjoy or exercise those rights. Rights might be abstract and universal but they are manifested in particular, corporeal ways.

This is the somatic  – or bodily – aspect of citizenship.

The term somatic citizenship has some history in the work of Sociologists Nikolas Rose and Carlos Novas, along with the term biological citizenship. They use the term ‘biological citizenship’ “descriptively, to encompass all those citizenship projects that have linked their conceptions of citizens to beliefs about the biological existence of human beings, as individuals, as families and lineages, as communities, as population and races, and as a species.” While these perspectives take a largely medicalised view of the body there is potential scope for this idea of somatic ethics to be expanded or appropriated to include alternative, creative accounts of the body.

I’ll give three examples.

Perhaps the clearest one stays with voting – perhaps the most emblematic act of citizenship.

There are no legal restrictions that mean a person with a disability cannot vote but there may be physical obstacles that make it hard or impossible for some people. In the 2010 election for example Scope found that 67 per cent of polling stations included one or more barriers to voting. For example “many local authorities were also still using sites for polling stations that were inaccessible to wheelchair-users, such as temporary cabins or caravans in fields.” This is despite the fact that “local authorities have to take proactive steps to ensure that polling stations don’t disadvantage disabled people”.

These barriers do not just apply to voting (not just to people with disabilities), but also to many other elements of public life which one might consider an integral part of being a fully active citizen and that are also embodied. Take for example this map of step-free underground stations which presents a very different set of possibilities to the ones available to me (as an able-bodied person without young children) when wishing to visit parliament, a town hall, a social organisation or simply to gather in public.

Obviously there are many many more and different manifestations of disability but this is a particularly striking example. The underlying point is that the state is designed around a particular type of body — white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied — and even though rights are held equally by those that qualify legally they cannot necessarily be enjoyed in particular situations for physical, bodily reasons.

This example also highlights that citizenship is not just a status but a set of activities; a process. It is not just the right to vote but the act of voting that constitutes citizenship. That act is a physical one.

For the second example let’s look at another familiar civic act – protesting.

According to the Citizenship Survey four per cent of adults in England and Wales in 2009-10 had taken part in a public demonstration or protest in the previous 12 months. Similarly, the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement found that in 2009, 3% had taken part in a demonstration, picket or march in the previous 12 months.Here is a Tamil sit-down protest in Whitehall, London in May 2009.

By 2013 this had fallen to 1% (although 10% would be prepared to do this up from 1% in 2012). Here is a protest at Atomic Weapons Establishment, Burghfield in 2013:


Demonstrations seem to be clearly a physical, performed act of citizenship and require a whole range of physical, choreographic and performative skills. These might be relatively simple (e.g. the picket line, the march, the sit-in) or constrained but they require physical knowledges in their planning and their enactment – location, timing, duration, choreography, costume, symbolism are all elements that are considered.

As Susan Leigh Foster writes in Theatre Journal in 2003 “Classic theories of political protest  (…) dismiss the body, either by conceptualizing protest as a practice that erupts out of a bodily anger over which there is no control, or by envisioning it as a practice that uses the body only as an efficacious instrument that can assist in maximizing efficiency. Neither hypothesizes the body as an articulate signifying agent, and neither seriously considers the tactics implemented in the protest itself. Yet, as social movement theorist James Jasper observes, “Tactics are rarely, if ever, neutral means about which protestors do not care. Tactics represent important routines, emotionally and morally salient in these peoples’ lives.”

As a simple example here’s a photo by Andy Worthington from March 2013 showing campaigners outside Lewisham Hospital (my local hospital) to support the succesful “Save Lewisham Hospital” campaign. Perhaps a default response would be to stand at the hospital gates in a group but it’s interesting that this was a ‘hands around Lewisham Hospital’ initiative in which people linked hands to encircle the premises. Symbolically as an act and a spectacle this choice suggests that the hospital is being protected and cared for by local residents. Articulate signifying agents. Somatic, performing, choreographing citizens.


The third example looks at the idea of articulate bodies to wider, less overtly civic or political contexts.

Edward T Hall was an American anthropologist who coined the term proxemics “the branch of knowledge that deals with the amount of space that people feel it necessary to set between themselves and others.”


Proxemics existed long before humans did, as an intuitive understanding of how we make meaning by inhabiting and creating space between each other. Often this is considered in the context of private, interpersonal relationships.

But these interactions are also the constituents of public and political relations.

In his 1966 book The Hidden Dimension offers a number of cross cultural examples which might seem a little erm…simplistic today but serve to make the point that proxemics are important but culturally specific forms of embodied knowledge.

“…Arabs are involved with each other on many different levels simultaneously. Privacy in a public place is foreign to them. Business transactions in the bazaar, for example, are not just between buyer and seller, but are participated in by everyone. Anyone who is standing around may join in. If a grown up sees a boy breaking a window, he must stop him even if he doesn’t know him. Involvement and participation are expressed in other ways as well. If two men are fighting, the crowd must intervene.

On the political level, to fail to intervene when trouble is brewing is to take sides, which is what [the US] State Department always seems to be doing. Given the fact that few people in the world today are even remotely aware of the cultural mold that forms their thoughts, it is normal for Arabs to view our [North American] behavior as though it stemmed from their own hidden set of assumptions.” Edward T Hall (1966) The Hidden Dimension. p 162

Somatic citizenship then runs through cultural, political, economic and legal citizenship . It involves a whole range of physical, spatial and choreographic capabilities in order to participate as a fully public being. Sometimes these capabilities touch directly on traditional forms of citizenship but there is a just as important, dimension that is harder to notice but is as important day-to-day as knowing who your MP is or understanding routes of legal redress.

According to the Citizenship Foundation, citizenship education (at school) involves three main dimensions:

“Knowledge and understanding: About topics such as: laws and rules, the democratic process, the media, human rights, diversity, money and the economy, sustainable development and world as a global community; and about concepts such as democracy, justice, equality, freedom, authority and the rule of law;

Skills and aptitudes: Critical thinking, analysing information, expressing opinions, taking part in discussions and debates, negotiating, conflict resolution and participating in community action;

Values and dispositions: Respect for justice, democracy and the rule of law, openness, tolerance, courage to defend a point of view and a willingness to: listen to, work with and stand up for others.”

As in this quote, these are traditionally understood in terms of verbal or written knowledge but perhaps we can look to performing arts to develop the embodied knowledge need to be a fully active citizen.

From 21 June – 27 July 2014 I am organising six art/ life events for artists, philosophers and other citizens, using choreographic strategies to engage with politics and citizenship through the body. For more information see:


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