23003 Citizens
The Journey Embassy


Active citizenship


Nowhereisland action. Photo: Michael Prior

Nowhereisland action. Photo: Michael Prior

Active citizenship has been described as a synthesis of rights-based and practice-based citizenship. The RSA in London, who have been spearheading an Active Citizenship programme, takes an alternative viewpoint to a liberal concept of citizenship.

“Most liberal conceptions of citizenship – from libertarianism to egalitarianism – consider civic participation to be a matter of personal freedom rather than a moral obligation. The capacity of citizens to contribute to tackling social challenges and problems is mostly untapped.”, they suggest. “Current models for encouraging citizens to participate in civic life are geared around citizens influencing decision-making or service delivery, rather than individually or collectively making change themselves. But this needs to change; participation must enable citizens to take action rather than just have conversations.” Read more. Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA, is one of Nowhereisland's Resident Thinkers, view his video on active citizenship here.

View Tamsin Omond's Resident Thinker performed piece 'Tell Me What You Stand For' as an alternative view of active citizenship.

Tamsin Omond, 'Tell Me What You Stand For', 2011

For Nowherians, how 'active' citizenship can be, relates to questions of how we understand processes of participation (see Art section for a discussion of participatory arts). One consideration of levels of participation might be to consider the ‘ladder of participation’ first developed by Sherry Arnstein in 1969. [1]

Sherry Arnstein, Ladder of Participation, 1969

It shows the different ways in which an organisation responsible for an activity - for example a local authority - can involve participants.

The Big Society campaign poster for the Conservatives 2010

The Big Society campaign poster for the Conservatives 2010

More broadly in the UK, the notion of 'active citizenship' has been politicised through debates about the Big Society - a cornerstone policy of the Conservative – Liberal Democrat Coalition Agreement. This policy's emphasis on local communities, volunteerism, co-ops and social enterprise has been likened to the Dutch notion of stewardship.

“But not everyone has the same capacity to help themselves and others.", suggest the New Economics Foundation. "How much capacity we have depends on a range of factors. These include education and income, family circumstances and environment, knowledge, confidence and a sense of self-efficacy, available time and energy, and access to the places where decisions are taken and things get done. All are distributed unequally among individuals, groups and localities... While these inequalities persist, people who have least will benefit least from the transfer of power and responsibility, while those with higher stocks of social and economic resources will be better placed to seize the new opportunities... If there’s a shift towards more direct action by citizens and locally-based organisations, then it is vital that groups and individuals who are currently marginalised are able and willing to participate." Download the New Economics Foundation paper here.

Nowhereisland's constitution already contains a number of propositions which act as 'calls to action' by its international citizens. The project is also working with the British Red Cross, schools and youth groups to question the possiblities and challenges of being an 'active citizen'.

For an anthology on citizenship download this free pamphlet here.


[1] Sherry Arnstein, "A Ladder of Citizen Participation," JAIP, Vol. 35, No. 4, July 1969, pp. 216-224


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Nowhereisland is a Situations project led by artist Alex Hartley, one of 12 Artist Taking the Lead projects for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad funded by Arts Council England. We also gratefully acknowledge the support of the University of the West of England, Bristol; Bloomberg; Nicky Wilson Jupiter Artland; the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Royal Norwegian Embassy and Yellowbrick Tracking.

Identity designed by Fraser Muggeridge studio and Wolfram Wiedner, website by Wolfram Wiedner.