Reflection on the Emergence of Critical Statelessness Studies (CSS): Recognising the debt to, and divergence from, Critical Citizenship Studies (CCS)

Thomas McGee

April 2022

In this blog entry, Thomas McGee, PhD candidate at the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness at the University of Melbourne, reflects on the emerging body of critical statelessness scholarship, and considers its relation to the more established field of Critical Citizenship Studies (CCS). He argues that critical perspectives on statelessness can benefit from the emphasis on claim-making and performative identity construction advanced by CCS, but that there remains a need to consider the unique dimensions of stateless experiences. 

When we launched the Critical Statelessness Studies (CSS) blog series in July 2020, Deirdre Brennan and I were deliberately vague in our definition of what CSS should be. This was partly in order not to (de)limit the scope of the project based on our own perspectives and experiences. Rather than announce a prescriptively tight definition, we preferred to encourage contributors to “borrow useful concepts from other disciplines in order to interrogate the discursive implications of framing and characterisation used within statelessness studies to date.”

Almost two years and seventeen blog entries later, we have been pleased by the range and quality of contributions. This has only confirmed the importance of promoting dedicated reflection between individuals critically engaged on the issue of statelessness. The passing of time and growth in CSS literature has, however, prompted certain questions: what does critical intervention in the statelessness field look like? How do we (both as blog editors and members of the statelessness research community more widely) identify and articulate what constitutes critical engagement on the issue? With these questions in mind, I hereby consider the intersection and relations between critical work on statelessness and the more established field of Critical Citizenship Studies (CCS): what can usefully be borrowed from CCS, what are its limitations, and where might CSS diverge on a separate trajectory?

Following in the path of Critical Citizenship Studies?

Critical Citizenship Studies, itself inspired by perspectives and vocabulary developed in critical migration and border studies, might arguably be considered as an elder sibling of Critical Statelessness Studies. There exist many obvious parallels and overlaps, such that it would be remiss not to acknowledge the debt owed to CCS. Indeed, it teaches us to interpret legal identity beyond a limiting, essentialist understanding of “status”. Engin Isis, for instance, has argued that “most critical studies on citizenship focus on how status becomes contested by investigating practices through which claims are articulated and subjectivities are formed.” This constructivist approach to citizenship identity acknowledges the ways in which status is enacted through (iterative) practices of inclusion and exclusion. Of course, this is not to deny the importance of ascribed “legal status”, but rather to consider the everyday and exceptional “performance” involved in constituting and reinforcing such statuses. We should not, therefore, understand status as an immutable inherited characteristic, but one that is actively negotiated through a process of continual “becoming”.

Reframing the notion of citizenship through a focus on “acts, performances and claim-makings outside formal institutions of participations as processes of political subjectivisation through which the citizen subject is brought into being” (as Chenchen Zhang puts it) can be useful for Critical Statelessness Studies. Returning to Isin, the notion of “acts of citizenship” - that is, manifestations of exceptional forms of resistance to claim rights normally excluded to non-citizens (e.g. migrants and refugees) - extends the realm of citizenship to those formally excluded by it. Liberating it from the strictures of the nation-state structure, such interventions facilitate citizenship to transcend the boundaries of formal legal identity and potentially open up the body politic for the inclusion - and consideration - of stateless people.

Applications of CCS to CSS

In the sense described above, stateless people can be “actors of citizenship” just as much as anyone else. But applying this constructivist thinking to statelessness also begs the question: might we similarly talk about “acts of statelessness”? And (if so) what would that mean in practice? Developing a unique theory on statelessness identity construction demands reflection in line with Anne McNevin’s call to "think differently about citizenship by reflecting on the constitutive acts of those who are cast as its outsiders." Expanding on this in the context of irregular migrants, she advocates an approach that “interprets that outsider status as both a mode of subjectification and a site of active resistance.” Given the unique position of stateless people as not only “outsiders” in a particular state or context, but in relation to the entire global citizenship regime, Critical Statelessness Studies hereby inherits the task of building theories sensitive to this reality. Its necessary divergence from CCS is addressed below.

It is thus necessary to be attentive to the impacts of state practices and discourse that exclude and discriminate against the stateless - e.g. humiliating document inspections at checkpoints and in government offices - in terms of constituting lived experience and stateless identity. Here, Judith Butler’s concept of “injurious speech” may come in useful to hypothesise how verbal insults can be productive of personal identity for those excluded from citizenship. Interestingly, Butler has elsewhere reflected explicitly on implications of constructivist thinking for the stateless (although it is not fully clear if she interprets the term as we might in CSS). Nonetheless, she makes a valuable argument that “status that confers statelessness on any number of people becomes the means by which they are at once discursively constituted within a field of power and juridically deprived.”

These performative moments - be they iterative, everyday actions or exceptional acts - can be conceived as contributing to the construction of stateless experience and identity, but also dialectically form the basis for resistance and movements of solidarity building. As an example of subversive and emancipatory claim-making, Syria’s Kurdish community protested “We don’t want citizenship, but freedom” in response to government concessions to naturalise some of the country’s stateless Kurds against the backdrop of a brutal military crackdown on the 2011 popular uprising. As such, while likely always undesirable by those affected by it, statelessness may be considered through bell hooks’ concept of “marginality as site of resistance”: that is, “much more than a site of deprivation [...] also the site of radical possibility.” As developed further below, the concomitant experiences of deprivation and resistance are often a central element of stateless experience.

So, where might CSS diverge from CCS?

Bearing in mind the potential value of CCS as outlined above, it is necessary to consider its limitations for understanding situations of statelessness. Thus, while it may be ideologically attractive for progressive academics in CCS to disregard legal status altogether, this tendency is problematic given the important material and psychological relevance it has on the lives of stateless individuals. In practice, the possibility to think entirely outside the realm of legal status is generally a privilege unavailable to those affected by statelessness. While citizenship has been taken for granted, dismissed or interpreted abstractly and imprecisely within much critical citizenship scholarship, CSS finds itself duty-bound to work with a narrower definition of the concept as understood by its “outsiders”. We must recognise that citizenship is of a different order for those who do not possess it. Indeed, by way of a preliminary methodology to counter the citizenist bias in existing work on statelessness (perhaps partly inherited from CCS), Haqqi Bahram has developed a stateless standpoint epistemology with a view to foregrounding stateless agency within related knowledge production.

Due to the necessity to be sensitive to the specific lived experiences of stateless people, it is perhaps particularly pressing for us in CSS to ensure that our research avoids the obtuse - and often imprecise and alienating - language that has become prevalent in CCS. As critically engaged researchers on statelessness, we have a responsibility to ensure that our interventions are relatable to those directly affected by the issue. While CCS often neglects to consider legal status altogether in favour of other more performative conceptions of citizenship, it is imperative that critical work on statelessness uses performative theory in order to unpack how exclusionary legal status in fact constitutes stateless experience and identity. Despite CCS certainly presenting some enlightening lessons, divergence is demanded on a number of key points. It is therefore encouraging to see the continuing development of Critical Statelessness Studies as a related, yet separate, field of academic enquiry.

More from the Critical Statelessness Studies Blog Series

The CSS Blog serves as a space for short reflective pieces by individuals working on statelessness from a critical perspective. Click here to learn more about the CSS project or here to read about how to contribute to the blog.