Why a Concept of Informal Citizenship is Needed

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy by Johan Nordensvärd and Markus Ketola. Click here to access the article.

When we read about social citizenship and welfare, we often hear how social citizenship was developed from the post-war welfare state. In other words, social citizenship is a creation of modernity: it was through technological prowess and bureaucratic innovations that social citizenship (and social rights) were created. As we argue in this paper, such perspective belies a rather narrow understanding of social citizenship, where a particular west European experience is translated to serve as a universal and ahistorical lens. Instead, might it make sense to invert our thinking and situate informal citizenship at the centre of our conceptual framework?

Remittances offer an important example of the role informal social citizenship networks play in welfare. Through remittances, informal transnational communities of welfare create alternative routes to meeting social rights that bypass the nation state. In 2019, global remittances reached the record-high value of $548bn, beating both foreign direct investment ($534bn) and overseas development aid ($166bn) in value. This speaks clearly to both the magnitude and importance of informality in meeting welfare needs. Moreover, it is the informal norm of reciprocity within communities and kinships groups that govern the way human needs continue to be met outside the formal welfare systems by, among other things, remittances. The informal norms and practices that motivate remittances can be understood as the rights and responsibilities of informal citizenship.

When we think about citizenship our thoughts hark back to an ancient Greek understanding of membership in a political community that granted free men (but not slaves, women and foreigners) a say in political rule. Or we might consider Western, modern citizenship based on an evolution of legal, political and social rights as developed by T.H. Marshall in his excellent contributions. These are crucial steps in making sense of a particular Western conception of citizenship and associated rights and duties. But the fact remains that they are Western in all their historic specificity and contextual relevance. We argue in our paper that, conversely, citizenship is inherent in all human communities. We create communities with particular sets of rights and duties, less through formal legal arrangements but through informal ties and agreements. We humans create, recreate and swap citizenships all the time.

The aim of our article was to propose a theory of informal social citizenship and welfare that reflects the often complex and interdependent relationships between the formal and informal, highlighting their co-existence and constant co-evolution. Our new model highlights the interdependent and reciprocal – rather than evolutionary – nature of the relationship between informal and formal welfare practices. Our argument is twofold. 

First, informal citizenship is critical in understanding welfare and social policy in all local and transnational contexts. We argue that Marshall’s evolutionary perspective misses the importance of the constant negotiation between formal and informal on the one side and local and transnational on the other side. Formal national social citizenship and welfare state is therefore just one dimension of the complexities of social citizenship that should be of concern to welfare research. 

Second, we need to think more carefully about the interdependence of informal and formal welfare on all levels. We need to move beyond the ‘gap-filling’ role of informal social citizenship and instead locate it as active and integral part of the welfare systems in both developed and developing countries. At the same time, rather than sidelining the formal welfare state in favour of the more prevalent and accessible informal welfare, our analysis highlights the crucial role for the welfare state in coordinating, supporting and even integrating informal social citizenship practices in its fold. 

Our approach builds on the existing literature on informal welfare that permeates the discussions of ‘mixed economy of welfare’ and ‘welfare pluralism’ where the state and informal actors have distinct but complementary roles. An interdependent perspective suggests that the role of the state is less in devising the right division of labour between formal and informal welfare actors, but to see the integral role of both in the fulfilment of social rights. 

For example, a formal social policy perspective may sidestep the fact that the success of communities and individuals relies on informal networks alongside state delivery services. This is not to say that informal is preferable, but rather to highlight the delicate interleaving of formal and informal citizenship. Informal social citizenship is contextualized, particular, and generates myriad local variations. Informality is founded on embodied and unique understandings of communities, rights and duties that draws on the moral dimensions of traditions, reciprocity and relationships. These characteristics stand in stark contrast to the formal, disembodied legal social rights that are universally available to every citizen.  

The main difference is that where formal citizenship is based on legal rights and duties enshrined in law through a political community, informal citizenship is based on meeting of human and community needs through a particular local and moral community. Our theoretical starting point is a symbiotic relationship where the social needs of individuals and communities are met through dynamic interplay of both formal and informal avenues to realising social rights. Our theory highlights the interdependent rather than evolutionary relationship between informal and formal, where rights and responsibilities rely on both.

It might be worth returning to the case of remittances briefly to further illustrate the important interplay between formal and informal social citizenship. In Mexico, some municipalities have received up to 50% of their public works budgets from Hometown Associations – groups that facilitate the collective transfer of resources from migrant communities to communities of origin. In this sense, remittances exemplify how informal social citizenship practices grow in transnational spaces where the territorially and nationally bound welfare state makes little sense. 

Informality matters, then, because this is where all welfare originates and it continues to inform how we engage – or don’t – with formal welfare. Informal welfare is not merely an add-on or a helping hand for the formal welfare state. These are integral to each other and constitute each other. Seen this way, we can see social citizenship in terms of a much broader ecosystem of social rights and duties. We need to have a holistic understanding of how everything works together within that system, not just focusing on the constituent parts but understanding the system as a whole.


About the authors

Johan Nordensvärd is Senior Lecturer at Linköping University.

Markus Ketola is Senior Lecturer at the Universityof Edinburgh.

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