Persons and Citizens in Constitutional Thought

International Journal of Constitutional Law, Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 9-29, 2010

21 Pages Posted: 30 Mar 2010

Date Written: 2010


The ideas of citizenship and personhood have an ambiguous relationship in constitutional thought. Often, they are understood as aligned, even identical. Claims for “equal citizenship” and “democratic citizenship” are, in effect, claims on behalf of the rights and recognition of individuals qua persons. Frequently, however, citizenship and personhood are regarded as opposing concepts. Whereas citizenship references national belonging and its associated rights, personhood evokes the rights and dignity of individuals independent of national status. Personhood stands for the universal, in contrast to citizenship, which is ultimately exclusionary.

Much of the ambiguity of the personhood-citizenship relationship results from the multivalence of the idea of citizenship itself. Analytically, the term is used to reference both re lations among already-presumed members of a political community and the process of constituting that community in the first instance. Normatively, citizenship is understood as committed to universalism within the community, but in its community-constitutive mode, it is associated with bounded national commitments. Idealized accounts treat citizenship as a concept that works to mediate between universality and boundedness and ultimately to accommodate them: in this view, that is precisely citizenship’s function and its value. Citizenship is thus represented as both the embodiment of the universal and as the framing precondition for it.

In earlier work, I have shown that the accommodation of the universal and particular that citizenship purports to stand for is often unstable and internally contradictory. Here, I am interested in thinking about constitutional personhood’s own hang-ups. Personhood as a preferred basis for constitutional subject status raises as many questions as it answers, and in the context of constitutional thought, it promises much more than it can deliver. This essay sketches out some directions for a critical reading of the idea of “constitutional personhood.”

Suggested Citation

Bosniak, Linda S., Persons and Citizens in Constitutional Thought (2010). International Journal of Constitutional Law, Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 9-29, 2010. Available at SSRN:

Linda S. Bosniak (Contact Author)

Rutgers University School of Law ( email )

Fifth and Penn Streets
Camden, NJ 08102
United States
856-225-6403 (Phone)
856-225-6516 (Fax)

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