The Global Citizen

The Political Dimension and Discursive Grounds of the Global Citizen

Angel Iglesias Ortiz

ERIS – European Review of International Studies, Heft 1/2018, S. 28-47

Abstract: The global citizen is a recognisable element in the discourse of many actors that advocate a form of identification beyond the national level. In this paper, the aim is to analyse the ways the figure of the global citizen is discursively grounded by a selection of international actors, two of which are small and US-based, and two (the World Economic Forum and the World Bank) are high profile elite institutions. It is argued that at the level of discourse, the notion of a ‘global citizen’ represents a point of identification above and beyond the civil sphere. This means that the legitimacy bestowed on this figure is ultimately projected into the institutions advocating it. In terms of discourse the role of the global citizen is linked to the fulfilment of a historical and normative task within a foundational vision of the world. Framed in this way, the global citizen embodies a particular form of subjectivity that develops social legitimacy while being presented as a non-political actor in all the actions accredited to it. This framing is subjected to critical analysis, considering the inherently political dimension of all social identities and the implications that a process of identification has for the subject.

Keywords: Political subjectivity, global citizen, discursive grounds, identity


The development of a global subject as a citizen, able to cope with the challenges and opportunities of the global world, is on the rise. For instance, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) published in 2016 a global poll whose results show that for the first time in 15 years, 49% of people in 14 countries out of 21 consider themselves more as global citizens rather than citizens of their respective countries.[1] In the field of education, for example, courses on global citizenship are part of curriculums at different schooling levels in many countries and even transnational corporations refer and follow guidelines based on this idea. This momentum seems to be on the increase; for instance the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) published what is considered the first pedagogical guidance on global citizenship education in 2015.[2]

The concept, use, and promotion of the figure of the global citizen, however, need some explanatory points. The figure of the global citizen is embedded within the conception of global citizenship. The basic logic behind these notions is to develop a universal identification, and a sense of global belonging irrespective of social differences. This shared identification works as a guideline to address all kinds of societal problems at the local and world level. Both notions are far from settled and they are still debated. The social and political aspects debated within these notions include an ethical dimension and a normative engagement complemented by a political dimension with theoretical and practical issues concerning citizenship. These latter issues are the main point of contention within the perspectives that conceptualise citizenship. Certainly, the first question concerns the understanding of the concept; citizenship can be defined in terms of shared norms and values, as constitutional rights and responsibilities, or as membership of a political community under a frame of governing institutions.[3]

In the case of the global citizen, the question is the nature and capacity of the institution granting rights and the characteristics that trans-national citizenship must have. In addition, it is necessary to consider the understanding and practices that citizenship conveys in national or local contexts and the recent rise of nationalism in key countries. Despite the ongoing debates concerning citizenship and possible trans or post-national models, this article argues that the promotion of the global citizen as a subject and form of identification must be differentiated from these debates. The figure of the global citizen is not only already referenced by many local and international actors in their discourse, it has an operational version; the most notorious promotion has been made by institutions and organisations supporting the economic aspects of globalisation.

In this context, the aim of this paper is neither to propose a new account of the global citizen nor to evaluate which theoretical account of citizenship is more acceptable or less problematic at this level. Instead, the focus is on the figurative aspect in the discourse and the politics related to the promotion of the global citizen. The purpose is to analyse the manoeuvres grounding this figure in the discourse of what can be considered a hegemonic stance. The discursive version of the global citizen is a clear case of the promotion of an account of social objectivity. Hence, the focus is on the use and promotion of this person by some actors, within different contexts, as embedded in the ‘global citizen for a global world’ discourse. The topic of the global citizen is related to significant matters in different academic fields.

At a general level, the discussion raises issues of convergence in world politics[4] and the consolidation of the international/world society.[5] In addition, it is also related to debates on the effects and consequences of globalisation and the homogenization of cultural practices and patterns of consumption worldwide.6 Conversely, within the vast literature in globalisation, different waves[7] of analysis and theorisation have focussed on the structural processes around global citizenship, but less attention has been paid to the symbolic or discursive dimension with few works examining globalisation as a hegemonic discourse by questioning the ideas and knowledge behind the process.[8] The works that do focus on the global citizen have analysed subjectivity and class politics, specific characteristics of citizenship, the imposition of an imperial logic on the prospect of a supranational citizenship, and the ways development policies are used to commercialise events and promote models of subjectivity such as the global citizen.[9]

However, less attention has been paid to the study of the ways, and contexts in which the global citizen is presented and advocated in everyday discourse. This article contributes to this line of study from a perspective that reflects the way accounts of social objectivity and subjectivity are influenced by the fixation of meaning. It aims to account for the kind of subject that emerges in the discourse and the world views represented by different actors with a positive stance on the global world. The argument is that, at the level of discourse, the figure of the global citizen works as a point of social identification for a collective identity, but simultaneously, this figure has a central role in legitimising the political world view promoted by the actors discussed above. The analysis discusses the ways the global citizen is discursively grounded and the status of the political dimension that affects their identity. In everyday discourse, the global citizen is presented as a figure endowed with a particular subjectivity and a historical task to achieve. This means that grounding a model of subjectivity implies a development of the societal input underpinning a framework of governance.

Thus, some of the concepts of Ernesto Laclau’s and Chantal Mouffe’s discourse theory are used for the overall discussion. The actors considered for analysis are: Global Citizens’ Initiative, Global Citizen platform, the World Economic Forum and the World Bank. The analysis reviews public statements, information from websites, and working documents published by these actors. The choice of presenting actors with a supportive stance helps us to understand the logic behind a hegemonic position and the ways this position achieves legitimacy. The discursive perspective gives insight into the strategic moves in the fixation of meaning that appeal to accounts of social objectivity and convergence. This perspective dismisses essentialist understandings of subjectivity; it argues that notions as cultural or social identity must be considered as a place of political intervention and struggle.[10] In terms of collective identity, it is crucial to consider the multiplicity of discourses and power structures that are related to the process of identity formation: this requires an understanding of all the implications of the political dimension of social identities.


The historic juncture of the 1990s brought back the scenario of having ‘citizens of the world’. Economic cooperation and integration, accredited to the process of globalisation, increased the social, political, and cultural aspirations of a converging world. At the same time, the expansion of non-governmental organisations working in humanitarian or environmental policy areas prompted discussions about the potential characteristics of, and possibilities of developing, a civil society under a global condition. This is the context in which the figure of the global citizen develops. In terms of discourse, public references to the global citizen are directly related to future scenarios of the world, seeing them participating in solutions to the most pressing problems affecting humankind. The topic of the global citizen is embedded within the issues of post-national citizenship and global civil society.[11] The conceptualisation of these topics overlaps and appear deeply interlinked because these include the idea of a subject that follows normative guidelines that constitute a community beyond the national level.

In the case of the figure of a citizen, it is possible to distinguish five categories.[12] A global citizen can firstly be considered as a ‘reformer’ who is keen to support a supra-national authority engaged with the problems of the world. The second type is the ‘transnational’ global citizen who enjoys a privileged position as business person and supports the free market economy; this position allows this kind to perceive that trends and interests are becoming unified. The possibility of permanent contact with other cultures develops this sort of global/transnational identity. The third type is described as a ‘functional’ citizen because of their support for the management of environmental and economic issues. The fourth category relates to a regional identification expressed in terms of citizenship (as the European Union). Fifth, and last, is the ‘global activist’ who works in non-governmental organisations focusing on human rights or environmental issues. One of the most common criticisms of the ideal of global citizenship holds that most of the academic conceptualisations have been proposed in Western countries.[13] In consequence, this notion has become embedded in the interests of these countries and part of their ‘civilising missions’.

In the same way, global civil society is differentiated in three paradigms.[14] The activist form developed with the new social movements that advocated action in peace, human rights, gender or environmental issues in the 1970s. The anti-globalisation movements and their social justice agenda are examples of this paradigm.[15] The second type has a close relation with economic international institutions, and developed in the 1990s, when the multiplication of non-governmental organisations replaced the prominence and influence of social movements. This is labelled the neo-liberal version of global civil society due to the adoption and support of market economy and parliamentary democracy models into the work of non-governmental organisations. The last form of global civil society is considered as postmodern, because it criticizes Eurocentric views and reductionist readings of what counts as civil society and recognises more plural expressions outside of these views. This stance acknowledges that local, ethnic, or religious movements are also part of the global society.

In its consideration of notions of citizenship at a worldwide level the available literature compares existing models theorising citizenship (e.g. liberal, communitarian) and proposes possible attributions and scenarios of implementation.[16] The cases of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and the European Union, are the current references to citizenship beyond the national dimension. These examples are closely related to the schools of thought that conceptualise a social project or practices for the subject universally. Cosmopolitanism stands out as one of the most recognised perspectives within the stream of post-nationalist ideas. There are some differences between contemporary advocates of this perspective, but all share the idea of an individual granted with some universal rights regardless of their origin or condition.[17]

Besides the categorisations discussed above, it is necessary to consider the dynamics of identification and how these take place in national contexts and modern democracies. Firstly, there is no clear-cut distinction between categories defining global citizen/ship or forms of global civil society. In practice, any form of identification accepts a condition of multiplicity and even a degree of contradiction. Identities are contingent and overlap indistinctly. In contemporary democracies, and in the case of the global citizen, these forms of identification develop in different ways. It may be a clear case of antagonism with local groups standing in opposition. For instance, a pro-global citizen stance is closer to a group with privileged social and economic position (e.g. global reformer, transnational global citizen, functional, regional citizen, or neo-liberal type) with possibilities of mobility and access to different cultural experiences. This supporting stance shares specific views with the current institutional governmental framework at the regional and global level.[18] By contrast, the stance can collide with a group rejecting these views, where the latter privileges a nationalistic posture. However, these groups are not in permanent division, there are overlaps in certain contexts.[19] Here, the work of David Goodhart provides a nuanced picture, in positing a division between those groups which feel rooted in ‘somewhere’ particular, and the ‘anywheres’, who no longer have a strong sense of territorial affiliation.[20]

[1] The poll was made by GlobeScan commissioned by the BBC. Available: (accessed: 16 November 2016).
[2] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Global Citizen Education. Preparing learners for the challenges of the 21st century. (Paris: UNESCO, 2014). available: (accessed: 16 February 2017). For other example see: OXFAM’s educational programme on global citizenship available:
[3] Barbara Arneil, ‘Global Citizenship and Empire’, Citizenship Studies, Vol.11, No.3 (2007), pp. 301–328.
[4] David Held and Anthony Mcgrew, Governing Globalization: Power, Authority and Global Governance. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007).
[5] Barry Buzan, From International to World Society? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
[6] George Ritzer (ed.), The Blackwell Companion to Globalization (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007).
[7] The waves are from first to last: ‘theoreticist, historicist, institutionalist, and post-structuralist’ Andrew Mcgrew, ‘Globalization in Hard Times: Contention in the Academy and Beyond’ in G. Ritzer (ed.) The Blackwell Companion to Globalization (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), pp. 29–53.
[8] Colin Hay and David Marsh (eds.), Demystifying Globalisation (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2000). Angus Cameron and Robert Palan, The Imagined Economies of Globalization (London: SAGE, 2004). Peter Fiss and Paul Hirsch, ‘The Discourse of Globalization: Framing and Sense making of an Emerging Concepts’, American Sociological Review, Vol. 70, No. 1 (2005), pp. 29–52.
[9] Barbara Arneil, ‘Global Citizenship and Empire’, op. cit.. April Biccum, ‘Marketing Development: Live 8 and the Production of the Global Citizen’, Development and Change, Vol. 38, No. 6 (2007), pp. 1111–1126. Barry Hindess, ‘Neo-liberal citizenship’, Citizenship Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2 (2002), pp. 127–143. Serap Kayatekin and David Ruccio ‘Global fragments: subjectivity and class politics in discourses of globalization’, Economy and Society, Vol. 27, No. 1(1998), pp. 74–96.
[10] Chantal Mouffe, ‘For a politics of nomadic identity’ in G. Robertson (et al.), Travellers’ tales: Narratives of home and displacement (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 110.
[11] See for example: April Carter, The Political Theory of Global Citizenship (New York: Routledge, 2006). Mary Kaldor, Global civil society: an answer to war (Massachusetts: Polity Press, 2003). John Keane, Global civil society? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
[12] Richard Falk, ‘The making of global citizenship’, in B. Van Steenbergen (ed.), The Condition of Citizenship (London: SAGE, 1993), pp. 127–140.
[13] Brett Bowden. ‘The Perils of Global Citizenship’. Citizenship Studies, Vol. 7, No. 2 (2003), pp. 349–362.
[14] Mary Kaldor, ‘The Idea of Global Civil Society’, International Affairs, Vol. 79, No. 3 (2003), pp. 583–593.
[15] For example, the Zapatista Movement in Mexico, Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil, or the World Social Forum.
[16] Darren O‘Byrne, The Dimensions of Global Citizenship: Political Identity Beyond the Nation-State (London: Frank Cass, 2003). Gerard Delanty, Citizenship in a global age (Buckingham: Open University Press, 2000). Lynn Dobson, Supranational citizenship, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). E. Isin F. and P. Nyers, (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Global Citizenship Studies. (London: Routledge, 2014). For a comparison of discourses (civic republican and libertarian) outside academic debates see: Hans Schattle, ‘Communicating Global Citizenship: Multiple Discourses Beyond the Academy’, Citizenship Studies, Vol. 9, No.2 (2005), pp. 119–133
[17] For different views within the cosmopolitan perspective see among others: Seyla Benhabib, The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents and Citizens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). David Held, Democracy and the Global Order: From the Modern State to Cosmopolitan Governance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995). Martha Nussbaum and Joshua Cohen (eds.), For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).
[18] There is a pro-European Union and cosmopolitan position closer to what the global citizen stands for, such as some of Emmanuel Macron’s supporters in France.
[19] David Goodhart, The road to somewhere: The populist revolt and the future of politics. (London: Hurst & Company, 2017) Ch. 2.
[20] These groups rejecting more integration have noticeably gained presence in Great Britain, Poland or Hungary.

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