Citizenship and the Care of the Self

Aulia Hadi

Investigating citizenship from a multidisciplinary approach is the greatest breakthrough offered in Contemporary Practices of Citizenship in Asia and the West: Care of the Self. The book covers the notion of citizenship from a wide range of perspectives, including architecture, urbanism, anthropology, psychology, and gender studies. The volume’s editor, Gregory Bracken, is a specialist in urbanism, and he ensures the implementation of a “people-centred approach” as a point of departure for the entire analysis. Sequentially, this book can be classified into four parts, each of which discusses the perception of citizenship at different contexts: (a) private space (e.g., home), (b) public place, (c) overseas, and (d) future technological pitfalls.

Multidisciplinary approach for a single subject

The idea of citizenship has been in a contentious debate among political scholars since the last two decades. Initially, it was questioned by the academics in political science, who ask for further theoretic and empiric examination. These days, it seems to be more valued since it provides tools to comprehend public engagement within an increasingly borderless world. Nevertheless, Bellamy (2008) emphasizes that many studies on citizenship suffer from three flaws: (1) the dichotomy of academics (too much terminology) and non-academics (lack of current research); (2) the centrality of political aspects; and (3) the persistence of early Greek thought despite the changing globe. These critiques courageously challenge the comprehension of citizenship beyond political dimensions. If citizenship matters in the contemporary globalized world, how it can be defined in an extensive view and how is it intertwined with the everyday life of citizens?

Overall, all chapters in this book show the ways citizenship is defined from the grassroots, day-to-day insights of everyday people. It undoubtedly enriches studies on citizenship, particularly in Asia, which mostly present a monodisciplinary perspective. Furthermore, Asia is the single subject of this book. The book thoroughly covers Asians in their home region (Asia) as well as those living in a foreign country in the West. Chinese, Korean, Indian, Singaporean as well as Asian Americans are the focal points of discussion. Compared to other books with similar ambitions, this book provides a lens for readers, particularly novice readers, to understand the sense of citizenship from a quite diverse array of ethnic groups in Asia. However, the use of the West seems to be less appropriate for this book. The reason is simply due to the lack of narratives in the West. There is only one chapter on this topic, and it is devoted precisely to the citizenship expression of Asian Americans in the USA. The book might have been strengthened, therefore, if it had also incorporated other Asians in the West, such as Asian British people.

Citizenship: From identity (re)construction to engagement (re)negotiation

Before discussing the book further, a few weaknesses should also be identified. An early dissatisfaction is the inadequacy of the images. While people and place are analysed interchangeably in the text, the number of pictures in certain chapters are very limited, or even non-existent. For instance, the chapter about Korean jimjilbang (bath houses) delivers no illustrative pictures (pp. 41-66). Consequently, readers might experience difficulties imagining the place as well as distinguishing various functions of such places over time (e.g., a place for women to take care themselves after giving a birth in the past to modern multifunction public bathhouses in the present).

Another limitation is the lack of definite definition of what citizenship means in this book. Neither the editor nor the authors describe the ways citizenship is going to be investigated distinctly in their respective chapters. This issue might create puzzlement or ambiguity for the readers. How should citizenship be interpreted from multiple disciplinary approaches? How are those meanings interconnected simultaneously?

However, the loose boundaries of what citizenship entails also allow liberating reflections. These provide boundless opportunities for the contributors to explore the ways common people perceive different forms of citizenship in their everyday lives. At the beginning, Martin Minost delivers citizenship insights from the lifestyles of the “new Chinese urban middle and upper classes” (pp. 17-40). Their appropriation of Western design on their residences (e.g., Thames Town, Songjiang) is neither assimilation nor imitation. It shows their practices to (re)create their “new identity” by integrating the East-West as well as rural-urban modes.

Some authors elaborate how urban inhabitants define their citizenship based on spatial transformations, including public-private sphere conversion and place modification. These are varied: the shift of bathhouses from the private to public domain, the implementation of Korean Ki Suryŏn (body and soul refinement) via DVD, and the remodelling of Hindu crematoria due to urban sprawl. Largely, these chapters discuss the rights of citizens to (re)define their spaces.

Other writers think that migration is a fundamental matter to describe citizenship. From a gender perspective, Rachana Johri examines the rural-urban connection for most women migrants in India. While globalizing cities in India offer new promises of escape for caste- and gender-based identities, these also produce fragmented home experiences and urban violence for those women (p. 109). Meanwhile, other chapters trace the strategies of Chinese migrants in Japan as well as Asian Americans in the USA to form bonds and bridge communities, enabling them to maintain their roots with the home country and to access public services in the host country.

At the end of the book, a chapter is dedicated to comprehending the role of technology in the future smart city. To what extent does the presence of sensor society empower or suppress the freedom of citizens? Rather than overpowering, technology is considered as powerful transformation in how people govern and are governed. This certainly lets people (re)negotiate their engagement within society. Various types of citizenship covered in this book contribute to the open interpretation on the meaning of citizenship, especially from the ordinary person’s point of view. Nonetheless, some readers toward the end might keep wondering whether these practices fundamentally mirror so-called citizenship.

Care of the self as a form of citizenship?

Does “care of the self” concept offered in this book genuinely reflect a form of citizenship in the city?  In their chapter, Alleblas and Dorrestijn define it thusly: “the ‘inside’ perspective on how people govern themselves and cope with external influences is added to the ‘outside’ perspective of power” (p. 187). The above definition highlights that citizenship is interpretated as a moral or legal entitlement to obtain or act particular things since they are members of certain political community (i.e., urban inhabitants). If this is the case, then all chapters of this book draw the interplay of place and people, enabling citizens to occupy the city and to contend for the fulfilment of their rights. Nevertheless, the essential chapter deeply explaining “care of the self” by the aforementioned authors, regrettably, is located in the final part.

Furthermore, are micro individuals’ rights adequately robust to perform citizenship without any interconnection with the meso and macro structures? Who will then guarantee the equity among citizens? The contribution of the book to the study of citizenship could be more solid if it examined such questions beyond people’s care of the self. Nevertheless, the chapters will be good a reading material for scholars of citizenship, politics, urbanism, and Asian studies.