The Citizens and Rebels Project

An active citizen is not necessarily an obedient citizen …

We live in an era of increasing – and seemingly paradoxical – concern about both the lack of civic engagement in public life and the dangers of popular participation. It is assumed that the promotion of an active notion of citizenship can help to protect and maintain democracy. But what does citizenship actually mean?

The concept of citizenship is and always has been a fluid and contestable set of ideas and practices. The history of citizenship is not linear. Historically, as today, there has never been a single definition of citizenship. The identity of the citizen has also been a source of continuing tension. Citizenship has always included some people while excluding others.

Is citizenship defined fundamentally by the possession of rights, liberties and privileges? Or is it primarily about responsibilities and duties? Are political engagement and popular activism the essence of citizenship? Or is obedience its defining feature? Is there a difference between being a subject and being a citizen?

The Citizens and Rebels project argues that debate about citizenship – who has the right to speak and act, and are there limits on what citizens can say and do? – has fuelled protest in the past, just as it continues to inspire resistance to authority today.

These ideas were explored in events held in Durham in 2015 and 2017 to mark the 800th anniversary of the 1215 Magna Carta and the 1217 Charter of the Forest. A historical perspective demonstrates how and why there is a thin line between the citizen and the rebel.

The Project is led by Professor Christian Liddy of the Department of History, Durham University, UK, and you can watch Professor Liddy giving a lecture about the project below.