Becoming an active citizen: The UK Citizenship Test

This article explores the effects of the UK citizenship test on migrants through the focus on the injunction to become an active citizen. We draw on qualitative interviews with 158 migrants of different nationalities who are at various stages in the process. We identify two responses. First, participants in our study drew on neo-liberal repertoires of active (knowledgeable) citizenship whereby they proved they are responsible and law-abiding agents of ‘social cohesion’ yet also simultaneously presented themselves as politically passive. Second, some participants perform critical, alternative narratives which contrast with the neo-liberal understanding of active citizenship. We note that these responses are not mutually exclusive and show the process of making sense of and positioning oneself around the competing, unsettled understandings of what counts as ‘active’ and what it means to be a citizen. The coexistence of these different responses shows that migrants going through the citizenship test process experience this policy instrument – and the injunctions on which it is based – in unsettling and contradictory ways. Through the citizenship test, and specifically the call to be an active citizen, adherence is sought to particular values – ‘British values’ – and the performance of active dispositions in a certain way. However, the neoliberal understanding of what it means to be an active citizen is also exceeded and challenged, in sometimes quite ‘ordinary’ and everyday ways. These coexisting and contradictory narratives bring to light the uncertainties through which migrants perceive the injunction to become an active citizen and the paradoxes of active citizenship more generally.

Leah Bassel, Pierre Monforte, Kamran Khan, Becoming an active citizen: The UK Citizenship Test, Ethnicities, 2020.