Differentiated Citizenship: A Critical Assessment



Time and again, there has been a persistent discussion about which version of citizenship should be followed – The universalist one or the differentiated one? The first is universal citizenship which applies to the entire community, regardless of individual distinctions. As shown below, it also contributes to the community’s integrity and inclusivity. The second is differentiated citizenship. According to Iris Marion Young, it is a solution to the limitations of universal citizenship. It grants special rights to “oppressed groups” to ensure their inclusion and involvement.

However, in order to provide representation, she goes so far as to undermine the very concept of citizenship. She makes so many exceptions to the concept of citizenship that it generates an entirely new type of political membership which is impractical. Thus, this paper argues that differentiated citizenship, as proposed by Young, opposes universal citizenship and can jeopardize the integrity of the State itself. What is required is universal citizenship as a binding force. Special rights can be formed within this universalism.

To that end, it first highlights problems with Young’s definition of differentiated citizenship. Second, it demonstrates how Will Kymlicka’s idea of citizenship can be a balancing approach to citizenship neither more universal nor more differentiated. Finally, it proposes ‘proportionate universalism’ based on his idea and concludes.

A Critique of Young’s idea of Citizenship

In her essay, Iris Marion Young argues that universal citizenship has resulted in the imposition of the dominant view on the oppressed class. The dominant class’s particularism is disguised as universal citizenship. She asserts that universal citizenship, based on the homogeneity of citizens, excludes groups that are unable to adopt such a viewpoint. Thus, she proposes differentiated citizenship, as opposed to universal citizenship. Differentiated citizenship, she believes, provides representation to the oppressed, allowing their mute voices to be heard.

Differentiated citizenship is built on the assumption that distinct groups will interact with one another. However, Young makes no discussion on how to achieve that active deliberation. She contends that ensuring an oppressed group’s political voice will assist the privileged groups in understanding the viewpoints that stem from experiences they have not experienced. It is predicated on the notion that groups understand each other. However, in support of another point, she claims that groups, particularly affluent ones, inherently do not understand each other. Thus, there is a contradiction in her own arguments.

Merely allowing for representation without any zeal to listen will result in people remaining enclaved within their distinct groupings. Because oppressed groups have fewer means to enhance their persuasive skills, they are unlikely to persuade the other groups to their advantage. Furthermore, the fact that the power of privileged groups is established on the same premise of oppression of others, contradicts the notion that they would injure themselves in order to accomplish justice for oppressed groups. Thus, a public debate among groups to discuss and determine what is beneficial to everyone will result in just the privileged groups being able to forward their ideas.

Addressing this issue, she suggests minority groups vetoes. Instead of proposing ways to foster active deliberation (among groups), she advocates minority group vetoes to prevent unfavorable repercussions (for them) from happening. These repercussions, which actually occur due to the lack of active deliberation, jeopardize the integrity of the national community as a whole. Veto power would only allow them to oppose changes detrimental to their perceived interests. In fact, granting such veto power to all of the social groups that Young considers oppressed would result in political paralysis, because each policy will inevitably harm the interests of some groups.

Another problem with Young’s contention is the huge number of groups created by her. Her list of oppressed groups includes almost 80% of the US population. Every other group would argue that they are oppressed in certain ways, though fortunate in others. Kymlicka contends that “given the almost endless capacity for fragmentation, what counts as adequate ethnic representation”? Where the line is to be drawn? Young does not answer this question. 

Even within a group, there is a possibility of certain people dominating others. Feminists, for example, have focused heavily on the concerns of White middle-class women, neglecting women who may face discrimination based on factors over and above gender. While arguing that Black Americans can be treated as a “social group” Young assumes that while in a group, other types of oppression will not seep in and all will be treated equally. In reality, all forms of oppression occur simultaneously. What about wealthy Black Americans? Are they to be included in a group of Black Americans, some of whom are poor? Or is it necessary to separate the wealthy Black from the poor? Young answers in the negative. She contends that an individual can be a part of multiple groups, in order to have their various oppressed aspects represented. In a group, however, an individual can be dominated on the basis of other oppressions (oppressions whose redressal is not the endeavor of that particular group), suppressing his individual demands. The representation he sought to assert, would be silenced to ensure uniformity in the group representation.

It is not difficult to envision situations in which differentiated citizenship, as defined by Young, would not only fail to serve oppressed groups’ legitimate interests but would also operate against them. What would be appropriate for one group, might not be for another. Rather, it may be at odds with the justice of another. The only ‘true citizens’ of a group would be members of that particular group (for Dalits, other Dalits; for disabled, other
disabled). Thus, instead of facilitating deliberation, between different groups, there would be no deliberation at all. This would further alienate people from the idea of a unified nation. Roger Smith explains this and argues that differentiated citizenship weakens the idea of belonging to a single nation by dividing society into distinct groups. Because this feeling of belonging is a highly felt human need, its absence will discourage people from engaging with other groups. Thus, active deliberation gives way to active concealment. 

Another point Young contends is the goal of inclusion. She contends that uniformly articulated rights and standards are oblivious to differences and hence promote, rather than eliminate oppression. However, inclusion can only be understood in terms of a common political sphere in which the excluded want to be included. If this political community is not truly shared, it remains doubtful if the idea of inclusion would retain its coherence. Thus, her concept of differentiated citizenship, which creates a safe space within people’s own groups but does not foster collective discourse, contradicts her goal of inclusion.

Proposing Kymlicka’s Idea of Citizenship

If each group regards itself as the only one capable of making decisions for itself and prioritizes safeguarding its own group interests, then John Rawls’ vision of common justice cannot be realized. While he mentions a universal type of society in which the wealthy share their wealth with the less fortunate, Young advocates for separate communities for each group. A distinct space for them to converse and express their views. This is corrected by Young by proposing the ideal of a ‘rainbow coalition’, in which each constituent group acknowledges the inclusion of the other as well as the uniqueness of its experience and perspective.

However, as Young admits, the ideal of a “rainbow coalition” is a long way from being realized. Thus, I recommend Will Kymlicka’s definition of differentiated citizenship. He claims that differentiated citizenship does not contradict universalism. Rather, it is in addition to universal citizenship. He contends that countries should provide ‘special representation’ as an exception to the general rule. This is in sharp contrast to Young’s argument that representation should not be granted as an exception. Rather, this should become the standard.

Kymlicka’s assessment of which groups require special treatment is likewise limited. While Young’s basis of providing representation is ‘oppression’, Kymlicka’s is ‘societal culture’. While Young groups people on the basis of their common experiences and values, Kymlicka defines ‘societal culture’ as having “not just shared memories or values, but also common institutions and practices”. Becoming a member of Kymlicka’s group necessitates not only shared oppression, but also shared daily practices and territory. Thus, he limits himself to national minorities (who require self-government rights) and ethnic groups (who require multicultural rights, in order to be excluded from laws that conflict with their religion/culture). It is a valid criticism that allowing national minorities powers of self- government would contradict the idea of inclusion and, eventually, citizenship. Even granting multicultural rights can occasionally do this. For example, in India, the lower castes have been provided with reservation quotas as a form of multicultural right. Though its aim is to include the marginalized within the larger community, it does not always do so in real terms. By focusing on one prominent indicator caste, it tends to exclude other forms of inequality, such as economic disadvantage. Even as the extent of these multicultural rights has expanded, India has struggled to balance the claims of various communities with universal citizenship. Another critique is that he overlooks non-ethnic groups such as women, gays, and the disabled.

His broader argument, however, that differentiated citizenship is not a replacement for universal citizenship, but rather an addition to it is the most practical. It ensures the nation’s integrity without undermining its people’s diversity

The Way Forward

The fact that Kymlicka allocates more representation to national minorities (in the form of self-government rights) and less to ethnic groups (multicultural rights), a principle can be inferred. That he makes a distinction between groups which are more oppressed and those which are less, gives them proportionate representation. This principle is the most practical approach.

Thus, I propose ‘proportionate universalism’. Based on the ideas of Kymlicka, it lies in the middle of universal and differentiated citizenship. It is a two-pronged model which shares universalism’s integrity as well as differentiated citizenship’s recognition of diversity. Going forward, I will explain how this two-pronged model solves Young’s limitations. 

First is the criticism that Young does not recommend ways to foster group engagement. Active deliberation can occur only when groups share a common goal to do so. This can be inferred from the fact that within a group, engagement occurs only when there is a common goal. Thus, the same can happen among groups if each one of them believes that it is in their interest to engage with other groups. The common goal can be the integrity of the nation. If every group feels a sense of inclusivity within its nation, it will make sure that inclusivity remains. And for that inclusivity, the group will require to engage with other groups. Furthermore, providing proportionate representation based on marginalization ensures that groups are only represented to the extent necessary. Thus, the process becomes less complex.

The second criticism is that in a situation of differentiated citizenship, only privileged groups would be able to advance their ideas. “Proportionate universalism” comes to the rescue once more. By making inclusion and integrity a common goal, it ensures that privileged groups would listen to others in order for others to remain integrated. The third criticism is the sub-domination of people within their own groups. Again, giving oppressed individuals proportionate representation, even within a group, would ensure that privileged people are less likely to dominate

The third criticism is the sub-domination of people within their own groups. Again, giving oppressed individuals proportionate representation, even within a group, would ensure that privileged people are less likely to dominate.


Even this model has limitations. First, who is to decide which group is marginalized and on what basis? Second, what about the multitude of groups created by Young? This model does not provide a solution to it. Third, what if some groups do not wish to be included? Do we need group vetoes then, to ensure that inclusivity remains a common goal? This paper was unable to answer these questions. Questions that need to be researched further.

To conclude, this paper demonstrated how the integrity of the state (universalism) is in trade-off with differentiated citizenship. The requirement is a balance of the two, as implied by Kymlicka’s idea of citizenship. To that point, I first critiqued Young’s idea of citizenship, which is tilted more toward differentiation. Second, a comparison was made between Young’s differentiated citizenship and Rawls’ difference principle. Finally, proposed ‘proportionate universalism’ as a balanced strategy.

Ritesh Raj,
+ posts

an undergraduate student at NLSIU Bengaluru.


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