The best citizenship books

1 authors have picked their favorite books about citizenship and why they recommend each book.

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The Invention of the Passport

By John C. Torpey,

Book cover of The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State

Torpey’s book, first published in 2000, is now a classic. With it, he helped open up a whole field of inquiry into the history of official documents and identification techniques that both constrain—and make conceivable—modern society. Here, think of street addresses, fingerprints, birth certificates, credit records, driver’s licenses, tax forms, and visas. For Torpey, the passport, “that little paper booklet with the power to open international doors,” is a window into modern nation states’ interest in regulating movement. For his readers, it is a bracing reminder of how recent those controls are and how habituated we denizens of the 21st century have become to showing our papers.


Who am I?

I’m an American intellectual historian and professor at Vanderbilt University. I’ve long been fascinated by the history and politics of data: the question of how publicly available knowledge shapes societies as well as individual selves. It’s led me to research the effects of popular polls and statistics on mid-century U.S. culture and to write about how ever-advancing techniques for “knowing” citizens shaped modern privacy sensibilities. My current obsession is with official identity documents—how they infiltrate people’s lives in ways that are at once bureaucratic and curiously intimate. The books I’ve selected lay bare the promise and the peril of documentation in wonderfully vivid detail.


I wrote...

The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America

By Sarah E. Igo,

Book cover of The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America

What is my book about?

Every day, we make decisions about what to share and when, how much to expose, and to whom. Securing the boundary between one’s private affairs and public identity has become an urgent task of modern life. The Known Citizen tracks the quest for privacy in the United States over the last century and a half, revealing enduring debates over how Americans would―and, importantly, should―be known.  

Beginning with “instantaneous photography” in the late nineteenth century and culminating in our present dilemmas over social media and big data, the book uncovers the surprising ways that arguments over what should be kept out of the public eye have shaped U.S. politics and society.  It offers the first wide-angle view of privacy as it has been lived and imagined by modern Americans—with powerful lessons for our own times, when corporations, government agencies, and data miners are tracking our every move.

The Practice of Citizenship

By Derrick R. Spires,

Book cover of The Practice of Citizenship: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United States

This is a fascinating book that deals with one of the central dilemmas in American history—that a nation committed to high ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in a republic made up of people from several lands could also be a nation committed to racial oppression and the denial of fundamental rights. It considers citizenship not as noun but as verb—a dynamic process, not just a legal affiliation. Spires gets at the complexity of American life, explaining approaches to citizenship that required savvy improvisation, community formation, and determined commitment to ideals that were violated by the dominant culture at every turn. Spires explores the tensions, the disagreements over directions and methods, that were part of this collective effort, and the concepts of citizenship that emerged from those productive debates. Among a great many other things, readers will learn a lot about African American intellectual life, writing, and…


Who am I?

Good question. Why would a white guy be passionate about nineteenth-century African American community building and activism? It’s a long story, but the short version is that by the time I reached graduate school, I could no longer avoid the realization that I had been dramatically miseducated about American history, and that the key to American history—one important key, anyway—is African American history. You can’t understand what it means to be an American if you don’t know this history, and you can’t understand our own very troubled times, or how to respond to these times, how to turn frustration into action, unless you know this history. So I developed my expertise over the years. 


I wrote...

A Nation Within a Nation: Organizing African American Communities before the Civil War

By John Ernest,

Book cover of A Nation Within a Nation: Organizing African American Communities before the Civil War

What is my book about?

This is the activism you might not have been taught or looked for. When nineteenth-century African Americans are not remembered as victims of the system of slavery, they are remembered mainly for their antislavery efforts—and we usually recall and celebrate just a few individuals. Frederick Douglass giving a speech. Harriet Tubman blazing a trail to freedom. Sojourner Truth asking firmly, “Ain’t I a Woman?” We rarely look beyond such individuals to the thriving African American communities in the North. 

A Nation Within a Nation tells the story of how those communities were created and sustained. Excluded from schools, churches, libraries, fraternal organizations, and even graveyards, African Americans established their own, making of themselves a self-sustaining community in the midst of oppression. 

Ottoman Brothers

By Michelle U. Campos,

Book cover of Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine

Students of Middle East studies learn a lot about Ottoman history, specifically about the Ottoman Empire's last decades, before WWI. But historians gave very little attention to the Arab provinces of the empire in comparison to Istanbul and the imperial center. In this book, Campos presented the fascinating case of Ottoman Palestine. Campos shows the most convincing rebuttal for the theories that attributed no Ottoman identity in the peripheries. The fantastic picture of Jerusalem during the last years of the empire can teach us a lot about the relations between Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Palestine, the understanding of national and imperial frameworks at the turn of the century, and the optimistic reader may find ideas to deadlock conflicts in the 21st century.


Who am I?

I always felt that Middle Eastern studies is different from other fields of history. Its ever-presence in our life, the news cycle, religious life, political life, yet, because of language barriers and other filters, there’s a gap in knowledge that is highly conspicuous when forming one’s opinion. When I started my academic training, I felt like I was swimming in this ocean of histories that were completely unknown to me. I studied the Jewish histories of the region only later in my training and found that this gap is even more visible when talking about the history of Jews in the Middle East, because of misconceptions of antisemitism, the Israel-Palestine conflict, political tilt of media outlet, and more. For me, entering this field was a way to understand long-term processes in my own society, and expand the body of scholarship to enrich the public conversation on top of the academic one.


I wrote...

Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran

By Lior B. Sternfeld,

Book cover of Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran

What is my book about?

Iran is home to the largest Jewish population in the Middle East, outside of Israel. At its peak in the twentieth century, the population numbered around 100,000; today about 25,000 Jews live in Iran. Between Iran and Zion offers the first history of this vibrant community over the course of the last century, from the 1905 Constitutional Revolution through the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Over this period, Iranian Jews grew from a peripheral community into a prominent one that has made clear impacts on daily life in Iran.

Torchbearers of Democracy

By Chad L. Williams,

Book cover of Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era

Torchbearers is a pathbreaking history of the fight for American democracy during World War I, told from the perspective of African American servicemen who joined, fought, and returned from battle. Already engaged in conflict over civil rights in the US, African Americans took seriously the call to “make the world safe for democracy.” Through writing, activism, and organizing, they linked their domestic fight to the foreign fight against democracy’s enemies. Perhaps no other group in the US, Williams shows, was poised to engage the very biggest questions that animated the war – questions of citizenship, rights, freedom, and empire – as were African Americans. And their wartime service, he shows, was the crucible for the long freedom movement that followed.  


Who am I?

I never thought I’d become a historian of the US military. Like most Americans raised in the era of the All-Volunteer Force, I grew up with no close personal connections to the US military. Yet its symbols, metaphors, and power flooded my life, from movies to games to politics. Every encounter with a memoir, an operational history, a biography, or a government study offered a new understanding of how the US military came to play such a vital role in US society, and how US society in turn shaped practices and people in the military. These five histories did more than any others to shape my understanding of the military’s relationship to American society in the twentieth century.


I wrote...

Rise of the Military Welfare State

By Jennifer Mittelstadt,

Book cover of Rise of the Military Welfare State

What is my book about?

Since the end of the draft, the U.S. Army has prided itself on its patriotic volunteers who heed the call to “Be All That You Can Be.” But beneath the recruitment slogans, the army promised volunteers something more tangible: a social safety net including medical and dental care, education, child care, financial counseling, housing assistance, legal services, and other privileges that had long been reserved for career soldiers. 

The Rise of the Military Welfare State examines how the U.S. Army’s extension of benefits to enlisted men and women created a military welfare system of unprecedented size and scope at the end of the twentieth century. And it examines how this welfare state fared amidst the rollback of civilian social welfare, a turn to “self-reliance” within the military leadership, and the growth of military privatization and outsourcing.  

Impossible Subjects

By Mae M. Ngai,

Book cover of Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America

This is easily the best account of the complex, racialized history of U.S. immigration law, politics, and policy. One of the arguments in it that impressed me most is that the category “illegal aliens”the “impossible subjects” of the title—barely existed in the pre-World War I years, when almost no European immigrants were turned away from the U.S. (Asians were another story). Ngai also brilliantly analyzes two landmark laws: the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which dramatically restricted immigration through nationality-based quotas limiting arrivals from Eastern and Southern Europe; and the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, which eliminated the quotas and opened the door to a massive new immigrant influx. This is a densely written book, not an easy read, but no other text has taught me more about this topic.


Who am I?

I first got seriously interested in immigration when I moved to L.A. in the late 1980s. I had been a sociologist of labor for over a decade already, and now found myself in a city whose working class was overwhelmingly foreign-born. I was amazed to discover that L.A.’s immigrant workers, even the undocumented, were actively organizing into unions and community-based organizations. Trying to understand how this came about, my fascination with the larger dynamics of migration grew, and immigrant labor became central to my research agenda.


I wrote...

Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat

By Ruth Milkman,

Book cover of Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat

What is my book about?

This book challenges the immigrant threat narrative that blames foreign-born newcomers, especially the undocumented, for the deteriorating living standards of American workers. It argues that low-wage immigration is a consequence rather than a cause of growing economic precarity and skyrocketing inequality, drawing on case studies of key industries. Starting in the late 1970s, employer attacks on labor unions, along with neoliberal policies like deregulation, degraded many good-paying jobs held by non-college-educated U.S.-born workers. As a result, workers increasingly abandoned those now-undesirable jobs, which in turn led employers to hire immigrants to replace them. The justifiable anger of American workers at the reversal of fortune they have suffered in recent decades, I argue, should be directed at the employers and political elites whose actions degraded their former jobs, not at immigrants.

No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies

By Linda K. Kerber,

Book cover of No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship

Linda Kerber’s No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies offers a fantastic insight into the maleness of rights-bearing citizenship embedded within the United States legal tradition. As Kerber demonstrates, the notion that women were incapable of performing certain civic obligations formed a central reason for why early U.S. political and legal authorities had excluded women from certain rights of citizenship. I found Kerber’s study especially helpful for dissecting the history of the common law tradition of domestic relations, or the doctrine known as coverture. As I discuss in the first chapters of my own book, and as Kerber brilliantly illustrates in No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies, the doctrine of coverture deprived women of having self-ownership over their own bodies, which led to intense restrictions on women’s opportunities and their overall civic autonomy. 


Who am I?

I am a historian with a PhD in history from American University. My research has focused on the changing nature of U.S. citizenship after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. In particular, my newly released book, Gendered Citizenship, sheds light on the competing civic ideologies embedded in the original conflict over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) from the 1920s through the 1960s. My research has won recognition through several grants and fellowships and my writing has appeared in the Washington Post, History News Network, New America Weekly, Gender on the Ballot, and Frontiers


I wrote...

Gendered Citizenship: The Original Conflict over the Equal Rights Amendment, 1920-1963

By Rebecca DeWolf,

Book cover of Gendered Citizenship: The Original Conflict over the Equal Rights Amendment, 1920-1963

What is my book about?

By engaging deeply with United States’ legal and political history, Gendered Citizenship illuminates the ideological contours of the original ERA conflict. Through an extensive examination of almost-forty different archival collections, several court cases, and a multitude of government documents, Gendered Citizenship unearths the array of both men and women who participated in the original conflict. In the process, Gendered Citizenship takes the struggle over the ERA in an entirely new direction.

Rather than focusing on the familiar theme of why the ERA failed to gain enactment, Gendered Citizenship explores how the debates over the ERA transcended traditional political divides in the early to mid-twentieth century and ultimately redefined the concept of citizenship in the United States.

Unequal Freedom

By Evelyn Nakano Glenn,

Book cover of Unequal Freedom: How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor

In Unequal Freedom, Nakano Glenn provides a brilliant analysis of how the multiple axes of power relations, including race, gender, and labor, have shaped the terms of citizenship in the United States. In the process, Glenn unpacks how the history of the concept of citizenship is a powerful tool for understanding the various ways power dynamics have influenced the terms of belonging to a national community. Glenn’s book is an inspiring study that has pushed me to think more deeply about the notion of citizenship and to understand that the concept of citizenship involves more than just indicating one’s nationality status. As Glenn shows, citizenship denotes a system of deeply entrenched boundaries that have determined not only who is allowed to be a member of a certain community, but also who is allowed to be an active participant in governing that community. 


Who am I?

I am a historian with a PhD in history from American University. My research has focused on the changing nature of U.S. citizenship after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. In particular, my newly released book, Gendered Citizenship, sheds light on the competing civic ideologies embedded in the original conflict over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) from the 1920s through the 1960s. My research has won recognition through several grants and fellowships and my writing has appeared in the Washington Post, History News Network, New America Weekly, Gender on the Ballot, and Frontiers


I wrote...

Gendered Citizenship: The Original Conflict over the Equal Rights Amendment, 1920-1963

By Rebecca DeWolf,

Book cover of Gendered Citizenship: The Original Conflict over the Equal Rights Amendment, 1920-1963

What is my book about?

By engaging deeply with United States’ legal and political history, Gendered Citizenship illuminates the ideological contours of the original ERA conflict. Through an extensive examination of almost-forty different archival collections, several court cases, and a multitude of government documents, Gendered Citizenship unearths the array of both men and women who participated in the original conflict. In the process, Gendered Citizenship takes the struggle over the ERA in an entirely new direction.

Rather than focusing on the familiar theme of why the ERA failed to gain enactment, Gendered Citizenship explores how the debates over the ERA transcended traditional political divides in the early to mid-twentieth century and ultimately redefined the concept of citizenship in the United States.

Hitler's American Model

By James Q. Whitman.,

Book cover of Hitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law

My first two picks concern the inhumanities that White Americans perpetrated against Black people, and my second two picks concern the inhumanities that Nazis perpetrated against Jews, Roma, and others. My fifth pick brings both of these seemingly independent strands together. In it, Yale University historian James Q. Whitman documents how, during the early years of the regime, Nazi lawyers looked to racist American legislation as a model for the infamous 1935 Nuremburg laws, which were the first step down the road that led to Auschwitz. This short, eye-opening book leads readers to see how American racist values were not only bad in themselves, but also contributed to the most horrific genocide of the twentieth century.


Who am I?

I’ve been studying dehumanization, and its relationship to racism, genocide, slavery, and other atrocities, for more than a decade. I am the author of three books on dehumanization, one of which was awarded the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf award for non-fiction, an award that is reserved for books that make an outstanding contribution to understanding racism and human diversity. My work on dehumanization is widely covered in the national and international media, and I often give presentations at academic and non-academic venues, including one at the 2012 G20 economic summit where I spoke on dehumanization and mass violence.


I wrote...

On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It

By David Livingstone Smith,

Book cover of On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It

What is my book about?

The Rwandan genocide, the Holocaust, the lynching of African Americans, the colonial slave trade: these are horrific episodes of mass violence spawned from racism and hatred. We like to think that we could never see such evils again--that we would stand up and fight. But something deep in the human psyche--deeper than prejudice itself--leads people to persecute the other: dehumanization, or the human propensity to think of others as less than human.

An award-winning author and philosopher, Smith takes an unflinching look at the mechanisms of the mind that encourage us to see someone as less than human. There is something peculiar and horrifying in human psychology that makes us vulnerable to thinking of whole groups of people as subhuman creatures. When governments or other groups stand to gain by exploiting this innate propensity, and know just how to manipulate words and images to trigger it, there is no limit to the violence and hatred that can result.

Broadening the Dementia Debate

By Ruth Bartlett, Deborah O'Connor,

Book cover of Broadening the Dementia Debate: Towards Social Citizenship

Sabat deepened the work of Kitwood on personhood (or selfhood). These authors broaden it by showing how it integrates with the idea of citizenship. In my work, I’ve argued that as persons we are situated embodied agents. In a very exciting way, Bartlett and O’Connor show how people living with dementia are situated in a social and political context in which they can act as agents to bring about change. Indeed, since the book was written, increasingly we’ve seen this come to fruition. As noticed and predicted by these authors, people living with dementia do not have to be seen as ‘care recipients’, they can be (and are) activists, advocates, authors, artists, employees, friends, lovers, speakers, taxpayers, voters and a lot more besides. Social citizenship is an irresistible idea. 


Who am I?

As an old age psychiatrist, I was naturally interested in dementia. But I’m also trained to doctoral level in philosophy. I’ve been both an honorary professor of philosophy of ageing (at Newcastle) and a professor of old age psychiatry (at Bristol). Whilst training in psychiatry at Oxford, I came across the work of Tom Kitwood. Subsequently, I’ve become great friends with Steve Sabat. His work and Kitwood’s brought home to me the complexity of personhood and its relevance to how we care for and think about people living with dementia. And the more you consider it, the more the notion of personhood broadens out to include citizenship and human rights.


I wrote...

Thinking Through Dementia

By Julian C. Hughes,

Book cover of Thinking Through Dementia

What is my book about?

Modestly, I don’t think there is another book that discusses dementia in such philosophical depth. Central to the discussion is personhood: what it is to be a person. The book looks at various models to understand dementia: as a biological disease, from a cognitive neuropsychological perspective, and in terms of social constructionism.

These models are useful and provide some insight into dementia (a term we should eradicate!); but they never tell the whole story, for which we need to turn to the human person perspective. The book is peppered with stories of fictional characters and artistic references to support the philosophy, which commends the broadest view of what it is to be a human being in the world. So, dementia teaches us about our own being.

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