• Citizenship;
  • immigration;
  • social justice;
  • individuality;
  • human rights;
  • Europe


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Transformation of the European social project
  4. The new European social project and its discontents
  5. Individuality as a value and its ‘transformative’ capacities
  6. Coda: the ‘poverty’ of individual rights?
  7. Bibliography

As envisioned by T.H. Marshall, social citizenship was a corrective to the injustices caused by the capitalist market. Entitlements and protections guaranteed by the welfare state would prevent social and economic exclusions that civil and political rights, on their own, simply could not. Such protections consequently would ensure social cohesion and solidarity, as well as a productive economy and market. European welfare states successfully followed this formula for the most part of the post-World War II period, however the last couple of decades witnessed significant changes. For one, the very meaning of ‘work’ and ‘worker’ on which the welfare state is based has changed – flexibility, risk, and precariousness have become defining elements of working life. The welfare state itself has gone through a transformation as well, increasingly moving away from a system of ‘passive benefits’ to ‘social investment’ in human capital. These developments are coupled with an emphasis on education in ‘active citizenship’, which envisions participatory individuals who are adaptable in an increasingly globalized society, and ready to contribute at local, national and transnational levels. The emergent European social project draws on a re-alignment between these strands: work, social investment, and active participation. In this article, I consider the implications of this project for immigrant populations in Europe in particular and for the conceptions of citizenship and human rights in general. In contrast to the recent commentary on the neoliberal turn and the return of nation-state centered citizenship projects in Europe, I emphasize the broader trends in the post-World War II period that indicate a significant shift in the very foundations of good citizenship and social justice. The new social project transpires a citizenship model that privileges individuality and its transformative capacity as a collective good. Thus, while expanding the boundaries and forms of participation in society, this project at the same time burdens the individual, rather than the state, with the obligation of ensuring social cohesion and solidarity, disadvantaging not only non-European migrants but also the ‘lesser’ Europeans. The new social project brings into focus the relationship between universalistic individual rights and their effective exercise. I conclude that rather than treating human rights and citizenship as a dichotomy we should pay attention to their entangled practice in order to understand the contingent accomplishments and possible expansions of citizenship in Europe.

T.H. Marshall, one of the most influential British thinkers of the twentieth century, saw that by incorporating working classes into the national contract, citizenship was a corrective to the injustices caused by the capitalist market. Writing in the late 1940s, he suggested that social rights constituted the ‘inevitable capstone’ of citizenship development and a unifying force for the body of citizenry (Marshall 1973 [1950]). Entitlements and protections guaranteed by the welfare state would prevent social and economic exclusions that civil and political rights, on their own, simply could not. Such protections consequently would ensure social cohesion and solidarity, as well as a productive economy and market. The welfare state, in that sense, evolved as an empowering project for the disadvantaged and excluded classes, for the good of the whole society.

European welfare states have successfully followed this formula for the most part of the post-World War II period. In the last couple of decades, however, certain developments have unsettled this formula. For one, the very meaning of ‘work’ and ‘worker’ on which the welfare state is based has changed. Life-long, full employment is less and less a reality for large sections of labour market participants – flexibility, risk, and precariousness have become defining elements of working life. The welfare state itself has gone through a transformation as well, increasingly moving away from a system of ‘passive benefits’ to ‘social investment’ in human capital. These developments are coupled with an emphasis on education in ‘active citizenship’, which envisions participatory individuals who are adaptable in an increasingly globalized society, and ready to contribute at local, national and transnational levels. The emergent European social project draws on a re-alignment between these strands: work, social investment, and active participation. In this article, I consider the implications of this project for immigrant populations in Europe in particular and for the conceptions of citizenship in general.

Recent policy debates and action on ‘social cohesion’ and ‘integration’ in the field of immigration have prompted some observers to comment on the return of exclusionary nation-centered citizenship projects in Europe. Others have commented on the neoliberal economic turn undermining social trust and solidarities and thus inflaming illiberal reactions.1 Although I share the concerns of these commentators, I find their analyses wanting. Instead, I suggest considering the broader trends in the post-WWII period that indicate a significant shift in the very foundations of good citizenship and social justice in Europe. The new social project aspires a citizenship model that privileges individuality and its transformative capacity as a collective good. Thus, while expanding the boundaries and forms of participation in society, this project at the same time charges the individual as the main force for social cohesion and solidarity. In this scenario, the ‘outsiders’ are not only immigrants, but also the ‘lesser’ Europeans, who have the added burden of proving the potential and worth of their individuality.

In the following, I first discuss the emerging precepts of the new social project as it transpires in national and European frameworks and interacts with current immigration policies. I then consider the citizenship model at the core of this project by briefly engaging in the conversations on the sociology of rights. These conversations juxtapose globally sanctioned human rights with nation-state-based citizenship with regard to their promise for furthering social justice. I conclude that while the dichotomy between human and citizenship rights is difficult to sustain, given their entangled practice in the postwar period, T.H. Marshall still proves to be relevant to our discussions of a socially effective European citizenship.

Transformation of the European social project

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Transformation of the European social project
  4. The new European social project and its discontents
  5. Individuality as a value and its ‘transformative’ capacities
  6. Coda: the ‘poverty’ of individual rights?
  7. Bibliography

Historically it is debatable whether there was ever a single European social model.2 When such a model is described, its contours are usually drawn vis-à-vis America's ‘lesser’ social state. The vast comparative literature in the 1980s and 1990s documents the different paths and institutional forms the European welfare state took. Some skeletal version can be described as the male-breadwinner, Keynesian welfare state of the post-1945 decades, which relied on ‘employment-friendly macroeconomic policy, collective wage-bargaining, progressive taxation, social security coverage, and protective labour market regulation’ (Hemerijck 2006: 108). From the 1970s on increased competition in the world market and the shift from industrial to a service economy prompted alterations in a range of policies that impacted on social citizenship in Europe. But since the1990s a more visible transformation has occurred. While some welfare scholars emphasize intensified demographic, social and economic challenges (ageing population, mass entry of women into labour markets, as well as increasing unemployment) as triggers for structural and fiscal adjustments, others focus on the neoliberal- and free-trade-infused policy choices (introduction of market logic into the welfare sector, privatization of some services, and deregulation of the labour market) that characterize the period (Ferrera and Rhodes 2000; Scharpf and Schmidt 2000; Pierson 2001; Esping-Andersen 2002a).

The extent and nature of these changes are still being debated among welfare scholars, however it is now more or less agreed that the twenty-first century faces a new ‘settlement’ on the European social model. This new project is observable in a number of policy developments at the European Union (EU) and national levels, which point to a shift away ‘from a passive providing state to one which seeks to enhance self-activity, responsibility and mobilization into paid work among citizens’, and ‘from social benefits to social investment’ (Taylor-Gooby 2008: 4).

The new social project is highly embedded with multilevel policy schemes and regulatory mechanisms. It has been on the agendas of the EU and the OECD since the 1980s, formulated as a response to the growing pressures of economic globalization. But the architecture of the new model was sealed with the EU's Lisbon Strategy in 2000, which set the goal of creating ‘the most competitive and dynamic knowledge based economy in the world, capable of sustainable growth with maximized human capital, more and better jobs and greater social cohesion’.3 The Lisbon agreement brought what some call a ‘European face’ to the ongoing liberalization of the economy (Barysch, Tilford and Whyte 2008: 116), by putting an emphasis on investment in individuals' capacities, activation policies and social safety nets, along with flexible labour markets and labour force.4

The new policy orientation draws a close link between work, economic productivity, and social justice; the social argument is located in the value of productive individuals and employment. Several policy developments reflect this orientation. First, along with the relaxation of labour market regulations in order to boost employment, activation schemes ensure that access to benefits becomes conditional upon integration into the labour market (by either taking up training or returning to paid work). At the same time, benefit designs increasingly target particular risk groups, such as the youth and women, whose employment prospects are more vulnerable. Second, a set of policies is designed as active investment in building and maintaining human capital. This involves research and development policies, skills training and improvement programmes, job insertion and apprenticeship schemes, and lifelong learning toward enhanced employability and knowledge, among others. Lastly, education policy puts great emphasis on developing children's capabilities as effective, productive, and responsible young people. Raising standards in mathematics, language, and science subjects is a staple of national curricular goals, and early-education initiatives are gaining popularity. In the last two decades, all European states have recast their policy bundles along these strands, although, as amply documented, at varying speeds and by different institutional routes (Andersen et al. 2005; Ferrera and Rhodes 2000; Scharpf and Schmidt 2000; Taylor-Gooby 2008).

Welfare scholars question whether the new policy orientation is a departure from the original European agreement. Many argue that European welfare states long aimed at combining economic growth and competitiveness with social justice (Ferrera and Rhodes 2000; Hemerijck 2002; Streeck 2001). ‘Full employment’ (of the heads of household) was assumed in the foundations of the European welfare state. Active labour market policies and vocational training have always been part of social policy in Scandinavian countries, as well as in Germany and Austria.5 Comparatively oriented scholars point to the institutional continuities with the previous national regimes, rather than a rupture (Ferrera and Rhodes 2000; Scharpf and Schmidt 2000). Scandinavian countries, for example, in line with their already existing welfare provisions, still retain some conception of the universal, with high spending on active labour market policies and childcare. Whereas in Britain, a historically more liberal welfare state compared to the Scandinavian one, deregulation has been the main route for reform with an increasing move toward targeted social assistance and skills-building through national standards (Taylor-Gooby 2008).

As such, the new social project and the associated policy reforms do not necessarily mean the dismantling of the European welfare states. Despite ongoing restructuring, privatization of some social services, and greater integration with labour markets as a fiscal retrenchment strategy, aggregate social expenditure and provision in European countries have shown little sign of decreasing in the last two decades.6 The provisions of the state have not shrunk; however, its investments (financial and moral) are now in a different pot with a new focus. European states converge around a new repertoire of social citizenship, which reflects a change in its constitutive logic and the moral language of justice.

The new European social project and its discontents

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Transformation of the European social project
  4. The new European social project and its discontents
  5. Individuality as a value and its ‘transformative’ capacities
  6. Coda: the ‘poverty’ of individual rights?
  7. Bibliography

The European social project departs from two premises:

First, (re)coupling of work with welfare: In its original form, work was central to the welfare state and social policy, and being a worker qualified the ‘good’ citizen. Recent policy calls renew this alliance and emphasize the value of employment to the social project. On the other hand, in this new framework work is no longer implied as a ‘socially organized condition’ but rather as an individual positioning in the labour market as expressed in human capital conceptions (Glucksmann 2005; see also Borghi 2011).

Second, decoupling of social cohesion from social justice: In T.H. Marshall's trajectory, and for much of the history of the European welfare state, economic security provided by the state equalized opportunities (to a large extent) for participation in common social and political projects, which in turn facilitated solidarity and social cohesion. In the new social project, the connection between social justice and social cohesion has weakened. While it is prized as a goal, social cohesion falls in the main onto an increasingly moralized and incentivized individual citizen – thus the emphasis in policy on active and able citizenry.

It helps to be historically attuned. Esping-Andersen and Myles (2008) remind us that, despite its distributive functions, the European welfare state was not originally conceived as a vehicle for justice. If anything, in the hands of conservative reformers like Bismarck, the welfare state ‘sought primarily to reproduce, rather than to alter, prevailing social hierarchies’ (Esping-Andersen and Myles 2008: 1). Only with a push from the socialists in the course of the twentieth century did the welfare state develop a more egalitarian outlook for its citizens as expressed in social justice ideals. In the postwar period, linked with human rights, social justice acquired a more universalistic meaning in European legal regimes and normative foundations (Benhabib 2004, Soysal 1994). It is these universalistic notions that Europe often prides herself in contrast with the USA and other contenders. Recent developments, however, hint that an accord between European projections of self and policy reforms is not as settled as the protagonists of social Europe would like to believe.

Below I appraise the European social project focusing my comments on its implications for the immigrant populations of Europe. Given heightened public and policy concerns about immigration, it is a good place to take its underlying principles into consideration.

Work as a means of achieving social justice?

In the new social project, work has a crucial place as a means to fight social exclusion. This view was expressed vigorously by the Swedish Minister of Finance Anders Borg, the ‘architect’ of the renewed ‘Swedish model’:

The Government's employment policy is ultimately based on the understanding that the opportunity to work has a value in a broader sense. By offering more people the opportunity to move from exclusion to employment, there will also be more people who can provide a livelihood for themselves and their families. Having a job affects one's sense of well-being. In the workplace, one is part of a larger social community and is capable of achievement, development and a sense of participation. Without a job, the risk of financial, social and health problems increases. For the individual and for welfare in general, the value of work is fundamental. A policy for increased employment and less exclusion is thus a moral imperative and not just a financial necessity.7

It is hard to object such reasoning. There is a great deal of empirical evidence which confirms that poverty is concentrated among the jobless households and that ‘social inheritance’ is still the main determinant of life chances (Esping-Andersen 2002b).8

All the same, such policy objectives are lacking, given the structural characteristics of today's economy. Thus, the well-documented dilemma: Being unemployed is detrimental in the long run, locking individuals into an outsider position. However, most entry-level jobs are not the type to affect social mobility, and many people are permanently trapped in inferior opportunities.

Polarization of labour markets between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ is regarded as a syndrome of the post-industrial, globalized economies. Comparative research shows that the extent of such polarization differs across countries; the national institutional context of labour markets and employment plays a filtering role (Gallie 2009). National differences notwithstanding, the integrated global economic order encourages dual employment markets, supported by highly structured migrant labour flows. The move from an economy dominated by industrial production to an economy dominated by an internationalized service industry underscores a new socio-economic hierarchy (Sassen 1998). The internationalized economy includes not only the lucrative finance and IT sectors, advanced biotech companies, and specialized services (and an uplifting of the urban economy thanks to these businesses), it also supports a whole spectrum of routine, labour-intensive service industries such as health, security, retail, hospitality, catering, care, and construction. High-income and skilled work expands in technical, managerial, and financial markets, creating the need for a range of lower-paid and lower-skilled personal and household services. These are often unprotected, poor-quality jobs, frequently performed by the weaker participants in the labour markets – young people, women, older low-skilled workers, and immigrants who constitute sizeable groups in the population. A general up-skilling of the workforce, bolstered by internationalization and specialization, does not guarantee that the low paying and poor-quality jobs will disappear.

The mobility of the ‘global professional class’ (e.g., employees of international finance and IT companies, scientific research agencies, and artists) is seen as imperative for a competitive and productive economy. The current European- and national-level immigration policy language and instruments embrace this kind of mobility. The European Union has introduced a blue card scheme (for non-EU applicants), which allows cardholders and their families to live and work within the EU, with automatic residency after five years (similar to the US green card) (Council of the European Union 2009). Several member states, (the UK, Germany, France, and Denmark) already have their own special immigration legislation for high-skilled labour. Point systems that condition entry based on qualification, skills, previous salary, and experience are becoming a common instrument further valorizing such capital (Shachar 2006). The un- and low-skilled migrant labourers, on the other hand, who service and are thus integral to the running of the leading growth sectors, are ‘invisible’ in this policy move (Sassen 2000). Such workers are rarely considered part of the competitive economy and are not valued as such.

Global labour markets at the top and bottom of the economic system have been studied instructively (Parrenas 2001; Sciortino and Bommes 2011; Smith and Favell 2006). Given the labour market positions they fulfill, it should not seem paradoxical that migrant labour flows coexist with low labour-force participation rates, labour shortages, and unemployment in European cities. The care sector is an illuminating example here. The demographic and social changes in Europe (an ageing population, and increased female labour-market participation and the associated demand for child and elderly care) have meant an unprecedented expansion of domestic help and care services. While the organization and provision of such services still differ across welfare regimes, care work is rapidly becoming migrant work in Europe as in other parts of the world (Geissler and Pfau-Effinger 2005). The growing literature has aptly shifted the focus from ‘migrants as welfare users’ to ‘migrants as welfare providers’ (Lister et al. 2007; Williams 2010). Female migrant workers are overrepresented in the lower echelons of the care sector in all types of European states. Since 2000, forms of cash provision or tax credit toward home care and domestic help have been introduced in several European countries (Austria, France, Finland, Italy, Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK all have such arrangements), encouraging the development of a low-cost, formal and informal migrant labour market. In Sweden, where state provision dominates, health and community care services account for high shares of foreign employment (recruited either by state agencies or large private firms), with a migrant concentration from Baltic countries. In the UK, formal public provision for care is increasingly outsourced to for-profit companies that hire large numbers of migrant workers, both high- and low-skill levels. In 2008, 21 per cent of all home carers and care assistants working in England were foreign born (Van Hooren 2011: 94). In Spain, migrant workers represent between one-half and two-thirds of those in regular employment in the sector, and the great majority of these jobs are held by women from Latin America, North Africa, and Eastern Europe (Moreno Fuentes and Bruquetas Callejo 2011: 124). In Italy, care of the elderly and domestic work are in the main undertaken by migrant workers without formal contracts. Through cash payments to care recipients (pensions, care allowances), the state indirectly supports an informal market for female migrant labour, while ‘sustaining the continuity of in family care as an ideal and practice’ (Lyon and Glucksmann 2008: 106). Several researchers point to the ‘gender equality paradox’ in Europe between the white majority who increasingly participate in politics and society and ethnic migrant minorities who are marginalized in the labour market (Siim and Skjeie 2008).

While social services in general, and care in particular, are among the employment sectors that prosper most in Europe, they expand ‘under conditions of sharp social, earnings, and often racial/ethnic segmentation’ (Sassen 2000: 81). Gendered low social status, low wages, precarious employment conditions, and lack of career opportunities characterize this sector. Where public provisions are transferred to market-based solutions, the sector has seen worsening conditions. Such jobs, although located in an expanding sector, clearly do not have a transformative (participatory and integrative) functionfor the individual and society, as envisioned by the new European social project.

Indeed, The EU's own progress review with regard to the Lisbon Strategy reveals disappointing results. The Social Protection Committee reports that from 2000 to 2007, unemployment rates in the EU were reduced from 8.6 per cent to 7.1 per cent and employment rates increased from 62.2 per cent to 65.9 per cent. However the report also confirms that the precarious forms of jobs (temporary, part-time) mitigate the positive impact of including more people in the labour market. Even after controlling for differences in education and experience, ‘atypical’ workers are generally paid less per hour, and these jobs are not stepping stones toward better jobs (European Commission 2009: 35–53).

The pressing question for the European social project is not simply whether ‘people are [un]employed’, but also whether ‘people are badly employed’– whether they lack opportunities with regard to improvement of skills, pay, and equal treatment (Nectoux and van der Maesen 2003: 3). It is estimated that a third of jobs in the EU are ‘poor quality’, particularly in terms of job characteristics associated with personal development and security (skills training, task discretion, employee participation, work intensity, work–family balance, and job stability) (Gallie 2002). Part-timers in non- or low-skilled jobs suffer a ‘cumulative disadvantage’ with respect to job quality. Their marginalization is exacerbated given that much of the investment in skills-training takes place in better paid, secure jobs. There are scarce opportunities for personal or skill development at the lower end of the employment spectrum.

Women, young, and migrant workers disproportionately suffer from these trends, facing multiple barriers (care responsibilities, low skills and qualifications, ethnic and racial discrimination) that keep them outside or at the margins of the labour market.9 Their continuing exclusion reveals the limitations of the European social project and lands it on shaky grounds.

Integration, social cohesion, and social justice

Since the 1990s, social cohesion ideas have become central to the European social policy agendas at both national and transnational levels. The OECD, World Bank, the Council of Europe, and the European Commission all engage the concept in addressing disparities between countries and social groups regarding living conditions and quality of life, and report periodically on it as a measure of the success of policy outcomes. It is one of the primary social objectives of the EU Lisbon Strategy and the subsequent programmes of action, and is referenced conspicuously in national policy instruments. The term ‘social cohesion’ has diverse understandings in social science theory, but in policy circles it broadly refers to ‘a sense of commitment, and desire [and] capacity to live together in some harmony’ (Jenson 1998: 5). Inclusion, belonging, and participation are matters commonly addressed under the rubric of social cohesion. Particularly as regards immigration and immigrants, the term resonates urgency.

Over the course of the 2000s, a zealous programme of immigrant integration gained momentum across Europe. Citing concerns about declining social cohesion and mounting societal tensions, most European governments have moved to introduce integration policies specifically targeting immigrants (prospective, but also those who have been in the country for long periods). Although organized and implemented differently, the stated goal of the national integration policies converges around the idea of immigrants acquiring the necessary skills to participate in the economic, cultural, social, and civic life of the receiving country. Obligatory language and integration courses are the most common vehicles. In some cases (Germany and Denmark), access to social benefits is linked to participation in these classes and non-compliance can accrue sanctions. Furthermore, several European countries (notably, Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK) have introduced legislation making integration a prerequisite for residency and naturalization. Those who are accepted into the country on permanent basis (including family members in most cases) are required to pass language and integration tests. Citizenship tests, long a practice in the traditional immigration countries such as the USA, Canada and Australia, are now administered in a number of European countries (the UK, Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, and Germany).

Often, these policy moves are located within debates about the ‘adverse effects of diversity’ on social trust and solidarity, and consequently on the prospects of security and the welfare state, drawing upon Robert Putnam's (2007) long-term research on the topic. Putnam's work has generated industrious research employing data within and beyond the USA, some questioning and providing alternative interpretations of Putnam's own evidence (for the most updated review, see Portes and Vickstrom 2011). Despite the divided view in the social science literature, policy circles have capitalized on Putnam's work in raising concerns about immigrant diversity and the weakening social fabric of society. European intellectuals and politicians have eagerly declared the failure of multiculturalism, while intense debates on common values, identity, and solidarity have animated European public spheres.

The migration–security nexus, in the context of heightened preoccupation with terrorism and urban riots, to a large extent dictates the urgency assigned to integration and social cohesion in European policy circles (Guild, Groenendijk and Carrera 2009). Integration language also proffers a way to reclaim ‘national boundaries’ in a climate where electoral opinion is apparently averse to migration, and where right-wing populism is relentless. On the other hand, these immediate political imperatives and the much-exercised national rhetoric in public and policy debates do not necessarily explain the underlying logic of the integration policy agenda.

Indeed, despite the symbolic status they command, current citizenship and integration tests do not reveal anything distinctive about the particularities of the nation (bar the questions about ordinary symbols such as the flag, the national anthem, the national poet) or a nationally distinct philosophy of integration. A systematic review of the content of these tests finds that the largest thematic category addresses the notions of individual rights and democracy (Michalowski 2009; see also Joppke 2007). The history questions are in the main geared toward capturing the present-day of the country and Europe. The questions to appraise values are primarily related to the rights of the individual, such as civic freedoms, and the rights of the underprivileged sections of society such as women and the disabled. Knowledge of democratic institutions and legal structure occupies a prominent place, in anticipation of a right-bearing individual fluent in a world of tax offices, schools, courts, and labour markets. In integration courses, language instructions are accompanied by specialized topics on institutions and social life such as health, education, upbringing of children, social participation and volunteer work, sports and leisure, employment, job search, and basic skills training. Constitutional values are taught, with emphasis on respect for individual freedoms and law-abidance.10

A similar integration programme transpires at the European level. The creation of a common immigration policy framework preoccupied the EU throughout the 1990s. The precepts of this framework, which were finally formalized in the 1999 Tampere meeting, strongly prioritize ‘integration’ and ‘social cohesion’ (Carrera and Parkin 2011). The integration concept put forward in the common framework emphasizes the formal rights of individual immigrants, their active participation and adherence to the European values (specified broadly as human rights, freedom of opinion, democracy, tolerance, equality between men and women, and the compulsory schooling of children) without having to relinquish their own identity (European Commission 2003).11

Integration, as conveyed by these national- and European-level frameworks, is not a nation-centered project. It is not posed as a process of confirming or furthering national collectivity and identity. Instead, the thrust is on the individual immigrants' capacities and efforts to take part productively in the rights and institutions offered in the system. Potential immigrants are expected to prove their worth and fit, as anticipated by the new entry and residency regulations. Citizenship or residency is ‘earned’ on the basis of who is worthy, who can contribute and be productive. Integration acquires a new purpose – the purpose of achieving social cohesion in society driven by active, participatory, and productive individuals.

As such, there is a great continuum between the fundamentals that animate the immigrant integration agenda and the European social project as I outlined above. They both prescribe the individual, rather than the state, as the main bearer of responsibility for social cohesion. By so doing, they also depart radically from the original template and historical development of social citizenship. Throughout the twentieth century, as citizenship and social justice ideals coupled, European states institutionalized forms of individual security through progressive and distributive welfare arrangements. Solidarity and feelings of belonging followed as more and more of the ‘excluded’ were brought into the collective body of citizenry through the extension of social rights and provisions. This historical link between redistribution and solidarity, and the institutional arrangements that ensured social cohesion, are overlooked in current European policy frameworks. As the link between social justice and social cohesion is severed, a highly moralized agenda finds its way into public debates and policy, with an increasing push for individual responsibility to seize opportunities and contribute. As ‘outsiders’ immigrants are additionally burdened in this framework – they are asked to demonstrate even more.

Individuality as a value and its ‘transformative’ capacities

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Transformation of the European social project
  4. The new European social project and its discontents
  5. Individuality as a value and its ‘transformative’ capacities
  6. Coda: the ‘poverty’ of individual rights?
  7. Bibliography

The new European social project exposes a transformation in the constituent elements of good citizenship and its moral language of justice. What underscores this change is the value assigned to individuality and its transformative capacities, as legitimated in public, policy, and scientific discourses.12 Realizing self-potential is regarded as a virtue and forms highly scripted expectations about self and others. Everyone is expected to invest in themselves and in their abilities. Being productive, creative, and active defines a higher form of life. At the same time, the individual constitutes the target of much legal and policy regulation, through which collective provisions are increasingly redefined as individual opportunities and choice. In this template, individuals are not only the agents of change (instead of the state, but still much regulated by the state), they also constitute the basic unit of moral concern (instead of the society of citizens with a shared fate).

Several scholars have already commented on this shift to the individual in policy language and instruments, stressing the neoliberal currents that underlie it. Moving beyond the narrow economic notions of neoliberalism, these scholars point to its general acceptance in public and policy discourses, normalizing the expansion of market logic into political, cultural, and social sites. To identify some of the cogently argued positions: Margaret Somers (2008: 2–5) prefers the term ‘market fundamentalism’ to denote the unchallenged credibility of the market as ‘the arbiter of moral authority’, shifting risk away from government and corporate responsibility onto the individual workers and families; Nikolas Rose (1999) elabourates on ‘neoliberal governmentality’, which relies on the ‘self-regulating and enterprising’ subject rather than a citizen with claims on the state; and Christian Joppke (2008) offers the term ‘repressive liberalism’, pointing to a changing balance in the liberal contract, tilting away from rights to obligations.

I concur with these positions, and the general view in the social science literature, that the penetration of neoliberal thinking into the European social and political imagination has had significant consequences for the recalibration of the relationship between the individual and the state, and has recalibrated the purview of the state, since the 1990s. However, and this is a big however, I am not convinced that this is the complete picture. The centering of the legal and policy frameworks on individual capabilities and the associated obligations is not solely the work of the neoliberal agenda and its illiberal politics. Although often collapsed into one another, the profusely ‘expanded’ individual took root before and without neoliberal economic or political imperatives. Individual autonomy, creativity, realization of one's abilities and self, participation, and life-long learning (ideas which are now closely associated with neoliberalism) have had their career in the transnational scene for a long time, promoted by the likes of UNESCO, the United Nations, the Council of Europe, and a variety of international nongovernmental agencies. It would be instructive to isolate the broader set of trends in the postwar period that have emboldened and sanctified the individual and her ‘actorhood’ across a range of sites (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002; Meyer 1987; Meyer et al. 1997).13

An indicative development is the global intensification of the discourse on and instruments of human rights, which motivated world-wide liberal (not to be confused with neoliberal) transformations. The 1960s and 1970s witnessed the human rights-inspired struggles of women, ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities, and anti-colonialism, all of which substantially challenged state-centric and authoritarian governing regimes, while strengthening individual freedoms. In Europe, given its intimate history with fascism, human rights developments took a much more transnational form, loosening the nation's moral grip on citizenship. The Cold War facilitated this codification of human rights across the board. The institutionalization of human rights at national and transnational levels meant an increasing recognition of universal qualities, as opposed to ascriptive ones, such as nationality, ethnicity, race, age, and gender. This universalistic convention has been consequential for the inclusion of immigrants into a range of membership rights and institutions in postwar Europe, even when they were not formally part of the national citizenry (Soysal 1994).

The rights-bearing, autonomous, and active individual has had a particularly strong presence in the education field. The equality of humans and societies has made its way as a cognitive and normative stance into the European educational spheres since the 1960s. Progressive pedagogies of self-centered learning, critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving have been equally promoted in the same educational circles since the early 1970s. Over time a citizenship model that tones down the national character and collective, and extols the globally aware, democratic and active individual has been adopted in school curricula and teaching (Schissler and Soysal 2005; Soysal and Szakács 2010; Soysal and Wong 2007). Human rights education, which is now part of the school curriculum across a range of countries, stipulates that children should not only learn their rights and the rights of others, but also be prepared to be active promoters and claimants of these rights (Meyer, Bromley, and Ramirez 2010).

Similar cognitive and normative provisions have led to the expansion of the active and empowered individual model beyond school education. A human rights framework for the independence, participation, and self-fulfillment of ‘older persons’, although still incomplete, has been on the international agenda since the 1980s (Frédéric 2011). The politics of a compulsory retirement age has been criticized for the economic motivations behind it; nevertheless, the requirement is also fought against by a variety of advocacy groups, such as Gray Panthers, on the grounds of ageist discrimination as specified in various human rights conventions. Life-long learning assumes a life-course where old age is no longer reserved for inactivity, and confirms the right of everyone to an active mode of being. In social policy, while the introduction of labour market flexibility redounds to the neoliberal restructuring, it is also intricately linked to the weakening of a gendered welfare state and women's demands for balancing ‘work’ and ‘nonwork’ aspects of the life course. In many European countries in recent decades, despite cuts in other welfare state activities, ‘defamilized’ individual benefits (e.g., public provision for childcare and parental leave) have increased.

Indeed, the neoliberal-charged reforms and policies diffused globally once they were cast as models promising collective goods and as they appropriated the language and ideals of individual actorhood (with individual dignity, autonomy, and well-being at the centre). Highly legitimated at transnational levels, with the backing of professional expertise and non- and intergovernmental organizations, the able and empowered individual has become as indispensable for ‘successful’ societies and democracies as for ‘successful’ economies (Schofer et al. 2012; see also Simmons, Dobbin, and Garrett 2006).

The new European social project strongly endorses individuality and the active participation of citizens as the route to socially cohesive and inclusive European societies. It is in this casting of good citizenship and society that Europe is coming together, and also exactly where it is falling apart. By championing the rights-bearing, autonomous, and able individual, the project extends the moral and legal boundaries of participation beyond ascriptive limitations. On the other hand, the factors and conditions that entrench differential capacities and the very obstacles to parity of individuality have not been equally addressed. As the current global economic regime radically exacerbates resource and status inequalities, chipping away at the social safety nets and the conditions of effective participation, the promise of the social project grows less convincing. The emerging fault lines do not simply cut through without but also within Europe. Not only is the non-European migrant left out, but also the lesser Europeans – those who are unable to exercise and live up to the highest form of life of being productive; those who are stuck in secondary or temporary jobs, and not able to climb the social ladder; and those who face ethnic and religious discrimination in their schooling, in skills-training programmes, and in job applications. The obstructions to their participation are formed via the partialities of ‘market processes’, ‘communicative constructions’, and the ‘hierarchical patterns of cultural value’–‘misrecognitions’ as poignantly termed by Nancy Fraser (2011: 13).

So far the European social project has not promised a satisfactory delivery from the tension between the transformative capacities of individuality and the realization and maintenance of social justice.

Coda: the ‘poverty’ of individual rights?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Transformation of the European social project
  4. The new European social project and its discontents
  5. Individuality as a value and its ‘transformative’ capacities
  6. Coda: the ‘poverty’ of individual rights?
  7. Bibliography

The increasingly hollowed-out European project and its diminishing reach renew questions about the relationship between rights and social justice. The debates in the newly invigorated sociology of rights revisit the relationship between citizenship and human rights, forcing to the forefront such issues as recognition, solidarity, and substantive enjoyment of rights (for various treatments see Morris 2010; Nash 2009; Shafir and Brysk 2006; Somers 2008; Walby 2009).

In much of the sociological treatment, the relationship between citizenship and human rights is contentious. Often the universal and natural character of (cosmopolitanism-associated) human rights is juxtaposed with the particularistic and political nature of (nation-state associated) citizenship. The potential of human rights for furthering effective justice is questioned, on the grounds that they lack institutionalized enforcement mechanisms beyond the nation-state itself and they lack the solidarity to which national citizenship historically laid claim. Clearly the fragility of individual freedoms in the post-9/11 era; the increasing socioeconomic inequalities across and within European nation-states; and ongoing ethnic, religious, and racial discrimination do not augur well for a cosmopolitan Europe. Less clear however is whether such manifest failures lay the groundwork for renewed analytical and normative promise of national citizenship.

Instead, I suggest that the dichotomy between citizenship and human rights in these juxtapositions is increasingly untenable. My objection here is empirically grounded and stems from the observation that despite their different philosophical and historical underpinnings, in the post-WWII era, the trajectory of these two frameworks of rights has been highly entangled. The expansive institutionalization of human rights is well documented. Not only has the number of international treaties and organizations devoted to human rights increased, along with increased country ratifications and memberships, but legal and institutional standards have also developed to incorporate human rights into national frameworks (Cole 2005; Finnemore and Sikkink 1998; Koo and Ramirez 2009; Wotipka and Tsutsui 2008). But more important for the point I am proposing is the outward expansion of citizenship in the same period, both in terms of the range of claimants covered and the range of enforceable claims. Extensive rights for women, children, the elderly, sexual and cultural minorities, people with disabilities were put into place in European social democracies, and even extended to non-citizen residents, as more and more often these rights were defined on universalistic grounds and codified within human rights conventions. We simply cannot understand the transformations of citizenship in the postwar period without taking into account the global persistence of the human rights frameworks (Soysal 1994).

It is well worth noting that the postwar trajectory of rights that I am highlighting here is not necessarily about global justice, concerning distant global issues and solidarities. Although campaigns against world hunger, poverty, and AIDS, and for environmental conservation, and women's and children's rights have broader global reach, and transnational advocacy plays a major role, human rights practices more often than not are part of local- and national-level processes, through which citizens, but also non-citizens, negotiate with particular political and judicial structures, and make universalistic claims on particular citizenship institutions – on health schemes, social services, education systems, and in schools and the military. States do engage such claims, as their legitimacy is no longer exclusively linked to a contract with the nation, but is also mediated by their standing vis-à-vis and adherence to transnational frameworks that set standards and rationales for proper statehood (Benhabib 2009; Levy and Sznaider 2006; Meyer et al. 1997). Therefore, dispensation of rights is not simply a matter of national citizenship. Implementation of rights, on the other hand, is still, to a large extent, a matter for the state. The implementation and exercise of universalistic rights (whether they belong to the national citizen or the more abstract individual as is increasingly the case) is never universal; it is dependant upon particular institutions and their social and historical contexts.

At this point we should ask the broader question of ‘what rights do’ within the context of the new European social project and bring T.H. Marshall back into our conversation. For Marshall, rights in themselves did not have any inherent quality. Rights, he argued, are means for inclusion, which could be guaranteed only with their grounding in effective membership institutions – in other words the very social and institutional arrangements in which the projected individuality of persons is recognized and the very possibility of a right exists. It is exactly these arrangements that are under threat today in Europe, laying bare the vulnerabilities of citizens and non-citizens alike.14

Drawing on T.H. Marshall, Somers and Roberts (2008: 388) insightfully remind us that rights exist at ‘multiple registers’: as normative aspirations, as codification and doctrine, and as mechanisms and institutions of implementation. Human rights chart along all three of these registers; so do citizenship rights. Thinking along these three registers, we are able see that even ‘the most formalized rights-bearing subject is incomplete’ and citizenship is a ‘incompletely theorized contract’ between the state and the individual (Sassen 2006: chapter 6). The increasing normative and cognitive authority accorded to human rights in national and transnational conventions in turn exposes the limits and ‘incompleteness’ of citizenship projects, revealing them as contingent accomplishments, and opening up possibilities for expansion. It is this dynamic interaction between the normative standards and practice of rights that gives much significance to the institution of citizenship and its potential for justice in Europe today, and elsewhere.

  • 1

    For efficaciously argued positions, see Berezin 2009, Joppke and Morawska 2003, and Mouritsen 2011.

  • 2

    I use the terms ‘social model’ and ‘social project’ to refer to a set of policy, legal, and institutional arrangements that affect the practice of social citizenship. These arrangements, and the underlying social arguments, are the subject of study for both welfare and citizenship scholars, however these literatures do not always speak to each other.

  • 3

    Lisbon European Council, 23–24 March 2000, Presidency Conclusions (

  • 4

    Europe 2020 Agenda, the follow up to Lisbon, adopts more or less the same line, with an added emphasis on reducing poverty (

  • 5

    European scholars make an effort to distinguish, both empirically and normatively, the ‘activation’ concept from the ‘workfare’ programmes in the USA, pointing out their different historical and institutional origins (Andersen et al. 2005).

  • 6

    Note however that a detailed analysis of social expenditure in OECD countries shows that a high proportion of the spending goes to pensions, health (due to changing demographics and the relevant increase in cost), and unemployment rather than to more directly redistributive instruments (Glenn 2009).

  • 7

    ‘Re-establishing the Swedish Model’, speech by Anders Borg at The Economist's Business Roundtable with the Government of Sweden ( Anders Borg was the finance minister between 2006 and 2010 in the centre-right coalition government. The coalition was re-elected in 2010, although short of absolute majority, and Borg has continued his role in the cabinet as the finance minister.

  • 8

    According to the EU statistics for the period 2001–2007, the risk of poverty faced by working age adults who are unemployed or inactive is more than three times higher than those who are employed (27% against 8%) (European Commission 2009: 35).

  • 9

    The EU surveys repeatedly reveal expansive discrimination and racism against immigrants and minorities, in different aspects of life and particularly in employment, despite the strengthening of EU equal treatment and anti-discrimination legislation over the years (Carrera and Parkin 2011; European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights 2011). Considerable deskilling also exists among immigrants; the overqualification rates for immigrants are consistently higher than those for natives (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights 2011: 41).

  • 10

    On the content of integration courses, see the survey of different European integration programmes conducted on behalf of the Dutch Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning, and the Environment (2010).

  • 11

    See the EU website on integration See also the final declaration of the 2008 European Ministerial Conference on Integration

  • 12

    By individuality I refer here to the constitution of the individual as a ‘proactive project’ (Frank and Meyer 2002; Meyer and Jepperson 2000). Not to be confused with a free running individualism, this individuality is highly scripted and expansively institutionalized in various domains of society.

  • 13

    These broader trends are evinced empirically in the long-term research programme of the Stanford Institutionalist group, John Meyer and his collabourators. For an overview see Schofer et al. (2012).

  • 14

    Not surprisingly, recent empirical research shows that formal citizenship status does not have any significant effect on the socioeconomic inclusion of first- and second-generation immigrants (see for example Fleischmann and Dronkers 2010).


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Transformation of the European social project
  4. The new European social project and its discontents
  5. Individuality as a value and its ‘transformative’ capacities
  6. Coda: the ‘poverty’ of individual rights?
  7. Bibliography
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