Non-Citizens doing Citizen Science

Part 1: Non-Citizens

The enthusiasm for citizen science as a strong approach to involve the public in science and or the public doing science, led to many discussions with my colleagues at the Citizenlab of the University of Twente on what citizen science is. In this blogpost I want to share some of my personal thoughts on citizen science by first defining the terms citizenship and citizen. To do so I will refer to Ariella Azoulay’s book; The civil contract of photography, which will explain the origin of the title Non-Citizens doing Citizen Science.

For Azoulay, the meaning of the terms citizenship and citizens should be understood in a social context of relationships between individuals beyond the boundaries of a nation-state. She disputes the discourse of citizenship as being something that you can own because you are protected by the authority within the borders of the nation-state. Because it is not only the boundaries of a nation-state that determines whether a person is a citizen, but also the way in which a government groups citizens, thereby creating ‘the other’. As soon as there is a protective shield around some of the citizens, a dividing line between them and others is created. Therefore, the status of ‘the others’ causes a separate group of non-citizens with compromised civil status within the group of citizens. Azoulay talks about the so-called ‘impaired civic’ status of this group, whose citizenship has been deprived, that will determine the way in which all citizens are governed. After all, ‘the others’ (i.e., non-citizens) are ruled through the (violent) force of the same government. In this way, not only the fragile status of the non-citizen is at stake, but also the status of the citizen. The existence of non-citizens (i.e., groups of people that are ignored and/or systematically exposed to violence by a ruling power or people that get stuck between nation-states) demonstrates the necessity to reconsider the concept and practice of citizenship.

Azoulay is emphatically concerned with repairing the disrupted relationship between citizens and non-citizens. It is in the cooperation and solidarity between all citizens, separate from the nation-state, where a guaranteed force exist that can resist the power of a violent authority. This guaranteed force will enable disconnecting from the power of the ruling authority to (re)open political actions. Azoulay derives the possibility of such disconnection from the structure or design of the various social contract theories. These contract theories generally exist, she says, of two phases. The first phase involves the formation of a political community. This formation establishes an obligation between the participants themselves. Hence, this community provides itself with some form of authority. During the second phase, the participants renounce their right to exercise political authority to their representatives, the sovereign government.

The power of citizenship, according to Azoulay, sits in the first phase; the formation of a political community which establishes an obligation between the participants and thereby providing some form of authority. It is in the conditions of being visible through photography that Azoulay foresees an active role in bringing about reforms in a society. These conditions will have to affect our consciousness with respect to ‘the photographed other’. In Azoulay’s view, ‘the other’ makes an appeal via a photo to everyone who takes part in photography. By addressing to stop ongoing violence in the position of a photographed non-citizen, anyone can still be a citizen within the photographic community. Anyone in the sense of people who are not represented by an authority (i.e., non-citizen).

For part two of the question whether non-citizens can be citizen scientists I will employ Azoulay’s vision on citizenship and citizens. Because by positioning both concepts of citizenship and citizen within a social context of relationships between individuals their role as participants in a political and social community suggest an obligation towards each other that provides some form of authority. Hence, on one hand Azoulay’s vision offers a broad range of citizens and non-citizens that will bring insights on doing science to collectively establish some form of change, bottom-up from society. On the other hand, it will provide a specific perspective on the role of citizen science as an empowering tool.

– Azoulay, A. The civil contract of photography. (TCCP) Zone books, New York. (2008)
– DriescheVanDen, C. Een burgerlijk contract zichtbaar gemaakt. Hypothese van fotografisch burgerschap. Philosophy master thesis at Tilburg University. (2013)

Part 2: Can non-citizen do citizen science?


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