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Negotiating the Global and National: Immigrant and Dominant-Culture Adolescents’ Vocabularies of Citizenship in a Transnational World

by John P. Myers & Husam A. Zaman - 2009

Background/Context: The current national debate over the purposes of civic education is largely tied to outdated notions of citizenship that overlook its changing nature under globalization. Civic education is based on a legalistic understanding of citizenship that emphasizes patriotism and the structures and functions of government. This study examined adolescents’ civic beliefs and affiliations, drawing on theories of transnational and global citizenship.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The purpose was to examine diverse adolescents’ vocabularies of citizenship, a concept that captures the tensions in their civic beliefs and affiliations. Their vocabularies were explored in terms of two topics at the intersection of national and global affiliations: universal human rights and global citizenship. The central question asked was: How do adolescents from immigrant backgrounds understand the tensions between national and global civic affiliations, and do they differ from dominant-culture adolescents’ understandings?

Setting: The research setting was the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for International Studies, a 5-week summer program for high school students that emphasizes current scholarship and skills in international affairs, cultural studies, and foreign language.

Research Design: A mixed-method case study design was employed to collect detailed and rich data on the students’ beliefs about citizenship.

Findings/Results: The findings showed that the students from immigrant backgrounds favored universal positions and were the only students to call attention to national economic inequalities. In contrast, a majority of the dominant-culture students gave a more central role to national affiliations. However, over half of the students switched between universal and nationally oriented positions for the issues of global citizenship and human rights. It is argued that these switches represent a strong indication of the tensions in civic affiliations in light of globalization.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The findings presented here suggest that the question of either national- or global-oriented civic education makes little sense. This research suggests that differentiated forms of civic education are needed if all youth will have access to full citizenship and the range of civic affiliations needed in the world. Two approaches for reconceptualizing civic education are proposed: Civic education curricula should focus on the intersection of national with global issues and affiliations, and civic education should address, in addition to civic attitudes, skills, and knowledge, a conscious effort to help adolescents build flexible and multiple civic identities.

The current national debate over the purposes of civic education1 is largely tied to outdated notions of citizenship that overlook its changing nature under globalization. In fact, civic education in the United States is based on a predominantly legalistic understanding of citizenship that emphasizes patriotism and the structures and functions of local, state, and federal governments (Avery & Simmons, 2000–2001; Boyte, 2003; Hahn, 1999). Accordingly, much of the debate is over the meaning of patriotism, in terms of calling for national loyalty and love of country (e.g., Ravitch, 2002), or a kinder, more inclusive form of patriotism (e.g., Nash, 2005; Westheimer, 2007). When a global dimension to civic education is mentioned, it typically equates the global with a broad cosmopolitan vision and humanitarian concern (e.g., Nussbaum, 2002). Yet, these positions oversimplify the complex and evolving relationship between national and global civic beliefs and affiliations. As Mitchell and Parker (2008) demonstrated, fixed categories of civic affiliations (e.g., national or global) are false because they are socially constructed and therefore contingent (see also Szelényi & Rhoades, 2007). We argue that this relationship—of national and global civic affiliations that are interrelated and mutual—should become central to civic education.

The discourse on civic education is important because it legitimizes which beliefs, perspectives, and affiliations will be portrayed as good citizenship while marginalizing others. Constructs of ethnicity, class, and gender strongly influence the ways that individuals conceptualize citizenship and act as citizens (Banks, 2004; Richardson & Blades, 2005). This situation is particularly relevant for immigrants because they experience structural barriers to gaining full citizenship rights and to participating in politics (Jones-Correa, 1998; Junn, 2004). In fact, one of the longstanding purposes of U.S. civic education has been to assimilate immigrants by pushing them to shed their ethnic identities in favor of national civic ideals (Mirel, 2002).

Globalization is significant for civic beliefs and affiliations because it alters the historical responsibility of the nation-state to develop informed, loyal citizens through public schooling (Ichilov, 1998; Law, 2004; Torres, 2002). Although citizenship as a formal institution remains fundamentally attached to the nation-state, it is increasingly linked with human rights and the global economy, although in different ways. These changes have created openings for the development of cosmopolitan democracy and global civic affiliations, areas traditionally bound to the nation-state and national politics. Sassen (2003a) described the implications for an emerging, more complex notion of citizenship practices and affiliations:

Globalization makes legible the extent to which citizenship, which we experience as some sort of unitary condition, is actually made up of a bundle of conditions. Some of them are far less connected to the national state than the formal bundle of rights at the heart of the institution of citizenship. There are citizenship practices, citizenship identities, and locations for citizenship that are not as inevitably articulated with the national state as is the formal bundle of rights. (p. 16)

Sassen noted that the experience of citizenship is not simply separating from the control of the nation state but reconnecting with it in the context of new forms of governance, politics, and political actors. Immigrants are key among these new actors (Sassen, 2004).

However, there is little research that explores the impact of the rich and dynamic “bundle of conditions” that signify the contemporary civic affiliations and practices, nor have researchers examined the implications of these conditions for the civic beliefs of diverse groups of youth. Although educational researchers have begun to examine a global dimension in citizenship education (e.g., Banks, 2004; Davies, Evans, & Reid, 2005), they typically have not included an explicit conceptualization of global citizenship, its purposes, and its applicability to the school curriculum. In addition, there are few model programs that educators can look to that focus on the global dimension of civic affiliations and its relationship to nation loyalty.

The purpose of this study was to examine a case of diverse adolescents’ “vocabularies of citizenship” (Carens, 2000), a concept that captures the tensions in their beliefs and affiliations for conceptualizing citizenship in a global context. Underlying this concept is an understanding of learning as socially constructed in terms of the ways that adolescents’ life experiences shape how they receive ideas and facts and how they are actively involved in constructing meanings (Adams & Carfagna, 2006; Cornbleth, 2002; Oldfather, West, White, & Wilmarth, 1999). We explored the participants’ vocabularies for two concepts that raise questions about the relationship of national and global beliefs and affiliations: universal human rights2 and global citizenship. This research occurred during their participation in an international studies program, the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for International Studies (PGSIS).3 This state-funded 5-week summer program teaches secondary students current scholarship and skills in political science, cultural studies, foreign language, and international affairs.

We contend that adolescents negotiate their beliefs about citizenship within, across, and around multiple levels of affiliation and belonging. This premise is grounded in our belief about citizenship as situated between the extremes of postnationalism, which denies the relevance of the nation-state, and of liberal nationalism, which denies the increasing global nature of civic affiliations and the unequal experiences of groups outside of the dominant culture. An intermediate position refers to the ways that cosmopolitan concerns can be combined with national commitments as “cosmopolitan patriots” (Appiah, 1998). For us, citizenship is a construct that is experienced in increasingly complex and unequal ways because of globalization, especially in light of how it structures new potentialities and dangers for marginalized groups. Guided by Anderson-Levitt’s (2004) assertion that global dimensions of education inhabit the national and vice versa, we focused on the ways that these adolescents’ beliefs and affiliations of national citizenship, as an “incomplete” institution “embedded” in its social and political contexts (Sassen, 2003a, p. 14), are being redefined in dynamic relationship to the emergence of global orientations. Accordingly, this research focuses on the differences between students from immigrant backgrounds (IM) and those from dominant-culture (DC) families. Drawing on the scholarship on immigrant youth and transnational citizenship, we hypothesized that IM students would have different civic beliefs and affiliations than would DC students, particularly in terms of the national-global dynamic, because of their transnational experiences and the historically marginalized position of ethnic minorities within the political system (Brysk & Shafir, 2004; Junn, 2004).

We agree with Reimers (2006) that in a global era, the responsibility of public schooling for developing democratic citizenship needs to address changing world conditions. This research is designed to contribute to this effort by exploring the ways that a model global civics program facilitates adolescents’ learning about the multiple and interrelated levels of citizenship.


In this section, we develop our theoretical framework and review the relevant literature on citizenship under globalization and on immigrant youth. First we explain the impact of globalization on citizenship. Then we outline our operational definition of global citizenship, including a discussion of the key tensions associated with it. Next we review the concepts of transnationalism and transnational citizenship, considering their implications for immigrant students. Last, we use insights from our review of the literature to formulate the research questions.


The concepts of global and transnational citizenship framed and informed our inquiry. These terms capture the changing meanings and practices of citizenship in light of globalization and its evolving relationship with the nation-state. From this perspective, we understand civic beliefs to be fundamentally complex, flexible, and multiple (Mitchell & Parker, in press; Ong, 1999; Sassen, 2003a). In other words, citizenship not only is a fixed legal status that nation-states confer but also includes multiple beliefs, affiliations, and identities about an individual’s role in society (Howard & Gill, 2001; Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2001).

Globalization raises challenges to the traditional understanding of citizenship as bounded to, and limited by, the nation-state. A supranational form of civic affiliation and responsibility is emerging based on shifting allegiances and solidarities within and outside the nation state (Held, 2002). Two processes of globalization—global markets and the discourse of universal human rights—are transforming the nation-state’s control over citizenship, although from very different perspectives (Torres, 2002). Global markets require nation-states to promote economic policies to improve global rather than domestic competitiveness. Moreover, transnational corporations, which operate to some degree outside the control of national economic regulations, have become key actors in the global economy (Carnoy, 2001). As Carnoy observed, “Globalisation forces nation-states to focus more on acting as economic growth promoters for their national economies than as protectors of the national identity or a nationalist project” (p. 72). Moreover, scholars argue that universal human rights can influence nation-states because they presume a higher legal and moral authority that groups draw on to claim more equal civil rights (Doyle & Gardner, 2003). Human rights can challenge national laws, both legally and in the public arena, through the media and popular pressure.

Some scholars argue that nation-states are undergoing a process of “denationalization” in which certain national capabilities are being reconfigured at a global scale4 (e.g., Sassen, 2006). Denationalization points to the role of both an international elite made up of business officials and staffers of international organizations, and the flow of poor immigrants in reshaping the practice of individual rights that were previously the exclusive domain of the nation-state. These elites challenge the notion of allegiance to a single nation-state through their exercise of dual citizenship. From a very different socioeconomic position, both legal (but not yet naturalized) and undocumented immigrants make a similar challenge by claiming rights that were formerly restricted to legal citizens, such as the protection of human rights, the right to education for their children, and the claim to legalization for long-term illegal residents (Sassen, 2006). These immigrants make their claims based on international law and moral appeals to human rights rather than on national laws, which together suggest a de facto, informal citizenship.

Although citizenship remains bound to the nation-state most strongly in terms of the provision of formal rights, the process of denationalization has led to the emergence of new political spaces and subjects less articulated with the nation-state, such as global activists (Sassen, 2003b). The emergence of global civil society provides an institutional setting in which people can act as global citizens (Tarrow, 2005). Global civil society comprises actors that work to democratize the authority of transnational corporations and international institutions, such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. These actors include nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and international bodies working for peace and security, such as the United Nations. These global processes suggest a breakdown in the barriers between terms of civic affiliation such as nationalism and cosmopolitanism, which were previously considered contradictory (Urry, 2000).

Global civil society has grown in reaction to the negative consequences of globalization. One of these consequences is the displacement of people due to uneven international patterns of economic growth and trade, transnational community bonds, political and ethnic conflicts, and international immigration law, which separates them from national citizenship and the rights that it guarantees (Brysk & Shafir, 2004; Castles & Davidson, 2000). Globalization is making less developed nations into sending zones of new migrants because of their exposure to the fluctuations of the global market. This situation creates a citizenship gap: the exclusion of groups from citizenship, primarily refugees, migrants, and undocumented residents, as well as the formation of second-class citizens, which include women, children, laborers, and ethnic minorities, who have lesser membership rights (Brysk, 2002).


For this study, we defined global citizenship as an ethical construct that is premised on the normative value of contributing to the creation of a better world, especially the responsibility to solve world problems. Furthermore, we conceive of global citizenship as having three fundamental characteristics corresponding to moral, institutional, and political dimensions (see Dower & Williams, 2002). These dimensions are: (1) membership in a world community with shared identity and ethical responsibilities (moral aspect); (2) belief in human rights as a legal framework and in global institutions (institutional aspect); and (3) commitment with other global citizens to solve world problems (political aspect).

Although the concept of global citizenship is often used in a positive light to denote the spread of democracy and solidarity across cultural differences, it also contains several inherent tensions or problems. Therefore, we also outline the tensions corresponding to the three dimensions of our definition.

Membership in a world community does not presuppose a single ethic, but, paralleling national citizenship, is based on a shared sense of responsibility to act for the betterment of the world among people with different and sometimes contradictory values (Dower, 2002). What they hold in common is a desire to cooperate and seek consensus with diverse people over their shared global problems, which suggests some form of shared commitment and identity.

One critique argues that membership in a world community is too vague and rootless, in the sense of lacking a true moral community (McConnell, 2002). This position asserts that global citizenship is too abstract and weak of an affiliation for the development of strong ethical commitments. From this perspective, citizenship requires membership in finite moral and political communities, which suggests that citizenship is fundamentally a legal conception and therefore requires a government for its expression. Thus, if one believes that citizenship means sole allegiance to a government, then global citizenship presents a major problem. However, an alternate view is that people have a range of civic affiliations and that absolute loyalty to a nation is unrealistic and not a requirement for national citizenship. If global citizenship does not require an individual to give up other affiliations, then it cannot be considered rootless.

Belief in human rights provides the moral foundation for global citizenship and the legal framework for the protection of rights in light of national and international violations (Brysk & Shafir, 2004). Human rights function for global citizenship, similar to the manner in which U.S. citizenship is built on rights that are guaranteed in the Constitution but that are based on the concept of personhood rather than on nation-state membership. This is possible because the concept of human rights does not rely on the authority of a limited political community (such as a nation) but instead on the universal principle that all people share a set of intrinsic rights.

The universal claim of human rights theory is one of its most controversial features. As Held and McGrew (2003) remarked, “Human rights discourse may indicate aspirations for the entrenchment of liberties and entitlements across the globe but it by no means reflects common agreement about rights questions” (p. 115). Some rights advocates, however, have tried to find a balance in terms of allowing for cultural interpretations of universal principles (Brysk, 2002). The cultural relativist position, although it maintains the saliency of, and need for, human rights, argues in opposition that because there are not moral absolutes shared by all, cultures should be judged according to their own values. Still other scholars have critiqued human rights on the basis of its interplay with power and politics; they assert that human rights are based on Western ethical principles masquerading as universal values, which act as a form of imperialism (Huntington, 1996; Mutua, 2002). From this perspective, human rights are historical products that evolved in compliance with capitalism and the nation-state system, exemplified in the predominance of corporate over social rights (Teeple, 2005).

The role of global institutions is more problematic because they can be perceived as a means for powerful states to dominate weaker ones. However, there are several possible configurations for global governance, ranging from a formal world state to strengthening the world community. Archibugi and Held (1995) described their vision of a more democratic world community as “a model of political organization in which citizens, wherever they are located in the world, have a voice, input and political representation in international affairs, in parallel with and independently of their own governments” (p. 13). In fact, many scholars of global citizenship view the idea of a world state as hegemonic, preferring a broad cosmopolitanism that focuses on solidarity and understanding across differences (e.g., McDonough & Feinberg, 2003). Others assert that global democracy can exist without domination and cultural homogenization (Young, 2004).

Commitment with other global citizens to solve world problems is realized primarily through participation in global civil society, sometimes referred to as “globalization from below,” which is the institutional setting in which people can enact citizenship on a global scale (della Porta, Andretta, Mosca, & Reiter, 2006; Muetzelfeldt & Smith, 2002). Participation in global civil society includes working within one’s nation to pressure the government to take on responsibilities for global problems. For example, a global citizen might sign a petition pressuring his or her state politicians to support legislation canceling the debts of poor nations, or boycott companies that are damaging the rain forest.

One criticism asserts that it is idealistic to think that most people can participate in global civil society to solve world problems. This concern is especially relevant for less developed nations, where individuals are less likely to have the resources for international mobility. Clearly, only a small number of people have such resources, such as activists in global movements, business elites, and officials of international organizations who are under a special set of rights and entitlements (e.g., the World Bank; Sassen, 2003a). Global action, however, can be understood as occurring in relation to local action, ranging from direct participation in global social movements, to acting locally to influence national governments, to behaving more responsibly in local communities. Dower (2002) described this relationship as “intend globally act locally” (p. 33), noting that the significance lies in an individual’s moral concerns.


Transnational citizenship describes the ways that individuals, especially immigrants, exercise citizenship in some form across national boundaries and is part of the broader discourse on global citizenship5 (Fox, 2005; Johnston, 2003; Stokes, 2004). Citizenship status, in this sense, not only is legitimized by the state, as one scholarly tradition maintains (e.g., Tilly, 1998), but also arises from the shared identity created and maintained in civic and political communities, such as ethnic migrant communities (Fox). In this regard, transnational citizenship “pertains to the aspects of belonging and recognition. Its main purpose is to acknowledge the symbolic ties reaching back to the countries of origin” rather than as a solely formal and legal status (Faist, 2000, p. 219).

Much of the work on transnational and global citizenship is concerned with the cross-border political status of immigrants, who maintain stronger citizenship loyalties and political connections to their countries of origin than in the past (Castles, 2000; Massey, 1995; Yuval-Davis, 1999). Immigrants, particularly those who are members of transnational households, do not hold singular national identities and are beginning to think of themselves as global citizens (e.g., Beal & Sos, 2001). For example, in the most comprehensive study on immigrant assimilation in the United States (a longitudinal study of 5,000 children of immigrants), after 4 years of high school, adolescents were more likely to identify with the nationality of their home country than with being a U.S. citizen (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001). For undocumented immigrants, global citizenship is one of the rationales for gaining legal rights in their host nation.

Immigrants and their children often develop stronger national and ethnic identities when they are away from their national homelands (Asanova, 2005; Smith, 2003). The links to their countries of origin that immigrants hold through ethnic and social networks accentuate their difficulties to integrate culturally and politically in their new nation, suggesting that immigrant youth hold complex and fragmented notions of national identity and citizenship (Eisikovits, 2005; Hoeder, Hébert, & Schmitt, 2005). Youth of immigrant origin, whether born in or outside the United States, consistently have greater difficulties in school than students with dominant-culture backgrounds (e.g., Fry, 2003), and this effect increases with time spent in the United States (Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2001). In addition, their diverse political perspectives lead some immigrant youth to develop critical views of government policies in their adopted nation (Ramos-Zayas, 1998) and multiple national identities (Lister, Smith, Middleton, & Cox, 2003; Mitchell, 2001; Osler & Starkey, 2003).


In this section, we outline the research questions for this study and link them to our review of the relevant literatures. The following research questions guided our study: (1) In the context of globalization, in what ways do adolescents in the PGSIS make sense of the emerging complexities of citizenship, particularly the tensions between national and global attachments and beliefs? (2) How do adolescents from immigrant backgrounds understand these complexities, and do their understandings differ from nonimmigrant adolescents’ understandings?

One of the main themes that we identified in our review of the literature was a conceptualization of citizenship that considers the ways that globalization is changing people’s understandings and affiliations of citizenship. The implications are that citizenship now embraces a wider range of beliefs and allegiances than it has in the past.

A second theme is the emergence of supranational forms of citizenship. We identified a need to address the civic education of adolescents with immigrant backgrounds because of the barriers they face to becoming full citizens. Despite their shared learning experiences in the PGSIS, we expected that the IM students’ transnational backgrounds would shape their interpretations of what they learned. Furthermore, from a transnational perspective, it is reasonable to expect that the immigrant students would be more aware of, and less resistant to, global civic beliefs and affiliations. Dominant-culture youth might also be connected to global issues and citizenship but would likely have different perspectives.


The PGSIS is a 5-week summer program for approximately 100 high school students from across the state. The state department of education initiated the program in 1984 and provides the majority of its funding. Students are selected by state intermediate unit, and each unit provides a number of students proportional to their applicant population. The PGSIS aims to have an ethnically and racially diverse student body, although there are not specific regulations in the selection process.

The core curriculum contains the following courses: Global Issues, Intercultural Communication, International Political Economy, Negotiation and Diplomacy, Global Citizenship, and Language and Culture (Brazilian Portuguese or Japanese). Each core course is given two times per week for a total of 2 hours. Each student also selects a concentration area in he or she is provided additional coursework in one of the following areas: (1) cultural geography, (2) global economic perspectives, (3) the global bouquet: societies and cultures, or (4) U.S. foreign policy, politics, and law.

The PGSIS program contributed to a complex understanding of citizenship through its teaching methods and curriculum. The courses and experiences encouraged the students to develop their own beliefs and affiliations of citizenship and human rights through class discussions of current scholarship. The Global Citizenship course was particularly relevant to this research. The instructor created an open classroom environment that supported discussion of these controversial and complex issues, which is considered a key approach for the development of civic beliefs and knowledge (Hahn, 1998; Torney-Purta, Lehmann, Oswald, & Schulz, 2001). The curriculum emphasized three topics: (1) citizenship as a moral, in addition to legal, concept; (2) the perspectives of diverse actors; and (3) civic engagement as a bridge between the local and the global.

The instructor portrayed citizenship as a complex topic of study that was not strictly tied to legal status. The notion that cultural and ethnic groups understand citizenship differently, and thus that democratic citizenship contains diverse creeds, was also included. Students also discussed and debated the topic of immigration and citizenship during one class. Finally, the course encouraged a notion of active citizenship in which civic engagement links the local and the global through service learning activities such as participation in a community service day.



High school students are eligible to participate in the PGSIS during the summer following their junior year. The criteria for acceptance are (1) academic achievement, (2) leadership, (3) achievement in learning a second language, and (4) interest in global issues. Two written essays on international issues are an important part of the application. The first essay asks applicants to explain which country they would like to be from other than their own. The second asks them to select and discuss an international issue that is relevant to their local community. Because of these criteria, we believe that the participants are more likely to hold supportive views of international affairs and a generally cosmopolitan outlook than the average high school student and are less likely to hold strongly nationalistic views. One mediating factor, however, is that some students likely participated to enhance their potential for university admissions, rather than because of an interest in international affairs. Still, this situation does not preclude their having a range of opinions about international issues.

Of the 100 students enrolled in the PGSIS during the summer of 2005, 79 agreed to participate in this research study. Two originally agreed to participate but did not complete the PGSIS program; therefore, we excluded them from the data analysis. This left us with 77 students in the questionnaire sample (see Table 1). All these students took the entry and exiting questionnaires. Fifty of the students were female (65%) and 27 were male (35%). In addition, there were 19 ethnic minority students (25%), including African American, Latino, Asian, and mixed-race students.

Table 1. Demographic Profile of Students


Total Number of Students

Percent of All Students










Race/ Ethnicity



African American



Asian American









Mixed Race






Immigrant Background






Nineteen of the students in the sample were of immigrant origin (25%), of whom 13 were female and 6 were male. These students had immigrant backgrounds from Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Europe. Six students of immigrant origin spoke Spanish at home. The home languages of the other 13 students were Chinese, Italian, Sri Lankan, Turkish, Russian, Polish, Korean, Arabic, Malayalam, Yoruba, Hindi, Gujarati, and Ukrainian.

Twenty students were selected for interviews according to four categories: male dominant-culture (DC) students, female DC students, male immigrant (IM) students, and female IM students. In the male IM category, there were 2 Asian students, 1 African student, and 2 Latino students. In the female IM category, there were 2 Middle Eastern students and 3 Latino students.

One challenge we faced in capturing a transnational perspective in the total sample was to operationalize the IM category and to identify criteria for their selection. For example, would a foreign-born adolescent who grew up in the United States have the same transnational perspective as one who was born in the United States but whose parents immigrated and maintained a home environment rich in their native culture and language? What about an adolescent who was born in the United States to American parents but lived for several years in another country?

Consequently, we operationalized the IM category by limiting the sample to the students with families who maintained cultural and linguistic ties to their country of origin. We settled on the following selection criteria for this category: (1) born in another country, or (2) parents immigrated to the United States, or (3) lived in home with a non-U.S. cultural and linguistic environment. The entry questionnaire collected data on their place of birth and home language. We gathered further details of their home environment and background in the interviews. We also developed exclusion criteria for the cases in which a student matched one of the mentioned criteria but remained outside the local culture. For example, we excluded students who grew up in a DC family but who had lived for a period in another country (such as on a military base) because it was unlikely that they had developed a transnational perspective or had significant interaction with local populations.

We defined the DC category as those adolescents who did not speak a language besides English at home, who were not born outside the United States, and who did not mention having an immigrant background during the interview. Our goal was to capture the individuals, regardless of their ethnicity, race, or religion, who did not have international home cultures connected to life in other nations.


We used a mixed-method case study approach to collect detailed and rich data on the students’ beliefs about citizenship (Stake, 1995; Yin, 1984). A case study approach is ideally suited to understanding the subtlety and complexity of adolescents’ beliefs about citizenship in a global age (Bassey, 1999). We combined quantitative analysis of the questionnaires with qualitative analysis of the interviews, observations, and documents because of our belief that multiple data sources and analyses would provide the best approach to exploring this topic (Bernard, 2000; Shulha, Wilson, & Anderson, 1999). We also recognize the limits to generalizability for this case study because, as Lincoln and Guba (2000) suggested, there are “always factors that are unique to the locale” (p. 39). In this case, the selection criteria limited the representativeness of the sample because the participants were selected with international experiences and interests, although this is appropriate to the understanding of the case as a model program.

We collected data from interviews with 20 students, pre- and postquestionnaires with 79 students that were administered by an external evaluator, informal observations of the Global Citizenship class, and curriculum documents. The questionnaire data provide a picture of the total sample, and the interviews, observations, and curriculum documents were more appropriate for exploring the complexities of the students’ understandings and knowledge.

In depth, semistructured interviews were the main source of data (Seidman, 2006). The interviews dealt with the topics of global citizenship and universal human rights. We coded the interviews using the constant comparative technique (Strauss, 1987). First, we read through the transcripts, noting when students made statements or took positions on the topics of global citizenship and human rights, which formed the basic codes. The students’ different positions on these topics formed the subcodes. We then compared these subcodes with the scholarly literature on the coded topic. During this process, we periodically checked the data against the research questions.

The questionnaires were designed to gauge the impact of the program on the students’ knowledge and attitudes. The questionnaires asked them to assess their knowledge of, and attitudes toward, global issues on a scale of 1 to 4, where 1 = not very competent, and 4 = extremely competent. We analyzed these data for the two groups of students by calculating the means, significance, differences between the groups, and the significance of these differences for each item. In addition, we calculated the eta squared (η²) as a measure of association between immigrant background and students’ evaluation of their global knowledge and attitudes. Eta-squared is appropriate for addressing the practical (vs. statistical) significance observed among individuals in different groups that is attributable to differences in group means (Huck, 2004).



The students’ responses to the questionnaires are summarized in Table 2.6 Their learning, represented by the gains in their scores on the questionnaires, was most prominent for three items on global issues: “ideas about how the world could be organized in the future”; “understand how the process of globalization (global interdependence) affects the national interests of the United States and those of other countries”; and “understand how policy decisions on international issues are made.” These items indicate that global governance, globalization, and global issues were key areas of learning for all students and that according to their low entry scores on these topics, they did not bring substantial knowledge of these topics with them into the program.  

Table 2. Participants’ Evaluations of Their Global Knowledge







Average Difference

Sig. Level


(before and after)

I am knowledgeable about contemporary international and global issues.















I understand how economic, political, cultural, technological, and environmental forces impact current global issues and problems.















I understand the complexities of intercultural relationships and communication.















I have been exposed to ideas about how the world could be organized in the future (differently or “alternatively”) in order to better address some of the world’s major global problems and issues.















I am knowledgeable about how history has shaped the global problems and issues of today.  















I understand how the process of globalization (global interdependence) affects the national interests of the United States and those of other countries.















I understand how policy decisions on international issues are made.















I am knowledgeable about other languages and cultures.















I am good at seeing issues from another person or group’s perspective.















I can place myself in the shoes of someone who has had very different life experiences than I have.















The IM students rated their knowledge higher than the DC group on 9 of the 10 items, although the statistical measures of association (eta squared) between these differences and the DC and IM groups were small. The IM group also had higher overall gains in their scores than the DC group for 6 of the 10 items. The three items on which the immigrant students had the comparative largest gains were “knowledgeable about how history has shaped the global problems and issues of today” (+0.32 vs. -0.02 for the DC group), “understand how economic, political, cultural, technological and environmental forces impact current global issues and problems” (+0.47 vs. +0.28), and “knowledgeable about other languages and cultures” (+0.47 vs. +0.28). The DC group’s highest comparative gains were on “understand the complexities of intercultural relationships and communication” (+0.33 vs. +0.10 for the immigrant students) and “understand how the process of globalization (global interdependence) affects the national interests of the United States and those of other countries” (+0.66 vs. 0.22). The IM group’s gains were concentrated in knowledge of global issues and cultures, particularly in terms of what has been described as perspective consciousness (Merryfield, 1998), whereas the DC students gained in cross-cultural understanding and U.S. national interests.

These data support our expectation that the two groups came to the PGSIS with different knowledge and beliefs about the world and that they would receive the curriculum differently according to their experiences and backgrounds. However, the data were less helpful for identifying what their beliefs were or for how they understood the tensions and contradictions in citizenship. In the following sections, we turn to the interview data to explore these tensions in depth.


The interviews showed that the students held different beliefs about the feasibility of global citizenship and its relationship with the nation state. Their responses to these questions corresponded to three positions:

(1) Postnational citizenship (6 IM and 3 DC students): Our primary responsibility is to the human race and to our shared problems on this planet (see Archibugi, Held, & Köhler, 1998). Some form of global governance is needed to accomplish these goals.

2) Cosmopolitan patriotism (3 IM and 6 DC students): We are “rooted cosmopolitans”— concerned with the human race while taking pride in, and actively supporting, our own cultural and political communities. Patriotism is not all-encompassing, but neither is it irrelevant (see Appiah, 1998).

3) Liberal nationalism (1 IM and 1 DC students): Global citizenship is a nice idea but largely impossible and undesirable, so we need to focus on what is near to us. Nation-states remain our best hope for resolving world problems and for helping all citizens of the world (see Tamir, 1993).

Six of the 10 IM students fit the postnational citizenship category, and only 3 favored cosmopolitan patriotism. In contrast, the DC students had a stronger preference for the cosmopolitan patriotism category, in which 6 of the 10 DC students fit. Only 3 DC students fit under postnational citizenship. In the liberal nationalism category, there was 1 DC and 1 IM student.

The 9 students in the postnational citizenship category believed that citizenship is fundamentally a global responsibility and saw a diminished role for the nation-state. This belief did not preclude them from recognizing the importance of being a good citizen in their community and nation but asserted the primacy of our responsibilities to the human race and the planet to improve society. Samir, a male IM student of Indian background, expressed this belief: “Everyone is born a citizen of the world and everyone is a global citizen. Global citizenship is something you do, like having awareness about issues and then acting on them.” This statement emphasizes the universal character of global citizenship, which is based on the idea that the concept of the “human race” is central to relationships between people rather than national identities and that we must work together, independent of nationality, to solve global problems. Steven, a male DC student, explained this role:

I think it [global citizenship] needs to remedy tensions between nations, streamline communication. It would get around cultural barriers a lot. It would stop people from seeing people as “them over there.” I don’t know necessarily how it would work or when it would happen . . . I define it more as there are issues that need to be dealt with. Water for example is something global citizenship will have to deal with. It will have something to do with oil distribution and global warming.

Steven believed that global citizenship is the link to make diverse nations work together to resolve tensions and major global issues. He asserted that the lack of understanding between cultures was one of the major barriers to greater cooperation.

All the students in the postnational citizenship category described global citizenship as an inherent condition that extends to all people regardless of where they live or their socioeconomic condition. Nesrin, a female IM student of Turkish background, typified this perspective: “I believe everyone is a global citizen. Some [students in class] thought that people who were secluded from the world, like in the Amazon Rain Forest, couldn’t be global citizens because they don’t have resources like newspapers. . . . So directly or indirectly everyone is a global citizen.” Nesrin understood global citizenship as an inclusive status for all people, who are otherwise divided by levels of wealth, language, and culture. Her thinking points to an understanding of citizenship as a moral construction rather than as a legal status bestowed by governments.

The students in the cosmopolitan patriotism category balanced a concern for the world with a strong allegiance to their nation. Although they supported the concept of global citizenship, they were wary of the implications of its universal underpinnings for national sovereignty, preferring to align their citizenship with the nation-state. Robert, a male DC student, exemplified the way that these students understood the global–national relationship:

A lot of people were kind of afraid of the term “global citizenship” and thinking about how that is going to affect my national citizenship. Like the support I have from my own country, would that somehow be diminished? I think that was one of my major concerns. I guess the idea of being globally minded is good, but I am not sure I would be willing to sacrifice my national support for it.

These students expressed concern that global and national citizenship are at odds and that the adoption of one meant the “sacrifice” of the other. The majority of the students in the cosmopolitan patriotism group (6 of 9), including Robert, specifically mentioned the term globally minded to describe their relationship with the world as a conceptual mechanism to avoid a conflict with their national citizenship.

Several of the 9 students in this category were also prompted by a fear that the universal nature of global citizenship requires conformity to a totalizing set of values and beliefs. For example, when asked about her view of global citizenship, Susan, a female DC student, commented, “I think global citizenship is trying to get everyone to bend and live under one set of rules. . . . It was hard for me to understand how people from all across the world could come together and live together under one set of morals and values.”

Here Susan hit on one of the major differences between the postnational citizenship and cosmopolitan patriotism groups. She extended the “rules” of citizenship, which she uses in reference to formal laws, to an imposed package of “morals and values” as citizenship. In contrast, the postnational citizenship group, and in particular, the IM students who made up the majority of the category, believed that democratic citizenship allows for a broad range of morals and values despite the requirements of citizenship status for some shared values, such as commitment to democratic principles.

The third category, liberal nationalism, included only 2 students: Thomas, a male DC student, and Simon, a male IM student of Chinese background. They believed that global citizenship is an important ideal but that it is impossible and unnecessary in the world today. Both pointed to power imbalances and to the system of nation-states as barriers to global citizenship, arguing that we should focus on what is at hand rather than reach for an abstract ideal. Thomas summed up this viewpoint:

My feeling was that you really can’t have global citizenship. The only way to have global citizenship would be if some catastrophic event happened to the world and everyone was brought together . . . I feel like we could make the world a better place but I just don’t think that we could have global citizenship.

Thomas and Simon believed that the concept of citizenship is fundamentally tied to the nation-state because only it can provide rights and responsibilities. Simon explained,

There is nothing to compare it [global citizenship] to, you can’t compare yourself to someone in Switzerland and say that I have these rights and this is what I owe to the world and I owe my nation this. . . . A citizen is supposed to defend their country, it’s written in almost every constitution. You have to defend your country if you are called upon, and how are you going to defend the world and against what?

For Simon, citizenship is primarily a formal legal status provided by a national government. His thinking is based on the nation-state system in which citizenship is defined as loyalty to one nation and in opposition to other nations, which he expressed by asking “against what” world citizenship would operate. Simon was skeptical of global citizenship or a world government because he understood their function as providing an exclusive status.

Imagining global governance. In the interviews, there was a recurring tension in the students’ beliefs about global governance. Most of them were unsure of what a global government would look like and how it would function. They tended to understand global governance in terms of a formal government rather than in the sense of a stronger world community.

Citizenship, a majority of students in the cosmopolitan patriot and liberal national categories reasoned, is only valid in relationship to a government. Therefore, the existence of global citizenship requires a global government . For example, Roberta, a female IM student of Peruvian background, commented,

When I came here, I believed everyone was a global citizen. You are born in the world therefore you are a citizen of it. But now, I think someone brought up the issue, that in order to be a citizen you have to have a government and participate in it. And that struck a chord with me and made sense. I guess I don’t believe in global citizenship by definition, I believe in global awareness.

Roberta’s understanding of global citizenship changed from citizenship largely as identity with, and membership in, the human race to a focus on legal status and political institutions.

Most of the students struggled to reconcile the coexistence of national and global governments. For example, Susan, a female DC student, remarked,

Clearly we can’t solve problems on our own. But I feel that if we get a stronger one [global government], the U.S. [government] will just get even more mad. I just don’t know. It’s so hard to think about the idea. I like the idea and it makes sense that it would solve the problems.  

Susan questioned how nation-states would function with a stronger form of global government. Steven, a male DC student, believed strongly in the need for a world government but also commented on the way that it would clash with national sovereignty:

Some people aren’t even willing to give up state sovereignty for national sovereignty let alone national sovereignty to an international governing body. I think that organizations like the WTO [World Trade Organization] have a lot more enforcement power and control than organizations like the UN [United Nations]. If you give all these enforcement powers to the WTO, why can’t the UN work like that?

Steven differentiated between economic and political aspects of global governance. He believed that nations have been more willing to cede greater resources and authority for the regulation of the global economy than for solving political and social problems.

Other students concluded that a stronger form of global community is needed but that it should not be a governing body. Rita, a female DC student, also argued that a shared ethos would produce greater cooperation between nations without a world government. She suggested,

While this far-reaching idea of international interaction is not even remotely a form of world government, perhaps it could work toward a consensus of ideas or at least an understanding of disparate ideas that will allow all countries to coexist. A world government would not be able to reconcile the many different cultures, societies, and norms that exist.

Rita referred to a shared ethos for uniting countries around “consensus” and “understanding” of cultural differences.

A minority of the students held the position that a world government is necessary and vital. They recognized the challenges inherent in global governance, but they asserted that the benefits outweighed the negatives of such an institution. Stuart, a male DC student, typified this position:

Personally, I think that a world government will be very needed in the future. I'm not sure how near in the near future, but it will be both desirable and needed. . . As everything in the world is now becoming more connected, such as new markets opening between China and Canada, we need some governing body with a . . . wide perspective on issues and affairs.

These students set aside the practical and political difficulties of global governance to focus on the increasing interdependency between nations as a rationale for a global governing body. Although most of these students preferred global governance for its contribution to political stability and peace, Stuart also supported global governance because it could facilitate global markets and international trade.


The second topic we examined was universal human rights. The doctrine of universal human rights presupposes that all individuals are entitled to a legal status based on the protection of their dignity. This status is independent of the authority of national governments and supersedes national laws. Therefore, human rights can conflict with national legal systems and their legal definitions of rights (Spring, 2004). The students’ beliefs about human rights in relation to the nation took three main positions:

(1) Universal rights (7 IM and 3 DC students): There are inherent natural rights that apply equally for everyone. These rights should be adopted by all nations (see Donnelly, 2003).

(2) Culturally relevant rights (1 IM and 6 DC students): Universal rights are problematic because they threaten cultural diversity. If they are even possible, human rights need to respond to the unique cultural values of each society (see Cowan, Dembour, & Wilson, 2001).

(3) Nationally sovereign rights (2 IM students and 1 DC student): Human rights and international law are needed, but they should defer to national laws. National sovereignty must be preserved even at the expense of the universality of human rights (see Bennoune, 2002; Ignatieff, 2005).

Similar to their thinking on global citizenship, the IM youth more often supported the universal dimension. Ten of the 20 students fit into the universal rights category, including 7 of the 10 IM students and only 3 DC students. The culturally relevant rights category accounted for 7 of the 20 students, with 6 of the 10 DC students and only 1 IM student. There were 3 students in the category of nationally sovereign rights, 1 DC student and 2 IM students. Although these categories represent the students’ dominant perspectives, some of the students held views that had elements from two or more of these categories.

The 12 students in the universal rights category believed that human rights should be enacted across the world. For example, Luis, a male IM student, commented, “Well, human rights, yes, that’s really something that you have to grant to everybody no matter what religion and what culture. Like, it’s just something that I think is a right for everybody.” Luis understood rights as superseding religious and cultural differences based on their common humanity. Steven, a male DC student, also held a strong conviction about the need for universal human rights despite cultural differences. He commented,

This is where I become the cultural imperialist. Yes, I do think there can be [universal human rights]. . . . Sure they’re Western, you know, it’s really like I’m pushing values on people but I feel that way. I think those human rights have already been created and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is what they should be. And it is only elements within other cultures that are against it. I don’t think that every Islamic person kills their wife. I don’t think that they all practice honor killings.

While recognizing cultural differences, Steven avoided stereotypical portrayals of other cultures that have surfaced in the U.S. media and textbooks (e.g., Cruz, 1994). He did not see a contradiction between a shared set of rights and the flourishing of cultural differences, despite acknowledging criticisms of their “Western” foundations.

Luis’s and Steven’s strong conviction about the universality of human rights was atypical. Most of the students in the universal rights category struggled to define rights and were uncertain about the feasibility for their implementation worldwide. Rita, a DC female student, expressed this sentiment: “On some level there is respect for human life, maybe not women’s lives or children’s lives, but the fact that everyone is struggling to stay alive no matter what their condition is, no matter who they love and who they hate.” Rita was unsure of precisely which rights are shared universally. She settled on the desire for “staying alive” as the universal basis of human rights.

The seven students in the culturally relevant rights category questioned the universality of human rights by arguing that rights are incompatible with cultural diversity. Thomas, a male DC student, reasoned, “You can’t have a Universal Declaration of Human Rights because people of different cultures and different religions believe different things and they all conflict.” Like the other students in this category, he understood the concept of universality in absolute terms that would not allow for differences. These students doubted that one set of rights for all people could encompass the range of values that exist in the world.

Students in this category took a relativist view of cultures that assumed we cannot judge the values and traditions of other cultures. For example, Angela, a female DC student, asserted that the universality of human rights is a threat to cultural differences:

I think that it [human rights] is kind of like globalization. People are trying to homogenize human rights for the entire world. I think there has to be secular decisions made based not even on countries but on culture and what they define human rights as. My suitemate is from Egypt and she believes in polygamy. I mean, I was not raised to believe in anything remotely like that . . . . So I think it’s impossible to have one unified set of human rights.

Angela noted the trend to global uniformity, although without distinguishing between the different aims and effects fostered by globalization, which she used in reference to the global economy, and by human rights. Regardless, she raised the criticism that universal human rights promote homogenization and undermine cultural diversity (see Spring, 2004, pp. 71–76).

However, not all the students in this category agreed that cultures are above criticism. George, a male DC student, used examples of cultural differences to argue for culturally relevant rights. For example, he stated,

I feel very firmly that they [universal human rights] aren’t [possible] because there are so many different cultures. And yes, there is globalization but that doesn’t stop there from being cultures that think it is acceptable to sacrifice a human being. We can’t tell them, no it’s not, because that’s what they believe is right.

George’s comment casting other cultures as “primitive” or “nonmodern” recalls the colonial representations of the non-Western “other” that Willinsky (1998) documented in school curricula. It also points out how the cultural relativist position can reinforce stereotypes that suggest a lack of experience with, and understanding of, non-Western cultures.

Stuart, Franklin, and Samir, the three students in the nationally sovereign rights category, took the position that nations should have the final authority to determine human rights. They emphasized the sanctity of national laws and were suspicious of effort to make rights uniform. Comments made by Samir, a male IM student, typified this view: “I think national rights will always overpower any law unifying the entire world. I really do think national sovereignty and rights will overpower them. I look at things realistically, the way the world works and I go with that.” Samir pointed to the fragility of recent efforts to enforce human rights and international law to make his case. Franklin, a male IM student of West African background, struggled more than Samir over the question of sovereignty. He stated:

I don’t know which one would take precedence because they’re equal in that sense. I guess it depends on interpretation at that time. In America, the Constitution may hold greater value over the Declaration of Human Rights. But in other countries, human rights may be more important to that country than their laws. So, I have no answer to that question.

Franklin believed that nations have authority over human rights. From his perspective, a nation could chose to adopt human rights, but there is not a higher authority or moral imperative that would compel a nation to adopt human rights.

The spread of human rights. A key tension in the students’ statements concerned how human rights would spread to the developing world. Twelve of the 20 students raised this issue, of whom 7 were DC students and 5 were IM students. They came from all three of the human rights categories (universal rights: 6 of 10 students; culturally relevant: 5 of 7; and nationally sovereign: 1 of 3). The DC students wrestled with a concern for global problems while remaining critical of U.S. cultural hegemony in the world. The IM students focused on the tension between identification with a developing nation and with their status in the United States. Furthermore, in contrast to the DC students’ attention to culture, several IM students raised the issue of national development, especially economic inequalities, as a major influence on the practice of human rights.

These students feared that rights were a vehicle for the spread of Western values to other cultures. As Cristina, a female IM student, asked, “Would it be an American bill of universal human rights?” Other students were also critical of the role of the U.S. government in imposing human rights on other countries. Angela, a DC female student, expressed this position: “I mean I’m so biased because I’m an American. I have really liberal beliefs of what human rights should be and I think it would be unfair of me as a Westerner to decide on what human rights should be for other countries.” For Angela, imperialism was an extension of the culturally relevant rights argument against universal human rights.

Roberta, a female IM student, also was critical of U.S. cultural attitudes toward human rights:

Obviously everyone is going to be for human rights— that we shouldn’t kill civilians in war and we shouldn’t torture anyone in war, that’s just wrong. But at the same time, I am contradicting myself because it just seems like the environment I was brought up in [the United States] has a certain political ideology and it just doesn’t put human rights first.

She drew on her transnational perspective to distinguish between American views on rights and other national contexts, criticizing the values held in her “new” culture. She further explained her thinking:

I am from Peru and I visited last year and I saw deprivation and such a difference in the standards . . . I said, “Oh, you know look at these people. I am from them and I could be them.” And yet I wanted to take care of myself and not worry about what happens to them. I could have been one of them. So that’s the reason why I question it [U.S. political ideology].

Roberta highlighted how national boundaries can be barriers to the spread of human rights. Her own empathy with, and connection to, her country of birth helped her to recognize and critique cultural attitudes toward human rights.

Nesrin, Roberta, and Samir, all IM students, framed the imposition of human rights in the context of economic inequalities between developed and less developed nations. These three students were the only ones to point out economic and political development as a major issue in the adoption of universal human rights. They argued that human rights are more difficult to practice in developing nations because of economic pressures. For example, Nesrin drew on her upbringing in Turkey to make this point:

Because America has so much wealth, it’s easy for us to say, “human rights— kids can’t work” because obviously they’re surviving and their families are going to have food to eat. But in Turkey it’s like if these kids don’t work, their families are dying for it . . . I remember being in Turkey and I never really thought of it like that. I just saw the kids selling water bottles and I saw it as a way of life. They are not being forced, they just know they are poor and they have to do it. I don’t think we can tell poor families, “No, your kids can’t work and you can’t eat for the next week because human rights have to be universal.”

Nesrin pointed out that even if the moral values of human rights are equal in all nations, their practice will remain imbalanced as long as some nations are less developed. Her experiences in Turkey provided a grounded example of the different contexts for human rights due to national economic inequalities.


The qualitative differences in the students’ knowledge suggest that the two groups held distinct, yet often overlapping, orientations to citizenship. The students’ vocabularies of citizenship articulated different combinations of global and national affiliations, for which immigrant status was a key factor. The IM students favored universal positions that emphasized common humanity, making up a majority of the postnational citizenship and universal human rights categories. A majority of the DC students supported positions balancing the national with the global that gave a more central role to national sovereignty and a culturally relevant belief about human rights.

Although both IM and DC students were represented in each of the three vocabulary categories for global citizenship and for human rights, the IM students’ transnational experiences were important influences. This influence was evident in the ways that the IM students switched between views based on U.S. national interests to outsider perspectives that drew on their immigrant cultural backgrounds. Indeed, all the IM students made references to the countries from which they or their families emigrated in order to explain and rationalize their beliefs, yet this did not always lead to greater clarification of the issues. It seems that their transnational experiences provided these students with a more universal orientation because they could better understand the experiences of a wider range of cultures.

A transnational perspective was apparent in the awareness of economic inequalities between developed and developing nations. Only IM students called attention to economic inequalities as a major barrier to the adoption of human rights in less developed nations. In each case, the students’ views were grounded in their personal knowledge of life in a less developed nation and accentuated by their learning about the global economy in the PGSIS. Their transnational experiences led them to question the practice of human rights in a world divided by economic inequalities.

Although the DC students were interested in, and in most cases supportive of, some form of global citizenship and universal human rights, their beliefs were filtered by their thick national affiliations. Most of these students, however, would not describe themselves as highly patriotic; instead, their beliefs revealed their struggle to reconcile world changes with their national loyalties. For example, in terms of human rights, the students in the culturally relevant rights category were likely influenced by the prevalent discourse of multiculturalism in the United States. This does not mean that they were not globally aware or supportive of rights, but that their views were shaped by a national understanding of cultural diversity that values difference. The PGSIS curriculum was also a factor because it stressed the perspectives of diverse groups and cross-cultural understanding.

Table 3: Students' Beliefs About Human Rights and Global Citizenship



Students' Beliefs About Human Rights


Students' Beliefs About  Citizenship



Universal Rights

Culturally Relevant

National mediated



Cosmop. Patriotism

Liberal Nat'lism.

U.S. Male






















































U.S. Female






















































U.S.  Totals


















Immig. Male






















































Immig. Female






















































Immig.  Totals









Yet background doesn’t entirely explain the adolescents’ vocabularies of citizenship. Instead, it helps to explain some of the dynamics within and across the categories, but not, for example, why Robert, Irene, Simon, and Roberta switched from a universal position on human rights to more nationally oriented beliefs about citizenship (see Table 3). Thus, the differences between IM and DC students were only part of the picture. We emphasize that our analysis does not suggest a simplistic scenario in which the IM students held universal beliefs and the DC students were oriented toward national beliefs. As Table 3 shows, just over half (11 of 20) of the students took different positions on the national–global relationship. Six of the DC students held different views along the global–national continuum of global citizenship and human rights, whereas 5 of the IM students held different views.

For us, these switches between universal and national beliefs about citizenship and human rights represent a strong indication of the tensions along these issues, reflecting an unbundling of citizenship vis-à-vis the nation-state in light of globalization. As Tomlinson (1999) has suggested, globalization creates “complex connectivity” that “affects people’s sense of identity, the experience of place and of self in relation to place” (p. 20). Thus, the apparent contradictions and tensions in the students’ statements can be attributed in part to the nature of these issues and the tenuous process of constructing their own vocabularies of citizenship. For example, both DC and IM students favoring universal rights and global citizenship struggled with the problem of maintaining diversity in light of these universal concepts. They attempted to reconcile their hopes for universal rights and their affiliations with a global community without leading to cultural homogenization and the dominance of weaker nations. The students who supported national civic orientations and culturally relevant rights understood universal values as a threat to the sanctity of cultures, especially “traditional” cultures. Yet, they tended to overlook the same effect on the diverse cultures within modernized nations.

The curriculum of the PGSIS also played an important role in the development of these students’ beliefs. Although the students’ backgrounds seemed to be the strongest factor, the curriculum facilitated these beliefs by introducing a broader conception of citizenship that allowed for multiple affiliations. As the findings showed, the majority of the students held complex combinations of global and national views that contrasted with the strictly legalistic notions of citizenship presented in civics classes. In the interviews and observations, students explored and reflected on these topics that they learned about during the program. In this sense, the PGSIS curriculum provided the students with a space to compare the scholarship on citizenship with their previously held beliefs. Sometimes this connection was direct, and sometimes it provoked further questions that led them to rethink their place in the world.


We argue that in light of this research, the question of either national- or global-oriented civic education makes little sense. Instead, it suggests that new and differentiated forms of civic education are needed if all youth are to have access to full citizenship and the range of civic affiliations needed in the world today. If these adolescents’ beliefs are at all typical, the findings suggest that one-size-fits-all civic education programs that concentrate primarily on national patriotism may push away linguistically and culturally diverse youth.

We view the PGSIS as a model program for adapting civic education to meet world conditions. Drawing on the findings of this study, we propose two approaches for teachers and educators to consider in their efforts to reconceptualize civic education. The first approach is to integrate the globalization scholarship in civic education by focusing on the intersection of national and global issues, and on transnationalism, such as immigration, the environment, human rights, poverty studies, and politics and civil society (Myers, 2006; Olmedo, 2004; Parker, 2004). This approach would get around the simplified binary of either national or global civic education and would recognize the experiences and insights of immigrant youth. In addition, we suggest concentrating on the controversies and tensions in these topics to draw out the range of perspectives and interpretations.

Second, civic education should address, in addition to civic behaviors, attitudes, skills, and knowledge, a conscious effort to help adolescents build flexible and multiple civic affiliations and identities. Civic identity-building recognizes adolescents’ public identities, teaches them to see their diverse roles in an interdependent role, and helps them to switch between these identities.7 For IM youth, this approach would facilitate all adolescents to connect their experiences and understandings of the world with the school curriculum (see Epstein, 2000; Suárez-Orozco, 2004). One focus would be on the ways that global identities articulate with national, ethnic, and other identities. For DC youth, the significance lies in understanding the worldviews of minority group students and to counteract majority views that work to exclude minority youth from full citizenship.

We contend that adolescents’ vocabularies of citizenship, especially the ways that they make sense of their civic affiliations and knowledge based on their cultural and ethnic backgrounds, experiences, and socioeconomic position vis-à-vis the world system, are inherent to the notion of civic competency. The adolescents in this research did not simply receive information but actively interpreted it and took positions on the knowledge and issues represented in the PGSIS curriculum, often with different conclusions. They are evidence that at least some youth hold civic beliefs and affiliations with complex relationships of national and global elements, and that, in contrast to the current citizenship education camps, the nation-state is neither obsolete nor all-encompassing but is being recast in a different, still-evolving role. One of the broad goals of citizenship education is to respond to these changes.


This study was funded by a Hewlett Grant from the University Center for International Studies of the University of Pittsburgh. I would like to thank all of the students for their participation and Melissa Reed, the director of the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for International Studies, for her support during the study. I would also like to thank Richard Donato and the anonymous reviewers for their insightful suggestions and comments.


1 Throughout this manuscript, we use the term civic education to refer to the collection of courses and practices in formal schooling that aim to promote the development of the behaviors, attitudes, skills, and knowledge pertaining to democratic citizenship. We use the term citizenship education to indicate the broader research and academic discourse about civic education, which includes such areas as multicultural, peace, environmental, and human rights education.

2 By universal human rights, we mean the collection of declarations, covenants, and conventions that together comprise international human rights law. Examples include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, in addition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

3 All names of the students have been changed to protect their anonymity.

4 Others scholars suggest that citizenship should be considered postnational, arguing that the role of the nation-state in providing citizenship is disappearing (e.g., Soysal, 1994).

5 National, state-centered citizenship is also being challenged from below. Some scholars have called for “urban” citizenship that embodies a formal status of local citizenship independent of the nation-state as a basis for cross-national, cosmopolitan citizenship (Bauböck, 2003).

6 We also examined the questionnaire data according to gender and ethnicity and found only minor differences for both of these categories, often less than 0.10. One explanation is that the program attracted students who were highly motivated and knowledgeable about the world, which might have leveled differences otherwise evident.

7 Gee (2000–2001) discussed this approach in terms of the individual construction of identity and in relation to others, which he described as “discourse-identity” and “affinity-identity” (p. 100). Here we refer specifically to adolescents’ civic identities in the sense of understanding their roles or potential roles in different political settings rather than as general subjectivities. Although researchers have given considerable attention to the former, there has been little research or theorization on the concept of civic identity that moves beyond national identity.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 11, 2009, p. 2589-2625
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15445, Date Accessed: 5/19/2022 5:44:13 AM

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About the Author
  • John Myers
    University of Pittsburgh
    E-mail Author
    JOHN P. MYERS is an assistant professor of social studies education in the Department of Instruction and Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. He received his PhD in 2005 from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto in curriculum, teaching and learning, with a specialization in comparative and international education. Currently, he is director of the University of Pittsburgh site of the UNESCO Transatlantic Slave Trade Project. His research interests focus on education for global citizenship, globalization and education, cross-cultural approaches to citizenship education, human rights education, and political discourse in the classroom. Recent publications include "Citizenship Education Practices of Teachers Active in Social Movement and Formal Politics in Porto Alegre, Brazil and Toronto, Canada,” Comparative Education Review (2007), and “Making Sense of a Globalizing World: Adolescents’ Explanatory Frameworks for Poverty,” Theory and Research in Social Education (2008).
  • Husam Zaman
    Taibah University
    E-mail Author
    HUSAM A. ZAMAN is an assistant professor of comparative education at Taibah University. He received his PhD in 2006 from the University of Pittsburgh in the Department of Administration and Policy Studies. Currently, he is Chair of Foundations of the Education Department and founding director of the Quality and Accreditation Center at Taibah University. His research interests include citizenship education, socialization agents in higher education, higher education policy, and quality in higher education. He is the author of “Escaping From the Classroom: Teachers’ Attrition in Saudi Arabia” and “Vouchers in Higher Education: A Proposal for Expanding Higher Education Enrollment in Saudi Arabia,” both by the Ministry of Higher Education of Saudi Arabia (2007).
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