Book Access: The Invention of the Passport by John Torpey

Intersections by JISJ
5 min readMay 16, 2022


by Savina Magni

John C. Torpey is an American Professor of Sociology and History at the University of California, Irvine, United States. In 2009, he published a book for the Cambridge University Press writing about the origin of the modern passport and its importance in controlling movement in the modern world. In his book, Torpey examines the history of passport laws, the debates surrounding those regulations and the social responses to their application. He mainly focuses on the US and Western Europe. He argues that the modern nation-states and the international state system have ‘monopolized the ‘legitimate means of movement’’’, thus making individuals dependent on nations’ authority to move about the globe.

The author starts by examining the reasons why nations have started to identify and track the movements of foreigners. It focuses on understanding the historical development of passport controls and its importance in defining the “nation-state” as a homogeneous ethnocultural unit. Specifically, the primary goal of this form of identification is to regulate the movement of people crossing national borders. The origin of the document can be traced back to internal passports or passes which aim at containing prima facie evidence of the bearer’s nationality.

As a result, passports are external movement passes and contribute in institutionalization of the idea of nation-states with fixed boundaries. Boundaries are believed to be necessary since every nation-state must construct and sustain them in order to make a distinction between nationals and non-nationals within and outside the prominent territory. Moreover, documents indicating someone’s nationality are necessary for legal reasons. The contemporary passport regime has often been used by governments to include or exclude the citizen body as well as to admit or refuse entry into specific territories.

Torpey explains how, over the centuries, the way in which one’s nationality is checked has changed. In the past centuries, the regulation of movements was under the duty of bodies such as the church and other private enterprises. However, this book focuses on explaining the development of the passport after the French Revolution, which is also considered by many as the time when the concept of the nation-states was born to surpass the monarchical state. As a consequence, it was in this period that the role of regulations of movements shifted in power to the institution of the state and it became a monopolized duty of the state. However, the origin of the passport in its modern-day form corresponds to the unification of Europe and the relaxation of documentary restrictions in the second half of the twentieth century. The need to implement this form of identification as compulsory was a consequence of the idea of “international society” since nations had to extract resources from their citizens to secure their future over time.

After the introduction of the modern passport, travelers across the world faced a form of dependency that they had not previously known since citizenship and membership in a country now were linked directly with this document. Interestingly, the author also emphasizes several times that the nations and state systems do not effectively control all movements of a person. The invention of the passport simply implies that the authority to restrict movements has now shifted to countries rather than other entities such as private economies or religious bodies. For example, private firms might have the indirect power to deny entry to a worker, but they can do so because of the laws made by the state. Passport eligibility is often restricted by international law and agreements. To be entitled to a nation’s passport, people need to meet certain criteria such as being born in the country, having parents holding citizenship from that specific nation or having lived long enough in the nation. However, states sometimes offer passports to non-citizen, called denizens, such as refugees, asylum seekers or resident aliens. States also have the power to deny passports to particular people irrespective of their citizenship status such as in the case of South Africa in the late Twentieth Century. In 1982, Apartheid Era South Africa courts ruled that passports are a privilege rather than a right for both Blacks and whites.

Lastly, the author explains the several functions of the passport., The most known and important objective of a passport is to help nations regulate the movement of people in and out of national boundaries, unless denied entry under some exceptional circumstances. Thus, passports provide nationals with an incontestable right to enter the territory controlled by its issuing state, assuming that the document is genuine. Another important aspect of this document is to ensure protection by states in hostile times as well as entailing a legitimate claim over the resources and services of the embassies or consulates of the issuing authority.

Throughout the book, the author explained the origin of the modern passport and its functions. The book analyses why nations started to use the document, moving on to how the usage evolved over the centuries and how the authority of issuing such a document switched from private bodies such as the church to the state. The American professor concludes with explaining the eligibility criteria to obtain the document and its primary functions.


Torpey, J. C. (2018). The invention of the passport: Surveillance, citizenship and the state. Cambridge University Press.

Savina Magni is a current MSc student at the London School of Economics & Political Science studying Environmental Economics & Climate Change. Savina has a particular passion in learning about and caring for the environment. She holds a first-class undergraduate degree from Goldsmiths University in Economics. Savina is a Blog Writer for the JISJ Intersections team.

Originally published at on May 16, 2022.