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Day 81, Year of #Mygration: What is belonging and why does it matter in the age of diversity?

Written by Marco Antonsich, Department of Geography, Loughborough University.

"Belonging is an ill-defined notion, often confused with identity, attachment, or citizenship. It is also a notion frequently taken for granted, as if its meaning were somewhat self-explanatory. Yet, I would argue that belonging is something that deserves to be investigated in its own right, also because it plays a crucial role in understanding how people can live together in diversity.

"What is belonging? Belonging can be understood both as a personal, intimate, feeling of being ‘at home’ in a place – what I would call place-belongingness – and as a discursive resource that constructs, claims, justifies, or resists forms of socio-spatial inclusion⁄exclusion – the so-called politics of belonging.

"Feeling ‘at home’ might rely on a variety of dimensions: auto-biographical (e.g., childhood memories), socio-relational (e.g., family and friends), cultural (e.g., language, food, ways of doing), economic (e.g., job security), and/or legal (e.g., citizenship, permanent residency). All these dimensions might equally be at play or some might be more important than others. What they generate is to imbue a specific place with a sense of familiarity and security, a place indeed where a person might feel at home. Spatially, this ‘home’ is not confined to any specific scale, but it might vary from the little space of one’s house to the neighbourhood, the town, the region, the nation or even larger socio-spatial dimensions.

"What is important to underline is that when felt in this way, belonging is not activated as a discursive resource for drawing boundaries of social inclusion⁄exclusion. Belonging is also not a zero-sum game, so that if one belongs to a place they cannot belong to other places. There might indeed be a plurality of belongings. For these reasons, it is equally important to underline that the lack of place-belongingness is not exclusion, but a sense of loneliness, isolation, alienation, and dis-placement. This is because place-belongingness enters the processes of Self-formation. As a personal, intimate, existential dimension it narrates and is narrated by the Self.

"When activated as a political resource, belonging assembles instead discourses and practices aiming at drawing boundaries of inclusion/exclusion. Home becomes home-land, associated with a specific ‘we’ who feels an exclusive entitlement to it. The belonging of ‘others’ becomes a matter of negotiation, between ‘their’ claims (on the basis of economic contribution, political participation, cultural ‘fitting’, etc.) and ‘our’ power to grant belonging. The end product might not necessarily be one of belonging or not belonging; rather, a hierarchy of belonging, where the belonging of some (dominant ethno-racial group) is uncontested and the belonging of some racialized subjects varies in degree, being never guaranteed once for all, but being always situational and open to contestation.

"As much as the politics of belonging is likely to affect one’s feeling of place-belongingness, it is important not to conflate the two, as they respond to two different logics and needs. And yet, as societies become increasingly more diverse in ethno-cultural, religious and racial terms, to map the intersections of these two dimensions become an event more urgent question.

"What still needs to be understood is whether a community of belonging can exist beyond a community of identity. Work on conviviality and everyday encounters seems to point in this direction, but the big challenge is to understand how these post-identity socio-spatial settings might coexist with more traditional communities of identity, which continue to mobilize territory as constitutive of an ethno-racial ‘we’."

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