Globalization and Belonging

Consideration of the impact of globalization on our sense of belonging in the world necessitates a multiscalar analysis of concurrent and yet radically uneven processes that take place across global, national, and local contexts.

For instance, it is increasingly common for the compression of time and space (a key feature of globalization that geographers address) to be linked with a shift away from a primary identification with local places and toward a more worldly and abstracted sense of locatedness and connectivity. The premise here is that the experience of the world simultaneously shrinking and speeding up fundamentally alters our sense of belonging within it. Such a shift is significant, but far from universal and complete. In fact, shifting scales of belonging remain contingent, relative, and subjective; and intractably linked to material resources, wealth, status, and power. A confident sense of global connectivity and belonging is arguably much more indicative of privilege than it is of a widely shared experience of globalization. Associated with the large scale imagining of global citizenship, global belonging is most likely to be assumed by those privileged few who have continual access to global information and communication technologies, are well networked within transnational flows of information and capital exchange, and who productively exercise a high level of international mobility. On an imaginary, as well as an everyday lived register, most people occupy much smaller horizons of belonging.

On the other hand, there are very few people whose identities remain completely unaffected by Westerndominated global communications. Through such media, foreign cultural influences also permeate the lives of those who remain well outside of the profitable circuits of global exchange. One example of this is the popularity and emulation of African American urban ‘hip hop’ music and fashion amongst some Indigenous Australian youth living in remote desert communities. Transnational cultural exposure such as this, while clearly altering the identity repertoires and esthetic desires of these youth, is unlikely to engender in them a sense of belonging that is akin to African American youth in the Bronx, or in any way comparable to that of the world’s privileged ‘global citizens’. A global sense of belonging does not automatically follow from the adoption of selected foreign cultural practices.While such transnational subcultural borrowings may enable these young Aboriginal men to express their indigenous and black identities in new ways, it is unlikely to alter their fundamental sense of place and belonging to their traditional desert country and communities. Despite the penetrating scope of cultural globalization, and the new kinds of hybrid identities that result from it, transnationally inflected identities continue to be expressed within distinctively local formations. For most of the world’s population, local places and communities remain the locus of belonging.

These kinds of wide variations in the scope, reach, and experience of globalization point to its radical unevenness and inherent contradictions. The rapid increase in the numbers of people moving across national borders is another often noted feature of globalization. Nowhere are these contradictions and differences more marked than within the demographies of concurrent but radically different kinds of cross national border movements. Ranging from global citizens such as transnational executives, to migrant workers, to stateless refugees, these very different kinds of diasporas represent the continuum of privilege and inequality that characterize the spatialities of belonging. While global citizens exercise their mobility as a form of agency on a world wide stage, assuming to belong everywhere; and international migrant workers seek to enhance their agency through relocating to secure better life opportunities, trading displacement for the possibility of establishing a more productive locus of belonging; refugees are compelled to move around the world as stateless people, seeking asylum from foreign states but belonging nowhere. Such stark contrasts in the agencies of global mobility underscore the harsh paradoxes of global belonging.

These same paradoxes also reveal the pivotal discriminatory function of the nation state within the global system of relations. In a historical moment when some predict the undermining of national sovereignty and the withering away of the nation state, selective national gatekeeping is in high gear. The spatialities of this gatekeeping process are strategically territorial and draw heavily upon a geographic rhetoric. National borders are porous when it comes to participating in the global market economy, are selectively managed when it comes to satisfying national population and labor force interests, and are protected when it comes to regulating or prohibiting the entry of asylum seekers.

When justifying the control of refugee movements across national borders, this rhetoric is explicitly exclusionary. For example, through the tags of ‘legal’/‘process compliant’ and ‘illegal’/‘queue jumpers’, refu gees are differentially positioned as either worthy victims to be rescued by the host nation state or undesirable threats to its security. The rhetoric of scale is also utilized as further justification for exclusionary practices, for example, when inferences of being ‘swamped’ by unauthorized and uninvited refugees mobilize majority national fears about being outnumbered. The reassertion of national sovereign rights to actively exclude asylum seekers is inscribed through a new spatial lexicon full of terms such as ‘firming up national boundaries’, ‘border protection’, ‘border patrol’, and ‘excision of territories for the purposes of immigration’. Those who do manage to evade border patrols and cross national borders are then criminalized and isolated through the reiteration of such policies as ‘mandatory detention’. In this way, they can remain as demonized outsiders even while located within the nation. The geographies of selective inclusion and strategic exclusion are fundamental to the ways in which nation states manage the politics of national belonging in an increasingly mobile world.

Of course, mass movements of people across the world predate the current rise of migrant and refugee diasporas. Most significantly perhaps, legacies of the colonial era (from sixteenth to nineteenth centuries) still inhere in the present and continue to shape the geographies of belonging. Present day struggles over global belonging are not only the product of twentieth and twenty firstcentury immigration and warfare displacements and diasporas. The reconfiguration of populations caused by colonial invasions and indigenous dispossessions centuries ago continue to be felt in the present through movements within and between postcolonial nations and their ex imperial centers. For postcolonial nations, the politics of belonging are infused with questions about the recognition of indigenous custodianship and ownership of land; its current legal status and stewardship; and the responsibilities of current governments to reconcile and compensate for the dispossession and disenfranchisement of indigenous peoples. The question of postcolonial national belonging is complicated and problematized by such questions. Furthermore, many indigenous or firstnations people’s appropriation of nationhood as a tribal affiliation (for instance as members of the Cherokee Nation or the Wiradjuri Nation) directly challenges the status of citizenship as the primary determinant of national loyalty and belonging.

The displacements and dispersals that constellate in all local places that have been effected by geohistorical macro events, such as colonization and migration, render identity increasingly diffuse and complex. Being born in one country and growing up in another, for instance, might result in a dual or hyphenated national identity. Being a third generation child of immigrant parents from different countries of origin, or being of mixed immigrant and indigenous heritage might result in the foregrounding of one of these identities or in the adoption of a hybridized identity. Increasingly fragmented and multiple ethnicities and racialized identities produce multiple affiliations and allegiances and thus fracture and disperse loyalties. Globalization, in this sense, can be seen as spawning hybridized and multiple identities that destabilize unitary notions of national belonging. This raises the possibility, at least, for new forms of transnational or postnational belonging that no longer cohere in one nation state, but articulate across the local, national, and global scales of belonging.


Recently human geographers have been moving toward developing a relational ethics of belonging. This involves focusing upon the relationships that are produced through complex networks of global/national/local associations between people, nonhuman animals, places, events, and things. Acknowledgment of the interplay between all these facets evokes a new conception of belonging, one that is network based and foregrounds interdependency. A relational ethics also involves paying more attention to the corporeal and affective dimensions of these relationships. It recognizes that belonging is experiential and driven by desires for sociality and connection.

Because belonging is an embodied, relational, and affective experience, it exceeds nominal designations of group membership. This goes some way to explaining why citizenship, for instance, although an important prerequisite, is not enough to ensure a sense of belonging to a nation. A sense of belonging is based in the lived experience of inclusion and affinity, and undermined by experiences of exclusion, marginalization, and rejection. The gauge of belonging is a sensory and emotional one, based in relationship and measured through comparative perceptions and judgments of the inclusions or exclusions of others.

Thus the final thing to note about belonging is that it is always an affective and embodied form of politics. It cannot be adequately addressed without acknowledging our visceral responses to social inclusions and exclusions, to our geohistorical legacies, to the places we inhabit and leave, and to the efforts of negotiating the power relations of our complex everyday lives.