Place, Identity, and Belonging

Geographers approach the politics of place and relate it to identity and belonging in a double move. First, the proliferation of situated studies of identity events in different places provides an ongoing insistence and reminder that place matters. Underlying this insistence is the understanding that things turn out differently in different places, or in other words, that place makes a difference. The second move is to problematize place. Rather than accepting places as self evident and static backdrops, sets, or stages on which human events happen, places are recast in dynamic relationship with the people that inhabit them. The very materiality of place is seen as both acted upon by humans and affecting human action. Much attention is similarly drawn to the dynamic ways in which place exceeds its physicality, becomes an idea or an imaginary construct and in this way is culturally construed. Such interrogations of the human interface with place underscore the ways in which place and identity have come to be regarded as mutually constituting, and the politics of belonging are implicated in the place/identity making process.

Most of us come to know ourselves at least partially through some level of identification and relationship with the places we inhabit. For some, however, place is centrally defining, or even elided with identity. Such is the case of many indigenous people whose conceptualization of human, nonhuman animal, plant, and physical landscapes are often inseparably interdeterminant. Owing to the increasing mobility of many people (including those precipitated by the forced removals and dispossessions of indigenous peoples), the connections between place and identity might arguably diminish. An alternate view is that the experience of displacement can function to nostalgically sharpen this identity/place relationship, and to render it much more complex. Although fractured by distance and time, embodied memories of lost or left places persist and through narration, these memories can be passed on as part of the cultural maintenance work of identity. As in the case of many migrant groups, cultural practices and associations with places of origin are often strategically maintained. For many people, place still matters a lot.

History also reminds us of the gravitas and high stakes of place and belonging. There is no denying that struggles over place have always and still do evoke harsh materialities. Real places are not only the sites but also the subjects/objects of corporeal struggles. Human lives are lost, built and natural environments are damaged or destroyed in physical struggles over the ownership, custodianship, and governance of homelands and territories. On all continents there are plentiful examples of bloodletting identity related struggles over real places, such as those that take the form of ethnic cleansing, colonial invasions, wars of independence, neighborhood race riots, etc.

At the same time, struggles over place and belonging are also symbolically enacted. An oft cited example of this is the powerful stroke of the imperial cartographer’s pen: charting, naming, and inscribing ‘new world’ places from a specifically Eurocentric viewpoint. The claiming of territory, as in this example of mapping as a discursive imperial strategy, can be as much a symbolic act of power as an act of physical force. All places that are struggled over are somehow mediated. Like palimpsests, they are symbolically inscribed with layers of sociocultural meanings: made, erased, and remade through consecutive, as well as multiple concurrent stories and imaginings. In their symbolic making, in the process of being inscribed with meaning, they are also being claimed by their meaning makers. The multiplicity of imaginings of place, reflecting the variant partialities, interests, and investments of their meaning makers, constitute the symbolic grounds of struggle over place and belonging.

Imaginings of place are thus entwined on a number of levels, with understandings of self and of one’s place in the world. Nations, for example, although bordered geographical territories, are much more likely to be imagined, idealized, and abstracted as a set of iconic characteristics than they are to be exclusively evoked as a geographical landmass. These abstracted characteristics of the nation are also associated with the identity of its people.

It is well recognized that national identity is framed by a sense of belonging to the imagined space of the nation or to the imagined national community. As mentioned earlier, however, nominal group membership alone, which in this case is citizenship, does not necessarily guarantee a strong sense of national identity and belonging. Within the spatialized imaginary of the nation, certain citizens tend to be regarded or regard themselves as belonging more or less than others. This is linked to another aspect of the national imaginary, and that is the personification of the nation. The nation is personified through the elisions between the character or identity of the national subjects and the place itself. This personification is mobilized in common references to the nation having a ‘heart’ or a ‘core’ essence. Spatially abstracted and relatively measured, certain citizens will see themselves and others as more or less centrally or peripherally positioned in relation to the ‘heart of the nation’ or its ‘core’. This differential regarding of some citizens as somehow more authentically national than others, or closer to the ‘real’ essence of the nation, arises out of the spatialized and naturalized imaginings of self and nation.

The territorialization of this national imaginary results when those who position themselves as core nationals, and therefore self authorized to manage its spaces, set out to delineate and patrol designated spaces – ranging from small locales to much larger scopes of territory. This border maintenance work is undertaken in order to regulate the national space and exclude or expel those who are perceived to be out of place in it. Exclusionary practices, for example, might be found in the local school community’s marginalization of same sex families, as well as in the range of measures governments take to prevent asylum seekers crossing national borders. Expulsions, which resemble purification rituals, can be witnessed in neighborhood vigilante attacks, as well as in the relocation of public housing tenants from rapidly gentrifying urban areas. Moral panics are often generated in order to justify such incidents of expulsion and exclusion, closely articulating the notion of natural or authentic belongings with idealized imaginings of pure and vulnerable territory.