The Politics of Belonging

The fact that geographers now consider belonging as an issue of disciplinary interest is indicative of the increasingly fluid, uneven, and above all contested terrains of identity politics and social relations in the early twentyfirst century. Along with the unsettling of fixed and coherent identities associated with the relatively predictable concerns of early modernity, it is becoming more and more rare for belonging to any group, place, or community to be unquestioningly accepted as an unproblematic given. Late (or post) modernity is now characterized by mobile, multiple, and hybrid identity formations, the complexities of which belie a simple membership formula. Belonging to any social group is now much more likely to be considered as a political negotiation than a predetermined state.

This shift toward considering the political dynamics of belonging represents a deepening engagement with the politics of identity and the politics of difference. This is not to assert that belonging, like identity, has only just become a field of power because it is becoming increasingly unstable and complex. Even those societies typified by stratification and regulated by the assumption of natural order, of everyone being in their rightful place, were (and in some cases still are) inherently political in their naturalization of social inequality and their prescriptions of social belonging. However, it is the increasing challenges to these hitherto assumed to be natural orders and their corresponding unearned entitlements and structural inequalities that trigger public dissent over identity and throw wide open the question of belonging.

There is a significant productive momentum to these intensifying debates over the naturalness of predetermined social orders, the essentializing of their corresponding identity categories and structured patterns of belonging, which fuel the grounds of identity politics. Dissensus over identity and belonging actually creates new spaces of possibility for the emergence of differences, for the generation of new identity formations, as well as new modes of belonging. Not all of these are geographically located. New social identities are constructed in the process of resistance, dissent, and even parody. Some of them are hybridized identities (for instance, transnational tribal youth identities and metrosexual identities) or based upon a resistance to the essentializing of difference (for instance queer identities). New modes of belonging are forged through developing counter hegemonic identities through affinities or affiliations with people in other places.

The politics of belonging are characterized by recurring debates over questions such as – who belongs where; who decides who belongs where; on what basis is this belonging determined; who is considered to be in place or out of place; and who is authorized to represent place and community. Questions such as these draw attention to the ways in which claims and counterclaims over rights to belong take place within an ongoing series of related material and symbolic struggles. Struggles over the ownership, stewardship, occupation, and management of real places are often connected to struggles over the expression, status, recognition, and authenticity of group identities, as well as to struggles over membership and representation within both formally constituted groups and more loosely imagined communities. There are correlations between social power, material wealth, and the authorization of belonging on the one hand and contestations over social marginalization and exclusions on the other.

Many of the inclusions and exclusions that characterize struggles over belonging are underpinned by the sociocultural politics of difference and played out across the intersections of racialized, ethnic, socioeconomic, religious, sexual, and gender identities and affiliations. This means that the experiences of inclusion/belonging or exclusion/not belonging are directly related to sociocultural identities and their differential social positionings. Scales of belonging come into play here. Those who experience a sense of exclusion from larger social formations, for example, those who feel alienated from the national community on the basis of race or ethnicity, might well feel a heightened sense of affinity with others who are similarly excluded. Their sense of belonging is thus likely to be more tightly focused upon a minority group identity. Thus ironically, oppositional, marginalized, or resistant identitybased belonging is at least partially constituted and framed by the shared experience of social exclusion.

Although the politics of belonging takes place across the scales of local, national, and global affiliations and alliances, the inclusionary and exclusionary processes of citizenship and nation building are of particular interest to geographers. This is because the acceleration of globalization, increase in diasporas, and rise of transnationalism (for instance the proliferation of multinational corporations) in late modernity have been perceived as a potential threat to the sovereignty of the modern nation state. Some governments have responded by renewed efforts to fuel nationalism and firm up national boundaries. Studies of the macro politics and micropractices of national belonging throw light on these effects and responses. Consideration of the intersections, layerings, and potentially conflicting loyalties between national identities on the one hand and ethnic, class, racialized, gender, sexual, and religious affiliations on the other, further fleshes out the complexities and multiple positionings involved in a politics of belonging.