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“Belonging” is both a powerful and ambiguous concept.  It reflects something essential to the human experience — a core need — but is not as tangible or easily comprehensible as shelter, nutrition, and rest. Appropriately, belonging rests in the middle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.1 This suggests that belonging is both tremendously important and central to the human condition. Yet exactly why that is so is less obvious. Defining belonging is no simple task.

This essay serves as a backdrop to the papers submitted for this volume. These papers cover topics ranging from  motherhood-driven civic engagement by migrant mothers in Sweden, to “togetherness” oriented childhood education in Denmark, to refugee-led Covid-19 responses in Berlin and their impact on the experience of integration. As these papers draw upon a conception of belonging presented or prompted by us, we wish to describe the contours of our understanding of the term so the papers make sense in context. Our presentation is not exhaustive, but should be sufficient to the goal of making the papers comprehensible in their own terms.

Defining Belonging in the Negative

Perhaps the best way to understand belonging is through the light of contrast, by defining what it is not. Let’s start with Equity and Inclusion. Equity and Inclusion refer to how social groups are stratified across society and critical institutions. Inclusion is a concept that demands institutions and communities open themselves to members of formerly excluded social groups. For example, in the 1960s Yale University finally admitted women onto its campus as undergraduate students, decades after most public universities had done so.2 Inclusion is a powerful regulative ideal, as well as a strategy or mechanism for reducing social inequality.

Equity moves beyond simple or formalistic notions of equal treatment. When groups are situated differently in society with respect to status, resources, and opportunities, then equal treatment can perpetuate rather than ameliorate social, economic, legal, or political inequality. This is where ‘equity’ comes in. Equity is a recognition that sometimes fair treatment requires differential treatment. Most European constitutional systems recognize equity in this form, as captured by the Spanish expression: “igual a los iguales y desigual a los desiguales”, also known as equal treatment.

This is obvious in some cases, as when we prioritize vulnerable groups for vaccines or create special accommodations for people with disabilities or pregnant women. But it is denied in other contexts in which formal equal treatment can lead to significant disparities.

While important concepts, neither equity nor inclusion guarantee belonging. It is possible for institutions to become accessible to formerly excluded groups, and for social or economic disparities to be ameliorated or even eliminated, even as social stigmas or feelings of exclusion persist. Women, for example, were admitted into Yale, but excluded from the social life of the university, from its social clubs to its dining halls. Tangible resources and measurable disparities can be equalized even as certain social stigmas persist, such as caste or gender associations. In India, for example, affirmative action programs can guarantee employment opportunities for lower caste social groups, but that does not mean that cultural assumptions have been extirpated.3

In this sense, belonging goes beyond Inclusion and Equity, yet includes them in meaningful ways. It would be difficult to imagine that belonging can fully manifest in a society where social groups are excluded from key institutions or large disparities exist between those groups. Yet, belonging calls for something more.

Manifesting Belonging

In our conception, Belonging is both objective and subjective.  It can be quantified and measured, but it is also perceptual, laying in the eye of the beholder. In this respect, Belonging, unlike both Equity and Inclusion, contains a psychological component — an affective component, which shapes the way social groups regard whatever it is they are regarding, an institution, a city, or even society writ large.

If members of a social group feel as if they belong, then belonging exists.  But if they do not, despite being included and having little tangible resource inequities or other disparities between groups, then belonging is lacking. Thus, in biographies of women such as Sonia Sotomayor and Michelle Obama, they report a feeling of “not belonging” on Princeton’s campus of the 1970s.4 Both women came from vastly different social and economic milieus — the Bronx and the south side of Chicago, respectively — than that which they encountered on that Ivy League campus.

Belonging can be measured by campus climate, and climate surveys, but these surveys must reflect both objective and subjective experiences.5 This also explains the development of so-called “mindset” interventions, messages designed to signal or express greater belonging, and hopefully engender it in the process.6

This reveals a core element of belonging: the expressive or communicative message that a group belongs. It can be expressed explicitly, through representation or by signaling that members of a particular group are welcome in a particular space, institution, or community. It can also be expressed implicitly, as when accommodations are made, such as when special food or holidays are provided for. For example, the French Military created accommodations for Muslim cultural traditions by having halal foods served in the military, and providing space for prayer and worship.7 The absence of accommodations or sensitivities is an equally simple way to signal that members of certain groups do not belong.

Illustration of four people gathered around a fire; one wears a hijab, one a turban, one wears their hair long, and one uses a wheelchair. They are all held up and cupped in a large hand. A soft glow emanates behind them.

Illustration by Peter Wood

Realizing Belonging

As important as these components are to belonging, there is still a missing component to a full manifestation of belonging. Belonging is perceptual and tangible; it is a feeling and a practice. But belonging requires more than accommodation; it also demands agency.

A board or council may be diverse and inclusive, but if members of socially marginalized groups are included without the ability or agency to re-shape and redesign the institution, then inclusion is realized without full belonging. In this model, members of the socially marginalized group are brought in as guests rather than as members. Simply revisiting holiday schedules or respective food traditions can help members of social groups feel more welcome, but they do not create a sense of ownership or control over the mission, values, or core operation of the institution.

Belonging is realized fully when included groups have more than a voice — they are actually able to reshape the institution together with existing stakeholders. Thus, hospitals and other anchor institutions are not just responsive to elite sensibilities, but oriented to serve communities’ needs.  In the process, some institutions may need to be redesigned or their mission rethought. Efforts toward realizing this conception of belonging are already underway in examples like Germany’s requirement for employees to comprise a third of supervisory board seats in companies of at least 500 employees, and half in companies of 2000 or more. Research shows that this measure to provide a decision making role to employees broadens the issues and concerns companies give attention to while simultaneously increasing profits and productivity. In another instance of co-creative belonging, the organization Participatory City worked with the council of the Borough of Barking and Dagenham in the United Kingdom to address the area’s high levels of homelessness, violence, and unemployment. They worked with community members to create a welcoming committee for newcomers, plant community gardens together, and collaborate on community improvement projects. These activities have fostered a sense of togetherness and shared destiny among the residents of Barking and Dagenham, as people have overcome prejudices and isolation to strengthen bonds and deepen community. This kind of agency — co-creation — is the most radical and potentially transformative aspect of true belonging. 

How, then, can these ideas be brought into practice? This digital volume makes significant headway into answering this question. Because Europe and America, and indeed, much of the world, are struggling with many of the same issues, we seek to transport the frame of belonging into the European context to explore models and exciting case studies, as well as to deepen our collective understanding of the problems that impede a sense of belonging. This volume is one fruit of this emerging work.

Toward Belonging

The papers brought together for this online publication illuminate our understanding of the nuances of belonging and model how we can realize it in practice. Exploring topics and themes such as refugee integration, civic engagement and mutual aid, human development and well-being, motherhood and race, as well as much more, this volume is a major step toward deepening our understanding of inter-group dynamics and processes, interventions, and case studies that can promote or lead toward greater belonging. What follows is a brief introduction to a few of the papers included in this digital collection.

Jessica Joelle Alexander’s paper on “Obligated Togetherness” or “Fællesskab” is a fascinating exploration of holistic cultural values and practices that emphasize well-being and inclusion in Denmark. Drawing upon a major national survey conducted in 2016, the author demonstrates how certain cultural practices, namely, intentionally and specifically incorporating lessons on social connection and wellbeing into parenting and education, contribute to societal well-being and belonging. She explores, in local terms, how the focus on togetherness and connectedness may lead to a correlation with happiness — in a country that is consistently described as one of the happiest in the world. 

In his essay, Tom Crompton, the Director of the Common Cause Foundation, brings to the fore the role that values — and especially our perception of fellow-citizens’ and neighbors’ core values — plays in community cohesion, well-being, and a sense of belonging. Unsurprisingly, he finds that recognising our mutual core values and value commitments can bridge understanding and build community. Looking at programming his organization has conducted in Manchester, England, the author describes community based interventions work in the real world.

Jonelle Twum’s essay explores the grassroots activities of migrant mothers in the suburbs of Sweden.  Making use of  her fieldwork and interviews, she helps us understand processes of racialization, integration, and gender-informed interventions in Sweden’s exurban areas. In particular, she illuminates strategies employed by these women to thrive and to imagine spaces of greater belonging — even as official institutions and municipal leadership fail to provide the material resources needed to support their communities.

Daniel Stanley, the CEO and founder of the Narrative Futures Lab, deconstructs our understanding of polarization. Although conventionally understood in simplistic or categorical ways, such as racial or economic polarization, he suggests that polarization is best viewed as a byproduct of deeper forces and dynamics, and related to a number of other disturbing phenomena. This essay challenges assumptions about individual and group psychology and political conformity from the post-war period, while also arguing, more hopefully, that a better understanding of the problem can lead to belonging and social cohesion.

Evan Elise Easton provides a broader perspective on refugee experiences in Germany, as they relate to integration processes and activities that foster a sense of belonging. In particular, their essay describes and elevates the cutting edge work of refugee led organizations in Berlin during the Covid-19 Pandemic — allowing us the opportunity to see how integration relates to belonging and community building in a time of social turmoil.

Building Belonging

Belonging is a broad, encompassing concept, and there is no single prescription for how it can be manifested or realized, as the papers in this volume will amply illustrate. It is also a multi-faceted concept relating to agency, connection, place, identity, and security, among other elements. As a result, belonging can exist in many forms or be expressed or experienced in a myriad of different ways.

Belonging can exist in a superficial sense or a deeper sense. It can be experienced as a social dynamic between people or institutionalized in governance, organizations, and associations. It can become embodied in laws, codes, rules and regulations, or it can exist as norms and cultural values.  Intergroup dialogue projects in the United States and Europe that not only create spaces for exchanging stories, but also teach how to communicate across boundaries of difference or realize shared values, advance belonging.

The pressures and challenges within our societies make the work of building belonging more complicated, but also more necessary. Economic inequality, displacement and migration, social media and technology, ethnic conflict and religious violence, wars and political oppression, are tectonic forces that build pressure under our societies. The pressure is often relieved through social fault lines, such as those of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and religion. If we are to build stronger and more cohesive societies, less susceptible to the dangers of demagoguery and division, then we need to find ways to retrofit our social structures and institutions to survive these pressures.

Art description:
“As I read through the introduction for this article, I wanted to understand inside myself what it means to feel a sense of belonging. After some processing, I was drawn to the feeling of sitting around a campfire with friends — an activity that creates, within a foreign space, a sense of home and shelter. In this image the four figures gather around the flame, cradled within a nurturing, open gestured hand.”

Artist bio: 
Peter Wood is a British artist who was born in Bedford, England in 1991. He studied in London at Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design, and later at the University of Westminster, where he graduated with a degree in Illustration and Visual Communication in 2014. He has been living in Berlin since 2016 and works as an artist, selling prints at an outdoors art market, and through illustration commissions.

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