What is belonging and why is it important?

by Vanessa May

What is belonging?

Belonging is a sense of ease with oneself and with the surrounding world, often likened to a feeling of being ‘at home’. Many things can contribute to such a sense of ease: we can feel a sense of belonging to a variety of people, places and things. Belonging in other words has many dimensions. In my own work, I have thought of belonging as having three dimensions: relational, cultural and material.

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  1. Relational belonging is something that we feel towards other people, either as individuals or as groups. A person might have a sense of belonging to their family, their neighbourhood or their colleagues.
  2. Cultural belonging refers to belonging at a more abstract level. This is belonging that we feel for example towards our nation or our ethnic group. What binds these groups together is not a personal tie but a shared language, history or outlook on the world. Cultural belonging is also expressed through shared rituals, such as celebrating Christmas, Diwali or Eid.
  3. Material belonging is the sense of belonging that we have with the physical world that we inhabit. For example, we can have a sense of belonging for to particular objects (think for example of important keepsakes you have at home, or photographs of people dear to you), familiar foods or landscapes.
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Belonging is thus a cognitive, emotional and embodied experience. It is something that we can, to a degree, consciously think about, rationalise and explain. The sense of belonging or not belonging evokes emotions of empathy, love, hate, revulsion and so on. We can experience belonging in our bodies, through our sense of smell, touch and sight. Because of this complexity of belonging, we are not always consciously aware of it and might find it difficult to explain why we feel a sense of belonging to particular places, situations or persons.

Indeed, I have argued that it is more difficult to see or notice belonging than not belonging. One explanation for this is that belonging is often a feeling that people take for granted and do not necessarily spend much time analysing. As a result, they can find it more difficult to put into words why exactly they belong. People are more likely to notice and therefore to consciously think about and puzzle through those experiences that seem out of the ordinary, such as when their sense of being at home is disturbed in some way. This is reflected in the fact that there exists much more research about people’s experiences of not belonging than about what they do feel a sense of belonging to.

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Why should social scientists be interested in belonging?

For social scientists, belonging is an interesting focus of research for several reasons. Belonging tells us something important about a person’s sense of self, such as which groups they align themselves with and which values they espouse. For a relational sociologist such as myself, interested in how people interact with and relate to each other, belonging is a crucial element of being human. This is because humans are not isolated individuals but are instead social beings who grow up as part of groups such as families, friendship networks, religious groups or nationalities. The groups that we grow up in shape us in terms of how we think and how we act in the world. We learn who we are in relationships with others. For example, our parents teach us how to behave and reflect back to us what kind of person they understand us to be, and this, in part, comes to inform our sense of self. To say that humans are relational beings is to say that relationships are fundamental to who we are. What follows on from this is that a sense of belonging is fundamental to being human. Indeed, psychologists have deemed belonging to be a basic human need.

Importantly for social scientists, belonging is not just an individual feeling, but is a thoroughly social experience. This means that belonging is not a feeling that we can achieve on our own. We cannot simply choose to belong to a group, culture or nation. For a claim to belonging to be successful, it must be recognised by others in that group.

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There is much important social science research that explores the experiences of groups whose claims to belonging in society have been denied. Examples are many: working-class people, sexual minorities, ethnic minority groups, migrants and refugees.

Whether claims to belonging are recognised or denied is important because this has real consequences for people’s lives. This is why belonging is a political issue. Groups whose claims to belonging are denied are more likely to experience marginalisation and stigmatisation, which can take violent form.

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They might also find that they do not benefit from the redistribution of goods in society, meaning that a denial of belonging can have very real material consequences, for example in the form of inadequate housing or poverty. Those who are denied belonging might also find that they are barred from citizenship, which means they are not allowed to fully share in the tangible and intangible common goods to which citizenship ensures access. Who does and does not belong is thus a question of social justice.

Belonging is dynamic

Belonging is not something that once gained is forever there. Instead, a sense of belonging must be constantly negotiated and can wax and wane. A person’s sense of belonging will shift across their lifetime. One reason for this is that people’s relationship to the past, present and future can shift. I found in an analysis of how people of different ages wrote about their sense of belonging that younger people, who assumed they had decades of life ahead of them, tended to be future-oriented when thinking about belonging and spoke of belonging as something very much in the making.

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In contrast, older people, who were aware of nearing the end of their lifespan, were more likely to think of belonging as something that they were at risk of losing, due for example to reducing physical and cognitive capacities or the death of peers. When talking about belonging, many older people understandably turned their gaze to the past, nostalgically reflecting on experiences of belonging long gone.

People’s sense of belonging can also shift because of broader social changes. This is exemplified by recent work by the American sociologist Michéle Lamont on hope. She has found that there are some previously marginalised groups towards which social attitudes have become more accepting, such as sexual minorities or people living with HIV. These are groups whose claims to belonging, for long denied, have become more successful over time.

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While it is quite right that social scientists focus on the experiences of marginalised groups who lack a sense of belonging, because it is by understanding the mechanisms that create social inequalities that we can hope to ameliorate social injustices, I find Lamont’s work refreshing in its aim to understand how the conditions of marginalised groups can be improved and the ways in which groups previously excluded from a right to belong have successfully claimed belonging in society.

Author bio

Vanessa May is Professor and Head of Sociology at the University of Manchester and a member of the Morgan Centre for Research into Everyday Lives. Her research interests include the self, belonging, temporality, family relationships, migration and qualitative methods. Vanessa has published in a number of journals including Sociology, Sociological Review, Time & Society and British Journal of Sociology. She is the author of Connecting Self to Society: Belonging in a Changing World (Palgrave Macmillan) and co-editor of Sociology of Personal Life (2nd edition, Macmillan) and has a forthcoming book Key Concepts: Families (Polity) out in November 2023.

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