How can smart home devices affect belonging at home?

by Helene Fiane Teigen

Belonging is often described as a feeling of being at home. In this blog post, I will explore this by looking at how smart home devices may affect this feeling among people who are not particularly invested in them. These are people who either live with someone who wanted the smart devices or have received them as a gift from other family members, but who express low interest in and/or low confidence with dealing with such devices beyond daily use. Drawing upon an ongoing study of everyday life with smart home technologies, I refer to these people as non-experts and will discuss how their troubleshooting routines reveal dynamics that may affect their sense of belonging at home.

Smart home devices refer to household appliances that can be connected to the Internet and communicate with other devices. Such as light bulbs, vacuums, digital assistants, speakers, and so on.

Picture of a house
credit: unsplash | Stephan Bechert

Digital housekeeping

Digital technologies such as smart home devices require effort from people to manage and repair. In literature, this domestic tech work is often referred to as ‘digital housekeeping’, and the responsibility is often afforded to one person, most often a male dubbed the ‘expert’. However, technological malfunctions and disruptions are normal when living with technology and affect everyone who uses them – not just the one responsible for managing them. Trentmann (2009) further argued that disruptions could illuminate dynamics of everyday life that are otherwise difficult to spot. As such, I am using technological malfunctions as an entry point to look at how smart home devices may affect the sense of belonging of those who are not considered experts.

picture of a usb charger
credit: Unsplash | Sigmund

Troubleshooting routines

The non-experts encounter various issues with the technology on an almost daily basis, ranging from temporary loss of Wi-Fi or miscommunication with voice-controlled assistants to more complex interoperability issues. When facing such problems, non-experts had to pause what they were about to do and engage in troubleshooting. I have identified three main steps of non-experts’ troubleshooting routines, which are to identify the issue and a possible cause, performing by engaging with the technology to fix the issue, and if they are not able to do so; delegate the problem-fixing to someone else – either the expert in their family, a network of extended family and friends, or external actors such as the companies behind the products, internet providers and so on.

Picture of a smart vacuum cleaner.

Material, relational, and cultural aspects of troubleshooting

The non-experts’ troubleshooting routines are shaped by material, relational and cultural dimensions.

The material dimension such as the design and infrastructure of smart home devices affect what and how non-experts can engage with them, often providing an easy interface for use but a complicated system for troubleshooting. Smart home devices have a substantial “black box” operating system, which the non-experts do not engage with and don’t fully understand. This makes it more difficult to locate a cause for the issues and disruption and thus to find a solution. The devices further receive software updates from time to time, changing them, which may generate new and unfamiliar issues. This does not allow the non-experts to gain expertise through routinization.

However, non-experts do have some knowledge and skills to draw upon when facing issues, and they can be creative and resourceful when dealing with smart home devices. They are not completely helpless, but when facing issues they cannot solve themselves, they are dependent on experts to help. This dependency brings me over to the relational dimension.

credit: unsplash | Cristian Cristian

The work that non-experts engage in, is affected by the household composition and its social dynamics, making out a relational dimension. Giving someone a smart device means also providing them with digital housekeeping tasks. None of the non-experts had brought devices into their home themselves. It was either done by their partners or received as gifts. Moreover, tech enthusiasts tend to create a more complex home network with more devices from different providers, do-it-yourself, and customized solutions. This makes it more difficult for other household members who do not have the skills and knowledge about these solutions and how they work. The result may be that it makes them more dependent on the experts as they may encounter more issues that they cannot fix themselves. As such, being the tech expert at home comes with some power in terms of household control because they control the technology, while the non-expert may lose some of that control as household activities are entangled with smart home devices they are not fully mastering.

This could also result in one person, the expert, spending more time on domestic tech work, leaving more of the traditional housekeeping work to the remaining household members.

However, it is important to mention that this is a negotiation process, where the non-experts have the opportunity to affect what kind and how many devices they receive through for instance communication, expectations, and acceptance. In technology forums, for instance, is often talked about a “Wife Acceptance Factor”, which is the perception of what the tech enthusiasts’ partners will accept of technology.

Picture of a smart lock
credit: unsplash | Sebastian Scholz (Nuki)

A cultural dimension also plays a role in terms of gendered ideas about technology and home. Among the five non-experts in this study, there were four women, and two, including one man, belonged to a senior age group. As previously mentioned, these were the study participants that expressed low confidence with or low interest in the smart home devices. Although it could be coincidental, the fact that they represent women and seniors fits well into the gendered and generational perceptions of the home and technology. For instance, the home has traditionally been a female domain, while technology has been a masculine one. The technology industry is still predominantly masculine, making many of the technological devices less suited for women, and the elderly often find it more difficult to keep up with technological development than their younger counterparts. This is reflected in the uptake of smart home technologies, which is higher with young men than women and older age groups. Moreover, the tech expert is in literature most often identified as a man, which can be argued to enroll men into housekeeping through domestic tech work – but can also lead to a reinforcement of traditional gender roles as the remaining household members are left with more of the traditional domestic work.

A picture of a smart speaker.
credit: pexels | john teke ridis


As the non-experts’ daily doings often are entangled with or sometimes dependent on smart home devices, the technology malfunctions quite often, and the non-experts are not always to solve the issues themselves, they may at times be in a position where they are not able to perform their daily doings as they are used to or wish to do. This creates a dependency on the experts around them to perform simple everyday tasks, preventing them from asserting full agency at home. It may lead to a lack of familiarization, confidence, and ownership of the technology – which may affect their sense of belonging at home. As such, it is important to look at consumption and materials when exploring belonging.

The concept of belonging relates to a sense of place, identity, and relationships. It holds both positive associations, such as warmth, and security, and negative associations, like exclusion. Belonging is also relational and political, constructing boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’. With this in mind, the analysis of the non-experts’ troubleshooting routines shows how this may affect their sense of belonging by excluding them from exerting full agency within their home, and further constructing boundaries between the non-experts and their expert counterparts. Those boundaries further represent asymmetric power relations in terms of agency and domestic control, and follow generational and gendered lines.

picture of parts of a hardware
credit: pexels | dan cristian pădureț

Author’s bio

Helene Fiane Teigen is a Ph.D candidate at Oslo Metropolitan University, at Consumption Research Norway (SIFO) institute. In her doctoral project, she explores the role of smart home technologies in people’s daily lives. Her research interests include the materiality of technology, technology and social relations, privacy, gender, digital competencies, inequalities, and digital marketing.

Further read

Interested in learning more about digital vulnerabilities in smart homes? Check out the Relink project and their blog.


Nagel, C. (2011). Chapter 7. Belonging. In V. J. Del Casino Jr, M. E. Thomas, P. Cloke, & R. Panelli (Eds.), A Companion to Social Geography (pp. 108–124).
Trentmann F. (2009). Disruption is normal. Blackouts, breakdowns and the elasticity of everyday life. In: Shove E, Trentmann F, and Wilk R (eds) Time, Consumption and Everyday Life. Practice, Materiality and Culture. Oxford ; New York: Berg, pp. 67–84.

To belong or not belong in political discourse

by Stina Fernqvist

A while ago, an intense debate flared up between some of Sweden’s leading newspaper columnists. One of them started it all by questioning recurring statements about how children, in the wake of the ongoing inflation with increasing grocery costs as one of the outcomes, show up hungry to school after the weekends because underprivileged parents can´t afford to put enough food on the table. The columnist, also a well-known author, argued that even on a low budget it is perfectly possible – and even a parental responsibility – to prepare meals that are both cheap, nourishing, and filling. Therefore, according to the column, it is misleading to talk about these children’s predicament in terms of hunger per se [1]. The reactions were loud, upset, and immediate. The columnist was accused of stigmatizing poor parents as less knowledgeable and of displaying ‘stone cold moralism’ [2] by questioning if poor families in Sweden are really that poor, but also received some support from other columnists who saw many valid points in her arguments.

A picture of newspapers.
credit: pexels | brotin bis was

All in all, the debate boiled down to whether or not there are parents in Sweden who are so poor that they can’t afford to feed their children lentils and oatmeal, or if it in fact is an issue of parental inabilities in other respects. With a few exceptions, however[3], the arguments seldom addressed the fact that some Swedish kids, apparently, do not seem to get their basic needs fulfilled. We know from qualitative studies (see e.g. Ridge 2002; Fernqvist 2013) that children in poor households often take social responsibilities towards their parents and understate their needs in order to be less of a burden in financial terms, and it is therefore not unlikely that some children for this reason might eat less at home. An awareness of these kinds of strategies makes a discussion about how much a bag of rice costs and how long it lasts (which was also pedagogically presented to the readers in the column that started the debate) redundant as child poverty in welfare states is less a question of acute starvation and more about the complexities associated with being poor in a well-off context. This, and other nuances, was however rather absent in the recent debate, and now, a few weeks on, the issue seems to be off the agenda altogether.

Picture of two kids with one lunch box.
credit: pexels | katerina holmes

The issue of child poverty has, at times, received some attention in media and the political debate in Sweden during the last decades. Save the Children Sweden publishes a bi-annual report on the prevalence of the problem and we therefore know that around 196 000 Swedish children live in households that can be defined as poor (Salonen, 2021). Statistics from the Swedish Enforcement Agency show that the number of children who are evicted yearly is slowly increasing[4].  Nevertheless, discussions following e.g. Save the Children’s reports are often tainted with skepticism; is it possible to talk about poverty in a well-off country like Sweden? Isn’t it more a question of socioeconomic inequalities? Peer pressure in terms of consumption, where today’s children are spoiled rather than poor? As in the recent debate, it often seems to end up in a tug-of-war between morally laden opinions (often from opposite sides of the party-political spectrum) but poverty in general, and child poverty in particular, does not have a given place in media or political discourse. This may have something to do with a) that children’s everyday lives and the strategies they use to handle difficulties are less interesting on a whole, and b) a lack of consensus about how poverty in a welfare state in fact is experienced.

Picture from a boy overlooking a city and an ocean.
credit: pexels | yasin belge

Poverty has historically been classified as either absolute, where ”the minimum sum on which physical efficiency could be maintained” (Rowntree 1946:102), or relative, where affected individuals lack ” the resources to obtain the types of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or are at least widely encouraged or approved, in the societies in which they belong” (Townsend 1979: 31). Is it, then, possible to talk about poverty in an overall prosperous welfare state like Sweden, where children are unlikely to starve but rather run the risk of being excluded among their peers due to material and social inequalities? Should we instead discuss it in terms of the right to consumption, and how this right is linked to different preconditions? Based on this vagueness, is it even possible to talk about welfare state poverty as a social problem?

Picture of two kids' hands painting on a paper box.
credit: pexels | cottonbro

Knowledge about how poor families manage everyday life has been obtained from several studies over the past decades (e.g. Harju, 2008; Fernqvist, 2013; Hjorth, 2019; Andersson Bruck, 2020), providing evidence that suggests that this issue should be getting more political attention, even in countries like Sweden. In the public debate, however, child poverty and its impact on children’s material and social conditions seem to be of less relevance. For example, the issue was virtually non-existent in the political campaigns leading up to the general election in 2022. Related issues such as e.g. segregation, increasing gang violence, and housing problems are slightly more visible, but there seems to be a reluctance to address persisting problems such as financial inequalities and child poverty. In this process, I would argue that the experiences of children and families living in poverty in Sweden – and how poverty in the Swedish welfare state should be tackled more systematically – remain rather invisible in political discourse. The occasional heated debate between prominent columnists does not change this in any substantial way. 

credit: ann kravtsova

Author bio

Stina Fernqvist is an associate professor at the Department of Social Work at Uppsala University. Her research deals mainly with different aspects of economic hardship among children and families and institutional interactions in the context of the late modern welfare state. Stina holds a PhD in sociology.


Andersson Bruck, K. (2020). Child poverty in rich contexts: The example of Sweden. Global Studies of Childhood, 10(2), 95–105

Fernqvist, S. (2013). En erfarenhet rikare? [Rich in experience?] Uppsala: Uppsala university.

Harju, A. (2008). Barns vardag med knapp ekonomi. En studie om barns erfarenheter och strategier [Every day life with economic hardship. A study of children’s experiences and strategies]. Växjö: Växjö University Press

Hjort, T. (2019). Vad får en soffa kosta? [How much may a sofa cost?] In T. Hjort, K. Hollertz, H. Johansson, M. Knutagård, & R. Minas (Eds.), Det yttersta skyddsnätet [The last safety net] (pp. 153–178). Studentlitteratur

Ridge, T. (2002). Childhood poverty and social exclusion. From a child´s perspective. Bristol: The Policy Press B.

Rowntree, Seebohm (1946). Poverty and progress : a second social survey of York. London : Longmans, Green

Salonen, T. (2021). Barnfattigdom i Sverige: Årsrapport 2021. Stockholm: Rädda barnen [Save the children]

Townsend, P. (1979). Poverty in the United Kingdom : a survey of household resources and standards of living. Berkeley: University of California Press


[2] E.g. in a column by Johanna Frändén in the social democratic evening paper Aftonbladet:



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.

Credit: Pexels Spencer Selover Grayscale Photography of Man Playing Basketball
  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.
Credit: Unsplash Jason Leung

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.

Credit: Pexels Ion Ceban Ionelceban

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.

credit: Unsplash Amer Mughawish

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.

Theorizing Belonging from the perspective of young former refugees

Tina Mathisen

How do young former refugees go about to create place attachment and belonging in a new home place while at the same time maintaining attachments to other home places? And what does the concept of belonging entail theoretically speaking? These were questions I was grappling with during my doctoral research together with youth of refugee background growing up in rural Norway (Mathisen 2020).

Two people looking at old pictures in a photo book
credit: pexels | cottonbro studio

Uprooting and regrounding: when the meaning of belonging becomes palpable

Belonging is a concept that most of us have a relation to because in a basic sense, it is what we are all striving for in terms of feeling as a part of something bigger than ourselves and as a sense of security. However, as Anthias (2006) has pointed out, it is also something that we often take for granted and don’t think about before it is disrupted or taken away from us. For children and young people of refugee background uprooting and regrounding is often not a onetime experience, but something they have experienced several times on their route to a secure place to live their lives. Having obtained refugee status and being settled in a municipality could therefore be seen as an important first step in the young research participants’ process of making attachments to a new home place because it meant that they were given official recognition of their right to be in Norway. In addition, translocal networks and being able to keep in contact with family and friends from other home places showed to be important for a sense of continuity in the youth’s autobiography. The knowledge that the youth had gained from living in different places and the social support from friends and family in these translocal networks played a role in the process of attaching to a place in the here and now.

three young man by the beach
credit: pexels | cottonbro studio

A personal sense of belonging to people and places

The research was conducted using a mix of participatory methods such as participant observation, in depth interviews, activity diaries, walk-alongs and auto-photography. Being present in the young people’s environments as well as the insights I gained from the activity diaries and photographs, revealed the important role that social and material aspects of place play in creating a sense of belonging. While security and stable settlement in a municipality was essential for feeling safe, sharing everyday time-space routines with other young people was important for the youths to be able to create a sense of normalcy during the settlement phase.

Group of children sitting in a park
credit: pexels | rodnae productions

The school was a particularly important arena because this was where they would meet with other youths (mainly with a migrant background) who would include them in their friendship groups and introduce them to social codes and local place norms. However, where the youths were settled and what type of school they attended mattered in how they could attach to place. Attending preparatory classes made it difficult to make friends with majority youth because these classes were often spatially separated from mainstream classes and lacked natural meeting points. Some of the participants also had to travel a distance from other villages to attend preparatory class, which made it difficult for them to create social networks in the place where they lived as well as to cultivate the social ties they had made at school during after school hours. The activity diaries showed that around half of the youths were involved in organized after school activities, however, this did not mean that the others were not active, they rather tended to meet with friends in more informal settings such as on the playground, at the mall or in the local gym. The way that the youths would and could “do belonging” was also dependent on other aspects such as time spent in Norway age and gender.

picture of a young woman taking a picture
credit: pexels | şeyda nur uğur

While social aspects perhaps are what most of us think of when we think about belonging to a place, the materiality of place has likewise been identified as important for recreational purposes and for feelings of wellbeing and safety among former refugee youths (Sampson & Gifford 2010). Researchers have described how the process of attaching to a place is a process going on between the individual and the environment which is difficult to put into words because it is often bodily and attached to memory and emotions (Cele 2006, Bourke 2017, Mathisen & Cele 2020). Several of the youths in the study had taken photographs of nature and would tell stories about how these particular places had come to mean something to them, how they appreciated the beauty in nature and how it would make them feel. But also, mundane routines and activities like walking to and from school, libraries, or stores were important to become oriented, create familiarity and recognize oneself as part of a place.

Picture of a young man in nature
credit: pexels | talish rasool

Politics of belonging: the relational aspect

These examples suggest the constant and embodied work that the youths’ put into creating and maintaining a sense of belonging, but also what structural constraints they might face. As Allison Pugh wrote in an earlier post on this blog, the personal and political side of belonging is often described separately, although it is important to understand them together. In my research, it became vital to understand them together as the youth’s experiences were never an either or but almost always contained both aspects.

picture of a young woman standing alone
credit: pexels | mikhail nilov

Some of the youths in the study who had lived longer in the municipalities described strong friendship bonds and being familiar with and making use of the place, its landscape as well as commercial and leisure facilities, as what made them feel as if they belonged.  However, as geographers have pointed out, space is not a neutral container for social action, it is rather imbued with intersecting power relations (Molina 2007). This meant that even though the youths themselves could feel a sense of belonging to their local communities, this could be interrupted by negative social encounters such as experiences of racialization and not being confirmed as someone who belongs here. This highlights the relational aspect of belonging were negotiation and boundary making can take place in everyday life encounters and lead to feelings of inclusion or exclusion. Belonging is thus not simply about the work that the youths who seek belonging do, it is also dependent on how other people in a position to confirm or reject their claim to belong react towards them. For former refugee youths, recognition as in being recognized as someone who belongs on equal terms as others in their local communities is essential for experiencing a sense of belonging.

Picture of three kids in a schoolyard
credit: pexels | norma mortenson

Finally, I would like to emphasise how the youths described different belongings on several levels and to different collectives simultaneously. The study showed how belonging can be found locally, within a group of friends, or translocaly within a network of relatives and friends from multiple places as well as to several nations that one might or might not call home. Belonging is thus not something you have once and for all, it is shifting and changing over time and might best be described as a continuous process with multiple connections.

Tina Mathisen is a researcher at the institute for Norwegian Social Research (NOVA) at OsloMet. She holds a PhD in human geography from the Department of Social and Economic Geography at Uppsala University. Her research interests mainly revolve around migration, children and youth, belonging, translocality, postcolonial theory, racism, intersectionality and qualitative method.


Anthias, F. (2006). Belonging in a globalizing and unequal world: Rethinking locations. In Yuval-Davis, N., Kannabiran, K. Vieten, U., (Eds.). The situated politics of belonging. London: Sage, p. 12-31.

Bourke, J. (2017) Children’s experiences of their everyday walks through a complex urban landscape of belonging. Children’s Geographies 15(1) 93–106.

Cele, S. (2006) Communicating Place. Methods for Understanding Children’s Experience of Place. Almquist & Wiksell International, Stockholm.

Mathisen, T. (2020). Between being and longing: Young former refugees’ experiences of place attachment and multiple belongings. (Ph.D.), Geographica 27. Department of Social and Economic Geography, Uppsala University.

Mathisen, T., & Cele, S. (2020). Doing belonging: young former refugees and their active engagement with Norwegian local communities. Fennia – International Journal of Geography, 198(1-2), 39-56.

Molina, I. (2007) Intersektionella rumsligheter. Tidskrift för Genusvetenskap 3, 6–21.

Sampson, R. & Gifford, S. M. (2010) Place-making, settlement and well-being: the therapeutic landscapes of recently arrived youth with refugee backgrounds. Health & Place 16(1) 116–131.

On Belonging, Sameness and Difference

January 8, 2023

By Allison J. Pugh

About two decades ago, I spent three years listening to and observing children in elementary school in Oakland, California.  At the time, there was a hue and cry about the commercialization of childhood, and a widespread fear of children’s rising materialism.  But what I found instead was that children most often used consumer goods to connect to others rather than to dominate them.  In fact, children lived in what I came to call an “economy of dignity,” in which particular goods and experiences served as currency, or, to use another metaphor, as passports for their social citizenship.  Children relied on particular goods like electronic games to signal to each other that they were part of the same group – and if they did not possess the goods that mattered, they strived to accumulate knowledge about those goods so they could position themselves as culturally fluent in their local environment.  As I wrote in the book that came out of this research, their ultimate goal, the target of all this deployment of goods and knowledge, was establishing themselves as full citizens in their social world: in other words, their belonging.[1]

Belonging is an emotional state with real consequences, whose contours are shaped by powerful societal forces.  Scholars tell us that belonging matters for physical and mental wellbeing; sadly, much of this research is based on what happens in its absence.  Researchers have conducted experiments that find adults who feel excluded are less likely to donate to charity or play games with others, and they give up earlier in a frustrating task.  Others have found that both subjective and objective measures of connectedness can have biological effects: feelings of loneliness and the objective measure of one’s social network size each predict one’s immune response to vaccination, for example.   Psychologists contend belongingness is crucial to human thriving, “almost as compelling a need as food.”[2]  

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While a number of researchers have divided the emotional dimension (the “personal, intimate, feeling of being ‘at home’”) from its political sources (“the discursive resource which constructs, claims, justifies, or resists forms of socio‐spatial inclusion/exclusion”), I think we should resist such an impulse, as it cordons off the realm of sentiment to an intimate individual sphere devoid of politics. Instead, the two dimensions entwined is how most children – and most people generally – encounter belonging; personal, intimate feelings arise from the personal, intimate experience of power, of being included or excluded because of the meanings ascribed to particular categories and identities enacted in daily life.[3]

On Sameness and Difference

At first pass, the power of belonging might seem to reside in sameness.  Certainly the children I studied (and their parents) were concerned about being different – bringing different food from home for lunch, having different toys or clothes or rituals.  Many scholars worry about the belonging that relies on a certain homogeneity, which then serves to define some people as in or out.[4]

credit: pexels| Norma Mortensen

But this version of belonging both underestimates what is possible and ultimately what is necessary for a better world.  Belonging relies on the cultural significance of not just sameness but also of difference.  While I concluded my book by writing about how parents and teachers could help children achieve sameness – by restricting spending on birthday parties, for example, or by cooperating to buy meaningful large-ticket items together – I also noted that none of us can avoid the experience of being different in our social worlds; given that inevitability, what matters most – what is absolutely pivotal for children’s lives, for their sense of belonging, for their wellbeing – is the meaning that we make of difference. 

How to Connect Across Difference

As it happens, we can actually connect to others across difference.  My latest research finds that such connections are possible when we actually take the trouble to “see” each other.  Seeing each other involves perceiving another person’s perspective or reality, reflecting it back to them in some way, and having them adjust, correct and ultimately accept that reflection, however partial it may be.  In my latest work, I call that interactive process of seeing each other “connective labor,” and I argue that through it, we enact respect for the other, treating them like full human beings who deserve to be known.  But difference is central to this process:  we do not presume that we know them before trying to see them, because it is their very differences that require that we undertake this process together.  Seeing the other is how we acknowledge someone’s differences, and yet share with them a sense of belonging.[5]

credit: pexels| yan krukau

In my recent research, for example, Pamela, an African-American teacher in California, said she actually chose her profession because of a woman who managed to see her when she was a shy 13-year-old who had moved many times with her family, who was so withdrawn that she suffered from selective mutism. “I want to be the teacher that I wanted, and that I needed, and that I finally got,” Pamela told me.  As Pamela’s story tells us, seeing the other is vital work that parents, teachers and other adults do for children.[6]

Children Seeing the Other

Yet children themselves also see the other.  They do so among their peers, when they notice what their friends don’t want to talk about or what they take pride in, even when it violates adult rules; I saw many examples of this in my earlier research, as when a friend leapt in to explain that Jacquette’s father was “in the Big House,” his incarceration serving to underscore why Jacquette cherished the card from him that she was showing us. In fact, seeing the other happens on a much more mundane level; it is something that children do all the time when they engage in social play.  As play researcher Peter Gray reminds us, children have to take the other into account when they play, or they might be left with no playmates. “The golden rule of social play is not ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Rather, it’s something much more difficult: ‘Do unto others as they would have you do unto them’,” Gray wrote. “To do that, you have to get into other people’s minds and see from their points of view.”  In fact, he argues, “the equality of play is not the equality of sameness. Rather, it is the equality that comes from respecting individual differences and treating each person’s needs and wishes as equally important.”[7]

credit: pexels| anastasia shuraeva

As many scholars have noted, the goal of seeing the other introduces all sorts of problems – can we ever actually know another human being?  Does the process of trying to see the other mean we force them into pre-existing labels that actually deny their particularities?  How do we set aside our preconceived notions about social categories to make a connection with the human being in front of us?  Many of these thorny questions rest on the very real challenges that difference can pose.  Yet as Pamela might tell us, the experience of feeling seen is a profound one, and the practice of seeing another – however imperfectly – is a powerful way to forge a connection.

A deep sense of belonging rests not just on shared sameness, but the purposeful integration across difference. Children and adults can be helped to connect across difference through seeing each other, and organizations like schools and neighborhoods can cultivate connective cultures that enable us to see each other better. The wellbeing of children (and adults) depends on it.

Author’s bio

Allison Pugh Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality at the University of Virginia.

[1] The book that came out of this research was entitled Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children and Consumer Culture (Pugh 2009).

[2]  See Newman et al 2007; Baumeister et al 2005; Pressman et al 2005; Twenge et al 2007. The “food” quote comes from Baumeister and Leary 1995 (p. 498).

[3] The quotes come from Antonsich 2010 (p. 645).

[4]  Some writings on sameness and difference with regard to belonging that have inspired me include Butler (2019), Wright (2015), and Yuval-Davis (2006).

[5] Vanessa May (2013) also finds a role for recognition in belonging.

[6]  I write about Pamela in Pugh 2022.

[7]  The quotes come from an article Gray published in the Aeon online magazine (2013).


Antonsich, Marco. «Searching for belonging–an analytical framework.» Geography Compass 4, no. 6 (2010): 644-659.

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. 1995. The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529.

Baumeister, Roy F., C. Nathan DeWall, Natalie J. Ciarocco, and Jean M. Twenge. 2005. «Social exclusion impairs self-regulation.» Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 88, no. 4: 589.

Butler, Rose. 2019.  Class, Culture and Belonging in Rural Childhoods. Singapore: Springer.

Gray, Peter. 2013.  “The Play Deficit.” Aeon. September 18. URL: Accessed January 8, 2023.

May, Vanessa. 2013. Connecting self to society: Belonging in a changing world. New York and London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Newman, Barbara M., Brenda J. Lohman, and Philip R. Newman. 2007. «Peer group membership and a sense of belonging: their relationship to adolescent behavior problems.» Adolescence 42, no. 166.

Pressman, Sarah D., Sheldon Cohen, Gregory E. Miller, Anita Barkin, Bruce S. Rabin, and John J. Treanor. 2005. «Loneliness, social network size, and immune response to influenza vaccination in college freshmen.» Health Psychology 24, no. 3: 297.

Pugh, Allison J. 2022. «Emotions and the systematization of connective labor.» Theory, Culture & Society 39, no. 5: 23-42.

Pugh, Allison J. 2009.  Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children and Consumer Culture.  Berkeley:  University of California Press.

Twenge, Jean M., Roy F. Baumeister, C. Nathan DeWall, Natalie J. Ciarocco, and J. Michael Bartels. 2007. «Social exclusion decreases prosocial behavior.» Journal of personality and social psychology 92, no. 1: 56.

Wright, Sarah. «More-than-human, emergent belongings: A weak theory approach.» Progress in Human Geography 39, no. 4 (2015): 391-411.

Yuval-Davis, Nira. 2006. «Belonging and the politics of belonging.» Patterns of Prejudice 40, no. 3: 197-214.

Children’s engagement with and belonging to their environments.

by Asher Ben-Arieh

Recent years have brought focus to the importance of understanding context when approaching the topic of child wellbeing, with both theoretical and empirical evidence mounting to support this movement (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Coulton & Spilsbury, 2014). Whilst research has most typically investigated the contexts of family, school, and socioeconomic status when studying children (Goswami, 2012; Lee & Yoo, 2015; Gross-Manos & Massarwi, 2022), this contribution, premised on children’s rights and their participatory perspective, emphasizes the importance of also exploring the environment and nature as contexts which shape children’s lives.

Children playing on a swing in nature.
credit: pexels | rodnae productions

Defining the meanings of ‘environment’ and ‘nature’ is not an easy task, in fact, it is often a problematic one, as people may experience and understand the same surroundings in broad and varied ways. Classically, nature is the term used to refer to an outdoor space, separated from humans. However, the environment refers to the connection which people have to a place, including the meanings, values, and interactions they associate with a physical space (Spiteri et al., 2022). Highlighting and examining the role of the environment and nature in children’s lives will help elevate current understandings of the importance of context for children.

A child climbing on a tree.
credit: pexels | allan mas

A key environment to consider in a child’s life is their neighborhood. Neighborhoods usually refer to urban areas, villages, or villages in rural areas, and these areas are not simply geographical territories, they are units of social organization that symbolize meaning to people as places to live, work and perform their daily tasks. The neighborhoods in which children reside are a space in which they are likely to spend a great amount of time in, so they represent important contexts in their lives (Allison et al., 1999). Research has shown that neighborhoods and their characteristics can influence children’s well-being (Rees, 2017).

Children playing in a field.
credit: pexels | quang nguyen vinh

Within their environment, children must feel free to play and experiment, feel secure to succeed or fail at tasks, and push themselves. For children, such activities are a part of their process of socialization, which is crucial to their development and well-being. Specifically, recent studies have shown that the natural environment of a child, a place in which they may engage with various components and explore, has a great contribution to their well-being. Furthermore, research has indicated that active engagement by children with their environment is associated with various developmental benefits, like igniting a sense of independence and autonomy, and providing a range of other physical, cognitive, and affective benefits (Adams & Savahl, 2017).

A child drawing with charcoal on a street.
credit: pexels | allan mas

Another important environment in a child’s life is the climate in which they live. Thinking on a bigger scale, there is growing evidence that humans are negatively impacting climate change, and this may hold negative repercussions on the well-being of children. As climate change worsens, it is more likely that children of future generations will be most heavily impacted by these changes. Moreover, growing media coverage of the negative consequences relating to global climate change has caused growing eco-anxiety among children and youth. Eco-anxiety, also known as climate distress or climate anxiety, is the anxiety one may experience relating to the global climate crisis and the impending threat of environmental disaster, causing symptoms like panic attacks, insomnia, and obsessive thinking (Cianconi et al., 2020), and this is harmful to children.  Also, the wish to protect nature and climate also leads to a growing number of children and young people all over the world being involved in demonstrations and different actions.

Young people holding signs saying "our planet our future" and "there is no planet B".
credit: karolina gabowska

In summary, considering the importance of nature and the environment as influential contexts in children’s lives these contexts must be recognized as an issue relating to children’s rights. Also, bearing in mind that children are the experts of their lives, it is imperative to talk to and learn from them directly regarding the importance of these contexts for them. Lastly, it is clear that we must recognize the efforts of children in dealing with the issue of climate change and appreciate their importance in this fight.

A child playing in a field.
credit: pexels | miriam salgado

Asher Ben-Arieh, is the Haruv Chair for the study of Child Maltreatment at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a Prof. of Social Work and the Dean of the Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare as of September 2021. Asher is also the director of the Haruv Institute in Jerusalem. He served for 20 years as the associate director of Israel’s National Council for the Child.

A boy holding a sign saying "There's no planet B"
credit: pexels | anna shvets


Adams, S., & Savahl, S. (2017). Nature as children’s space: A systematic review. The Journal of Environmental Education, 48(5), 291-321.‏

Allison, K. W., Crawford, I., Leone, P. E., Trickett, E., Perez-Febles, A., Burton, L. M., & Le Blanc, R. (1999). Adolescent substance use: Preliminary examinations of school and neighborhood context. American journal of community psychology, 27(2), 111-141.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Harvard University Press.

Cianconi, P., Betrò, S., & Janiri, L. (2020). The impact of climate change on mental health: a systematic descriptive review. Frontiers in psychiatry, 74.

Coulton, C. J., & Spilsbury, J. C. (2014). Community and Place-Based Understanding of Child Well-Being. In Handbook of Child Well-Being (pp. 1307–1334). Springer Netherlands.

Gross-Manos, D., & Massarwi, A. A. (2022). Material deprivation and subjective poverty association with subjective well-being reported by children: Religiosity as a protective factor. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.‏

Goswami, H. (2012). Social Relationships and Children’s Subjective Weil-Being. Social Indicators Research, 107(3), 575–588.

Lee, B.J., Yoo, M.S. Family, School, and Community Correlates of Children’s     Subjective Well-being: An International Comparative Study. Child Ind Res 8, 151–175 (2015).

Rees, G. (2017). Children’s Views on Their Lives and Well-being. Springer Cham. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-65196-5

Spiteri, J., Higgins, P., & Nicol, R. (2022). It’s like a Fruit on a Tree: Young Maltese Children’s Understanding of the Environment. Early Child Development and Care, 192(7), 1133-1149.

Pay-to-play? Belonging through consumption in commercial games

Kamilla Knutsen Steinnes

Children and adolescents are visible and connect to others through things, both tangible and intangible. That is, consumption plays an integral part in belonging. Belonging in peer groups may take place in social arenas, such as physical locations or abstract contexts – like virtual gaming platforms.

Playing video games is currently the largest hobby among Norwegian adolescents. Importantly, it is also one of the most expensive hobbies. This suggests that games are yet another social arena where economy plays a part by creating conditions for participation, social relations, and (in)equality.

Two teenagers sitting together holding gaming controllers.
credit: pexels mikhail nilov

It is important to stress the many favorable and constructive effects of playing video games. Games provide an arena for numerous positive activities, such as creativity, learning, and social interaction. For instance, games can facilitate social relations between players or evoke positive affect through immersive emotional gameplay sequences. Moreover, some studies indicate that playing games can provide cognitive benefits, such as quicker and better learning, faster and more precise attention control, improved problem-solving, and increased visuospatial abilities

A girl laughing with a gaming controller in her hands.
credit: pexels alena darmel

However, games also represent a multi-billion-dollar industry. This is reflected in the estimated global revenue for 2022 at over 200 billion USD. The commercial success of the gaming industry has further increased during and after the Covid-19 pandemic, as Norwegian children and adolescents have been spending more time and money on gaming than before the coronavirus outbreak.Hence, gaming is a thriving industry, where mainstream games are becoming increasingly commercialized. Most commercial games employ a variety of revenue strategies, including subscriptions, microtransactions, virtual products, merchandising, and advertising. Thus, games are designed to make players stay and keep them spending their time and money in-game. When players enter such a marketplace in games, they are met with a sophisticated design intended to influence their decision to purchase virtual products, where in-game shopping is framed as fun and playful and default choices are made salient in the shops.

Boy holding a controller
credit: pexels tima miroshnichenko

The market tactics of games are not a new notion. Commercial markets have long acknowledged and utilized the fact that we belong to others through material things. Building on inclusion (and exclusion) mechanisms, the markets offer various types of clothes, cosmetics, and other products that are tailored to specific activities, specific genders, specific ages, specific neighborhoods, and so on. For instance, a pair of sneakers cannot (or rather should not) be used for both running and playing basketball. Instead, separate pairs are needed to fit in with the norms for each activity – norms that tend to be heavily influenced by commercial market actors and their economic interests. The gaming marketplace is designed in a similar fashion. Most commercial games have their own in-game store where players can buy a wide variety of virtual products. The products are tailored to specific game characters, holidays, seasons, events, and so on. Players typically sort these products into two main categories: functional and cosmetic items. Both types of product categories tend to have some sort of symbolic meaning, where the purchased product only reaches its full value when it is made visible to others and provides a type of social reward.

A girl using a VR headset and controller to game.
credit: pexels cottonbro studio

The social significance of consumption in games also appears in previous research with children and adolescents. Such studies, although limited, suggest a social stigma related to not having the most expensive, newest, and coolest in-game gear and accessories. Players who are willing or able to spend money in-game tend to get significant advantages over players who are unwilling or unable to do the same. Hence, consumption in-game can be highly important for young people to feel a sense of belonging to peer players. The notable role of consumption in games is also evident in the fact that commercial games are increasingly treating children as active, individual consumers with their own disposable income.

Gaming console with super mario game on it.
credit: pexels pixabay

In fact, income levels have a demonstrated effect on young people’s experiences on digital platforms and can lead to discrimination, shaming, and status concerns. In some contexts, having the ‘correct’ consumer products may signal in-group belonging and social status. Whether children and adolescents can or cannot afford such status markers and, importantly – show them off to others – might have an impact on acceptance and belonging among peers on gaming platforms. Previous research has largely neglected to explore any potential positive outcomes of consumption in gaming, such as effects on well-being, inclusion, and participation. This provides a substantial avenue for future research on children’s belonging in social arenas.

Girl gaming with three screens
credit: pexels rodnae productions

Author bio

Kamilla Knutsen Steinnes is a PhD Candidate in Behavioral Analysis at Oslo Metropolitan University and a researcher at Consumption Research Norway. In her PhD, she investigates social inclusion among young gamers through their consumer behavior.

Leisure time troubles

Markus Lynum

For some, socialization, and the formation of both strong and weak ties with others seem to come around as a natural part of the life course and provide them with a sense of belonging. By having to nurture relations with family, peers and other role models in their immediate social surroundings, children may gain access to positive experiences, memories and social support tying them to the social fabric of their local context. These experiences may provide them with a sense of security in their everyday life, a positive outlook on life chances and their future and positive coping strategies when faced with adversity.

picture of a child playing
credit: pexels | mikhail nilov

Considering all the benefits that “a sense of belonging” may bring around, it’s important to note that they are emotional and social resources that are contingent on individuals having access to integrative processes that allow them to develop ties with others. In the context of childhood, these processes are especially important when it comes to gaining access to their peer network and forming friendships with others. These interactions and processes may take place at schools, during out-of-school activities and in more informal settings.

Picture of a boy reading.
credit: pexels | cottonbro studio

In these scenarios, the success of children’s interactions with peers may be contingent on their ability to participate equally, adhere to the rules of the given activity and adequately regulate their emotions when engaging with others. In the same way that the socioeconomic position of one’s family may be a source of unequal access to cultural and economic resources, disability can be a source of unequal access to important social arenas during childhood.

Picture of two teenagers hanging out in a living room.
credit: pexels | karolina grabowska

In the research project BUDGET, which is financed by the Research Council of Norway, we’ve investigated the material and immaterial consequences and costs that caring for children with ADHD or cerebral palsy may have on the household. The project is designed to capture how living with these diagnoses may drive household costs and is, in and of itself, not centered around the social integration of their children and their experience of belonging. While the main scope of our research is to study how household expenditure and employment can be affected by caring for a child with ADHD or cerebral palsy, as well as how the households adapt to and organize their everyday life, very preliminary analyses highlight some trends that leave room for reflection. Although not a part of the project’s focus, parents interviewed in our sample highlighted how finding suitable social arenas for their children can be a challenge.

Picture of two teenagers painting a poster.
credit: pexels | karolina grabowska

In the case of ADHD, parents described that associated traits such as inattentiveness, impulsiveness, hyperactivity, and mood swings may impact how the child functions socially in relation to their peers and how long they maintain their interests in hobbies and activities. This can maybe lead to children facing an uphill battle when it comes to experiencing social inclusion as it can impact how they function in various social arenas. This can also potentially place the child at a heightened risk of ending up in conflict with peers, being perceived as a more “challenging” child to deal with by other adults and resulting in them not being included to the same degrees as others. This can be a source of both stress and discomfort for both the parents and the child as it can make the challenges that may accompany ADHD salient and highlight the child’s “otherness” within their immediate social context.

Picture of two girls in front of a laptop.
credit: pexels | karolina grabowska

In the case of cerebral palsy, the challenges of social inclusion are usually more physical, and can therefore be a larger challenge to overcome, especially in places where leisure time activities may be less diversified and centered around sports. Depending on the degree of cerebral palsy, a child may have a minor or major physical disability that translates into the increased difficulty in participating in a lot of arenas. As in the case of ADHD, this can make it harder for the children and parents to find suitable social arenas where they can participate on the same terms as able-bodied children.

Picture of two girls looking at a phone.
credit: pexels | cottonbro-studio

The diagnoses of children can impact their opportunity to feel belonging and highlights a structural challenge in how childhood is organized that may generate social exclusion. It can physically and socially prevent the children from accessing the same activities and meeting points their peers participate in, and consequently put them at a heightened risk of social isolation. Their possibility to participate and socialize with other children outside the classroom can further be prone to the different opportunities and leisure time activities where they live, but also to their parents’ time and resourcefulness. Having a child with a disability can make it more difficult for parents to ask for support (e. g. help with driving their kids to football practice), as their child may have more needs than others.  The intersection of a child’s disability with their family’s capacity to spend time and resources on facilitating their access to important social arenas may generate both increased and decreased opportunities for social integration. While not an issue actively studied and explored within the framework of BUDGET, it does highlight an area of potential sociological interest when it comes to unequal opportunities to participate that calls for further investigation.

Picture of a relaxed boy.
credit: pexels | karolina grabowska

About Markus Lynum

Markus is working as a scientific assistant at Consumption research Norway (SIFO) and is a sociologist by training. In addition to working on issues of consumer policy he is interested in exploring the interconnections between inequality and access to integrative processes which he also wrote his master’s thesis on.

Design for Belonging: Innovation with Space, Ritual, and Roles

Blog post by Dr. Susie Wise

Belonging is a fundamental human need. We need to feel we belong in order to play together, to learn, and to work. Designing for belonging is deeply about equity. It is about ensuring that all people, especially those furthest from opportunity, have what they need to thrive. Belonging, without othering, is the goal. Humans, all humans, especially children are adept at reading clues for belonging. We need to know if we are welcome because it lets us know whether we are safe to show up as who we are. And the work of design is to create the places and interactions that allow that sense of belonging to emerge.

credit: pexels yan krukov

Recently I was moved by Bill’s story of deepening his practice of design for belonging. He leads professional learning communities in a rural area of Northern California, in the United States. He decided that when launching a new program he wanted to focus more on belonging. He is a talented learning experience designer and did many things to help his participants belong, but what struck me as gold was the simplicity of his first two moves. Instead of just sending a logistical email to let people know about their upcoming kick off meeting, he sent individual invitations, and then when folks first gathered they formed a circle instead of heading to tables. With those two changes individuals felt welcomed to join the experience, and then when they entered they immediately saw they were able to take their place in the circle and see themselves as part of a community. Not hard or expensive to do, but the attention to the invitation and entering as moments of belonging sent a powerful signal.

If you are digging into design for belonging I think there are three levers of design that are particularly useful to explore. They are space, ritual, and role. Shared below is a story about each one. They are all drawn from organizations that serve young people from sometimes marginalized groups.


credit: pexels Karoline Grabowska

The Magical Bridge Playground has spawned a movement to build playgrounds that are more inclusive of children with physical and neurological disabilities. The playground is set up so that wheelchairs and other assistive devices can be a part of play. There are wide ramps and things to interact with at many different levels. There are also surprising elements like a laser harp that plays beautiful music based on a motion sensor. All kids love this place which means that it also offers space for bridging – for children with and without disabilities to play together. Likely we can’t all build playgrounds on this scale, but it serves as a powerful reminder to attend to our physical spaces – to make them not just accessible for all, but truly magical so they become places of positive interaction and belonging.


Two kids playing RoShamBo
RoShamBo: photo courtesy Playworks

One of my favorite ritual examples comes from the realm of the school playground. Playworks is a national non-profit in the United States that helps schools build cultures of healthy play. They put recess coaches into schools. That in and of itself is a great belonging move as the coach teaches kids games and new ways to play together. As you can imagine, they also deal with conflict resolution. And the simple ritual they put in place is to use the game Roshambo (or Rock, Paper Scissors) to solve issues. Most playground conflicts start from small slights like close calls or cutting in line. If you can solve those challenges with a previously agreed upon ritual, you can eliminate escalating into bigger trouble. Don’t know whose turn it is? Roshambo. Couldn’t tell who crossed the finish line first? Roshambo. It is simple, easy, fun, and gets the job done. And everyone at school can use the ritual as needed.


Picture of a mentor from Dream Director with young people.
Dream Director: photo courtesy The Future Project

The Future Project is an organization working in high schools, serving students aged 14-18. Their innovation is to put “dream directors” in school. The dream directors are young adults who want to help younger folks identify their dream jobs, or other roles in the community, and craft the path to get there. They design all kinds of experiences for young people to see a wide range of adult roles and to try them out to see if they are truly interested. They might arrange field trips or job shadows; they might work on entrepreneurship or finances. They are mentors with a strong focus on helping their mentees see their way to their goals and then achieve them. For some young people furthest from opportunity their dream director becomes their primary champion, cheering them on so they can find their place of belonging when they leave school.

Sometimes to build greater belonging we need to innovate. We can do so by expanding our imagination and creating with a broader range of design levers. Space, ritual, and role, are three powerful levers to design for belonging that are often overlooked. The opportunities to build with them will look different depending on where and how you work with young people. Taking them up to consciously design for more belonging and less othering will put you on a strong path to support your community.

Dr. Susie Wise is the author of “Design for Belonging: How to Build Inclusion and Collaboration in Your Communities” (2022). You can explore other resources at

On the implicit policy of the term “belonging”

author: Anita Borch

In social theory, the term “belonging” refers to a sense of ease; of “fitting in” in our immediate social context – be it people, places, or materials. For most of us belonging is positive, providing us with a sense of confidence and trust in the world, triggering us to believe in ourselves and our ability to create a life worth living. It may also have the opposite effect, connecting us to wrong places and people like criminal gangs. At a societal level, belonging is a double-edged phenomenon, leading to healthier and higher educated populations, lower rates of unemployment and robust economies. At the same time, it may split people into “in groups” or “out groups” and cause conflicts and economic recessions. Not belonging is usually associated with marginalization, social exclusion and lower levels of social welfare, but can also motivate us to turn negative spirals into positive and thereby increase social mobility. Overall, belonging and not belonging refer to complex human experiences in power to influence individuals and societies and drivers of social stabilization and change.

Sign with the text "you belong".
credit: Pexels Tim Mossholder

But one thing is how terms are understood in theory. Another cup of tea is how the term is used in practice. From a previous review, I have learned that the term “belonging” often lacks definition and that its meanings tend to overlap those of familiar terms like “social participation” and “social inclusion”. However, when I studied the use of these terms myself, I observed some differences that are worth reflecting upon.

Kids walking in a group.
credit: pexels Max Fischer

First of all, the study indicates that “belonging” is the preferred term used in studies of immigrant children’s connections. This preference seems, to some extent, to have replaced the preference for the term “social integration”, which was more frequently used in studies of immigrant children’s connections in the 1990s. Moreover, and more importantly, the preference for the term “belonging” contrast with the result of studies on the connections of the majority of children, in which “social participation” is the preferred term.

Kids sitting and studying.
credit: pexels Norma Mortenson

As a researcher studying children’s belonging, I feel some ambivalence regarding this latter result. Since belonging basically refers to an emotion whereas participation is often connected to an activity like sports or some kinds of decision making, it cannot be ruled out that I, by using the term belonging, implicitly and highly unintentionally suggest that immigrant children generally show less agency and, hence, that they are more passive than majority children. If so, I happen to promote a view on immigrant children that I strongly oppose. In line with other researchers studying children’s belonging, I see all children as actively involved in the process of creating belonging and not belonging. Belonging and not belonging is not one-way but mutual processes between immigrant children and their social surroundings. Not to be misunderstood, I need to make the dynamic aspect of belonging and not belonging very explicit in further work.

Kids working together.
credit: pexels Max Fischer

Whereas “belonging” and “social participation” often refer to something children feel or do, the term “social inclusion” is more frequently used to describe settings. For example, a school, a sports club, or a park in the city are typically regarded as “inclusive” if they are easily accessible for all children. The underlying assumption underpinning this view seems to be that if settings are inclusive enough, children will be included. If not, they will be excluded. The agency of the social inclusion is thereby not assigned to the children who are or should be included, but to the settings – or, more precisely, the adults responsible for creating these settings. The lack of agency and responsibility of children may explain why “social inclusion” seems to be the preferred term in studies of children with disabilities, who, in general, tend to be assigned less agency and responsibilities than other children in society at large.

Child playing.
credit: pexels koolshooters

Do we here see the contours of a hierarchy, in which the term “social participating” signals children with a high degree of agency and the term “social inclusion” signals children with a low degree of agency, and in which “belonging” is placed somewhere in the middle, signaling less agency than “social participation” but more than “social inclusion”? If so, the use of terms in highly cited literature on immigrant children’s connections implicitly suggests that immigrant children can be ascribed less agency than majority children, but more than children with disabilities.

Kids playing.
credit: pexels Ron Lach

The reflections made in this blog are based on observations made in a study that has recently been reported in the paper “Immigrant Children’s Connections to People and the World Around Them: A Critical Discourse Review of Academic Literature” (Borch, 2022). As mentioned, previous research has concluded that the use of terms addressing children’s connection tends to overlap, which suggests that it does not matter what kind of terms we are using. At first sight, this suggestion seems reasonable considering that terms get most of their meaning from contexts (cf. Wittgenstein). However, if we take a closer look and compare how different terms are used in practice, implicit messages may be revealed and other conclusions may be drawn. Overall, the study has shown that the terms used in studies of children’s connections can be highly political in the sense of signalling who have agency and who should be given responsibility or not. Indeed, belonging is an emotion with the power of changing children and societies. So too is how we are using terms in research and policy.