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The politics of belonging

Investigate the political dimensions of belonging.
A group with with hands reaching up in the air
© Rawpixel via Envato Elements

In the previous steps we explored different ways individuals identify with social groups, collectives and places as sites of belonging, and the benefits of belonging to our individual and collective health and wellbeing. Now we explore the political dimensions of belonging.

The Politics of belonging

Belonging is inherently political. It is determined by different political dimensions that position people within, or as outsiders of groups and/or collectives. In other words, power structures determine boundaries of belonging.

The politics of belonging refers to the maintenance of boundaries that separate a particular group into those who belong and those who do not. It describes mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, and how these are contested and challenged.

Refugees and belonging

An example of the boundaries of belonging, is how asylum seekers and refugees feel when they enter a new country, and are not granted the same rights as other citizens. Recent research in 11 countries reveals that migrants, overwhelmingly do not feel a sense of belonging, even after many years in their new countries, due in part to the absence of legal security, lack of employment and experience of social hostility.

Discourses of belonging

Yuval-Davis shows that discourses and practices around belonging affect people differently. As an example discourse in belonging the following illustrates the multiple dimensions of belonging and exclusion:

being oppressed, for example as ‘a Black person’ is always constructed and intermeshed in other social divisions (for example, gender, social class, disability status, sexuality, age, nationality, immigration status, and geography, etc.)… Such narratives often reflect hegemonic discourses of identity politics that render invisible experiences of the more marginal members of that specific social category and construct an homogenised ‘right way’ to be its member.

In other words, people are often disadvantaged by varied sources of oppression, and identity markers such as gender and class do not exist independently, but inform each other to create a complex convergence of oppression.

This is where the concept of intersectionality is important, as it points to the multiple levels of a person’s identity which overlap.

What is intersectionality?

Intersectionality is a theoretical concept, an analytical approach, and a legal and policy tool. It is a way of understanding the various layers of advantage and disadvantage everyone experiences based on differing structural systems within society – such as capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy and racism.

These systems create a set of disadvantages and privileges based on:

  • gender – through gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation
  • class – through socio-economic status and background
  • race – via skin colour, migration status, ethnicity, nationality, language, and religion
  • disability and other visible and invisible markers of identity
  • national and global hierarchy of power
  • life cycle stage
  • ability.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, an American civil rights advocate and a scholar of critical race theory, first used the term ‘intersectionality’ to explain how identity categories combine. She describes how women of colour navigate two marginalised frameworks of domination – gender and race – and are subjected to various forms of discrimination and disadvantage as a result.

Hence, different aspects of a person’s social identity can expose them to overlapping forms of discrimination and marginalisation.

Crenshaw notes that identities are multiple and dimensional. Therefore, oppression is not linear nor equally divided among groups, and differences within groups exist as much as they do between them.

These differences are important to understand when building belonging, as identities are spread across contexts and places, including digital places, as well as multiple differentiating factors such as:

  • ability/disability
  • race
  • language
  • religion
  • gender and sexuality.

Intersectionality demonstrates how complex belonging can be; and that multiple aspects need to be addressed in planning towards building belonging in our communities.

In this fact sheet, the Centre for Intersectional Justice contextualises the history of intersectionality and how it is often understood in modern European contexts. It illustrates the connection between race, bias, law and individuals’ identities when considered intersectional approaches to belonging.

Building belonging through urban planning

As we have discovered, social identity and belonging are fluid and multifaceted. From an intersectional perspective, urban planners or designers need to take into account the many ways people belong across groups. Changes to our environment, social, political and cultural attachments require an ‘intersectional’ approach, in order to cultivate spaces and places where people feel they belong, in our increasingly globalised and mobile world.

Rather than approaching the building of belonging through what Sandra Harding, an American feminist theorist, calls an ‘add women and stir’ approach, we need to think about how we might address belonging from an intersectional perspective across race, sexuality, gender, social status and more.

Designing for belonging means developing a Design for All approach, to remove accessibility barriers to the built and virtual environments and to goods and services. It also means inclusive practice that accommodates: people with mobility difficulties, LGBTQI+ communities, refugees and migrants, diverse religious groups, people from different socio-economic backgrounds and those with visible and invisible disabilities.

© RMIT Europe, EIT Community and New European Bauhaus
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Building Belonging in a Globalised and Mobile World

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