Geography Belonging
Mary Gilmartin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0150


Belonging is a widely used but loosely defined term. In general usage, it has two broad meanings. The first meaning is social. This defines belonging as attachment to a particular social group. The social group can vary in size and scale from the Family or local Community to the Nation or transnational community. The second meaning is spatial. This defines belonging as attachment to a particular place. The place can also vary in size and scale, from the Home to the state. Belonging may be understood from the perspective of individuals, groups, or particular places. From the perspective of individuals, one focus is on the ways in which belonging is experienced. This is often described in qualitative or affective terms, such as “sense of belonging,” “belongingness,” or “place attachment.” Another focus is on measures of belonging, with efforts to quantify the extent of, and the factors that influence or limit, individual belonging. From the perspective of groups, studies of belonging take two broad forms. One approach considers the ways in which belonging is created and maintained in particular settings, such as in communities, institutions, places, or times. A second approach highlights the politics of belonging, which often results in processes or experiences of exclusion, bordering, Non-belonging, or “not belonging.” Because of the breadth of uses of the term “belonging,” its meaning is often unclear. While some scholars have attempted to fix the meaning of the term, others have used it in creative and insightful ways. This is particularly the case in migration studies, where the term “belonging” has been expansively used to illustrate the complexity of migration processes and migrant experiences in the contemporary world.

General Overviews

There are a number of works that attempt to define belonging, but their approaches vary considerably. Probyn 1996 argues that a focus on belonging and the desire to belong is more useful than a focus on identity. Belonging, she says, captures movement and change in a way that identity, with its tendency toward fixity, does not. A similar argument is made in hooks 2009, which charts a search “for a place to belong.” For hooks, belonging is intricately connected to place, although her essays also chart the struggles inherent in finding a place to belong. Massey 2011 inverts this relationship, arguing that the more important question to ask is to whom a place belongs. The broader question of the politics of belonging is addressed in Yuval-Davis 2011, which frames belonging in terms of citizenship, but offers an expanded understanding of citizenship based on feminist and intersectional politics. While these writers all highlight the significance and importance of belonging, the consequence of its absence is noted in Putnam 2000, which discusses the decline of Community and social capital in the contemporary United States. Given the range of approaches to defining and understanding belonging, three recent survey articles provide useful starting points. Antonsich 2010 suggests that belonging should be understood in two ways. The first, “place-belongingness,” is a personal feeling of being at Home; while the second, “politics of belonging,” considers processes of sociospatial inclusion and exclusion. In a review of recently published literature, Lähdesmäki, et al. 2016 concludes that there are five main ways in which belonging is framed: spatiality, intersectionality, multiplicity, materiality, and Non-belonging. Wright 2015 argues that belonging should be seen as emergent and relational, which in turn allows belonging to be understood as inclusive and hopeful.

  • Antonsich, Marco. “Searching for Belonging: An Analytical Framework.” Geography Compass 4.6 (2010): 644–659.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-8198.2009.00317.x

    This useful survey article starts from the premise that belonging is poorly defined and theorized and seeks to develop a more robust framework for the study of belonging. It suggests that there are two types of belonging—place-belongingness and the politics of belonging—and that both aspects should be considered in studies of belonging.

  • hooks, bell. Belonging: A Culture of Place. New York: Routledge, 2009.

    A accessible collection of essays, clearly and poetically expressed, that explore a personal search for a place to belong.

  • Lähdesmäki, Tuuli, Tuija Saresma, Kaisa Hiltunen, et al. “Fluidity and Flexibility of ‘Belonging’: Uses of the Concept in Contemporary Research.” Acta Sociologica 59.3 (2016): 233–247.

    DOI: 10.1177/0001699316633099

    A detailed qualitative study of the different ways in which the term “belonging” is used in contemporary academic publications. The paper focuses on publications in 2014, and suggests five main ways in which belonging is framed: spatiality; intersectionality; multiplicity; materiality; and Non-belonging.

  • Massey, Doreen. Landscape/Space/Politics: An Essay, 2011.

    A personal essay that reflects on the need to reverse the terms of belonging, and to question whom a place belongs to rather than who belongs to a place.

  • Probyn, Elspeth. Outside Belongings. New York: Routledge, 1996.

    An early and important contribution that argued that the concept of belonging was more helpful than the concept of identity for understanding social relations, although the book advocates for a position “outside belonging” in order to capture the desire and longing for belonging.

  • Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

    A highly influential book on the decline of social capital in the United States. It draws on extensive quantitative data sources to demonstrate this, and argues for the importance of reversing this decline in order to create a more inclusive society.

  • Wright, Sarah. “More-Than-Human, Emergent Belongings: A Weak Theory Approach.” Progress in Human Geography 39.4 (2015): 391–411.

    DOI: 10.1177/0309132514537132

    This paper advocates a weak theory approach to the study of belonging, and concludes that belonging should be seen as emotional, more-than-human, and best described as emergent co-becoming.

  • Yuval-Davis, Nira. The Politics of Belonging: Intersectional Contestations. London: SAGE, 2011.

    A broadly ranging and passionate discussion of the politics of belonging that addresses traditional understandings of belonging such as nations and citizenship, but expands to include alternative understandings of belonging, such as religion, cosmopolitanism, and care.

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