Issue #1: Belonging Across Disciplines

A quick interdisciplinary walk through what belonging has meant in different times and spaces

When people ask me about my childhood, I say that I felt that I did not belong. I was born in Texas but my parents were not and we had not other family in the state. I switched from private to public school upon starting middle school so I didn’t know any other kids right at the beginning of the Awkward Years aka puberty. I was the only black kid in almost all of my classes in our majority white side of the school district. I liked having academic and intellectual conversations when most discussions revolved around football and cheerleading.

And while nearly everyone has a list of reasons they can point to that show how they have not belonged in one way or another, we can all see how we can have an understanding of belonging without the ability to articulate a clear definition. What criteria or guidelines determine what is belonging or not? Who decides who belongs? What advantages or disadvantages come with belonging? How and what changes the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion?

So I turned to the social sciences to see how belonging has historically been defined and operationalized to better understand how it could shift in the future.

Political Science

Political scientist Nira Yuval-Davis outlined a framework to facilitate the study and politics of belonging, examining the issue through the lens of intersectionality. Yuval-Davis breaks down psychological belonging into three components: social locations that emerge along lines of power and social categories such as race and gender; individual idenitification and emotional attachment including feelings of comfort and safety; and shared political and ethical systems.

Importantly, Yuval-Davis defines belonging as dynamic and multidimensional; the concept required continuous consideration of multiple narratives informed by changing historical influences and present social realities. In contrast, the politics of belonging consists of specific projects aiming to construct belonging led by collective entities which in turn are constructed by the projets in particular ways.


Sociologists conducted a massive literature review that studied how belonging was explored in several academic publications. Lähdesmäki, et al. 2016 concludes that there are five main ways in which belonging is framed: spatiality, intersectionality, multiplicity, materiality, and Non-belonging.

  • Explorations of spatiality involve examining belonging in relation to geographical, social and temporal spaces and their boundaries, often prompted by migration, mobility and displacement. The processes of “place making” or the notion of “feeling at home” is often included in spaciality.

  • Intersectionality of belonging consists of the interlacing and negotiating of complex and interdependent social categories and identities that constantly shift, merge and reconfigure. Related to intersectionality, multiplicity explores how people belong to many group identities and places at one time. Both multiplicity and intersectionality often examine social categories such as gender, ethnicity, class and religion and both emphasize the dynamism and temporality of belonging.

  • Materiality considers the impact of people’s contact with their physical surroundings on shaping the sense of belonging. Materiality may consider the natural world as well as the built environment in understanding how, where and why people are physically rooted affects belonging.

  • Non-belonging looks at the opposite of belonging: exclusion, marginality, denial of rights and resources. Non-belonging weighs the complex dimensions of belonging simultaneously: social and individual components, emotional and affective experiences and power structures.


Anthropologists have investigated belonging primarily through kinship networks and other familial connections centered on indigenous groups, defining belonging largely through blood lineage and shared history. This meant that kinship necessarily included ties to physical places as family ties were connected to the land needed for sustenance.

Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai introduced the term 'deterritorialisation' to illustrate how we are less rooted to physical place in the objects, ideas and exchanges that comprise culture and belonging.


Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs posits that be understood as five levels conceptually described as a pyramid. Needs at the bottom of the pyramid must be satisfactorally addressed before humans are motivated and capable of addressing needs farther up the pyramid. The needs he identified (from the bottom of the pyramid to the top) are physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary hypothesize that the need to belong is a fundamental human motivation. They say that all humans require a regular minimum quantity of quality social interactions. If this universal drive for belongingness is unfulfilled, humans will experience loneliness, mental distress, and other emotional and cognitive maladjustments.


Mary Gilmartin highlights two potential definitions for belonging. The first characterizes belonging “as attachment to a particular social group.” The second defines “belonging as attachment to a particular place.” In both circumstances, the size and scale can vary, encompassing individuals, communities, or even entire nations.

Belonging can be operationalized by experience captured with terms such as “sense of belonging,” “belongingness,” or “place attachment.” It can also be measured more quantitatively through two approaches. One way seeks to understand how belonging is created or maintained while the other approaches focuses on exclusion or “non belonging” to understand the processes and experiences of being on the outside.


Poet and philosopher David Whyte turned inward when characterizing belonging, musing about how we can foster belonging to ourselves by leaning into the hurt felt when feeling exiled from ourselves.

But it’s interesting to think that … our sense of slight woundedness around not belonging is actually one of our core competencies; that though the crow is just itself and the stone is just itself and the mountain is just itself, and the cloud, and the sky is just itself — we are the one part of creation that knows what it’s like to live in exile…

It’s interesting to think that no matter how far you are from yourself, no matter how exiled you feel from your contribution to the rest of the world or to society — that, as a human being, all you have to do is enumerate exactly the way you don’t feel at home in the world — to say exactly how you don’t belong — and the moment you’ve uttered the exact dimensionality of your exile, you’re already taking the path back to the way, back to the place you should be.

You’re already on your way home.

A few questions that I’m eager to explore based on what I have learned so far:

  1. What are new and/or missing definitions and frameworks that define belonging when looking to the future?

  2. How does art and culture both shape belonging and belonging shape artistic and cultural expressions?

  3. How is technology shaping how we construct belonging? Who is wielding the power to shape these constructions?

  4. What are the negative aspects of belonging, if any? What occurs in a world with overabundance of belonging?

  5. Conversely, what occurs in a world where belonging is absent? What coping methods are created and adopted?

  6. Given the multidimensionality of belonging, is any single level or combinations thereof more powerful or influential in shaping belonging? For example, does the emotional experience of belonging outweigh power structures.

  7. How can belonging be actively designed or manipulated?

  8. As our physical surroundings become less reliable and stable with climate change, how will materiality and spatiality shift moving into the future?

  9. How can belonging to ourselves mediate shifts in belonging to places and other groups?

What are some of the questions that you have?