Knowing Your Place

A Sense of Belonging

For such a deeply personal concern, it’s odd how everybody yearns for a sense of belonging, a sense frustratingly just outside our grasp. The desire to belong is a defining characteristic of the nomadic individual (another nail in the philosophy of consciousness right there). Having the sense that you are not on your own, that you are accepted as someone of worth, and that your concerns and deepest beliefs are shared by others, is central to the human condition. Feeling like you belong means the world to people, right up there in importance with family and friends. The relative importance of these categories is debatable, but people want to feel they have a ‘home’ – a set of shared values, a community of like-minded individuals, somewhere their sense of self finds a positive reflection.

If it’s so important to people, then, what and where is it? This is a significant question, not just because of its emotional weight, but also because it is seen as a public policy issue – a number of governments see building a sense of belonging as a tool for community regeneration/social cohesion/political integration. But can policy be built on a sense? Probably not, but the bigger problem is that the ‘sense’ of belonging is impossible to isolate. One of the reasons is that the sense is not a personal one, but located in the relational world that Dirty Looks is keen to represent. Trying to capture this sense as a personal characteristic will always end in failure, its makeup irreducible to the world of the private.

Its status as a ‘sense’, however, is something to consider in more depth. In the same way the human body comes with a set of senses, it could be argued that the relational world has its own set of emotional senses – ‘belonging’ key among them. Other aspects of the relational should maybe be thought of in a sensual way also – respect, reputation, honour, envy, resentment, shame. One could be wrong, but belonging may just be the motherlode in relational terms, the relational concept par excellence. To belong means that one has been accepted (belonging is impossible without acceptance), one has gained some status as a person of worth, and also that one is in a position to be envied.

Whether we like it or not, to belong means a great deal to everyone. Anxieties over
acceptance, recognition and acknowledgement are as crucial to being human as senses like sight and taste. So why do we continually use shorthand phrases like ‘belonging’ without even trying to grapple with them intellectually? Just letting the mystery be is not a good enough answer, particularly when government policy ends up based on them. The lack of proper discussion of concepts like belonging illustrates how much the social sciences need to get their act together, both on the ‘social’ and the ‘science’.

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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

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