Contested Belonging: Spaces, Practices, Biographies

Cover of Contested Belonging: Spaces, Practices, Biographies

Table of contents

(19 chapters)

Part I: Spaces


Purpose – Based on auto/biographical and ethnographic narratives and conceptual theories, this chapter explores the Global African Diaspora as a racialized space of belonging for African diasporas in the United States, the United Kingdom and – more recently – the clandestine migration zones from Africa to southern Europe

Methodology/Approach – Both auto/biographical as well as conceptual theoretical approaches are used to illustrate the author’s roots, routes and detours interpretive paradigm highlighting the interconnectedness across time and space of differential African diasporas. This methodology also illuminates shifting conceptions of blackness as forms of transnational kinship and solidarity.

Findings – This analysis reveals the messiness of complex racialized conceptualizations of belonging in the specific diasporic spaces of England, the United States and the clandestine migration zones of southern Europe. At the same time, the chapter highlights transnational modalities of black and Global African Diasporic kinship, consciousness and solidarity engendered by shared lived experiences of institutionalized racism, structural inequalities and violence.

Originality/Value – Using the author’s interpretive framework entitled roots/routes/detours, this chapter moves away from prior theoretical simplifications of the Global African Diaspora towards an engagement with its conceptual complexities. In particular, this chapter critically explores social, political and historical formations of African diasporas in the United States, the United Kingdom and the more recent clandestine migration zones between continental Africa and southern Europe as their formulations collide with shifting conceptions of blackness as forms of transnational kinship and solidarity.


Purpose – This chapter examines place-based social practices and experiences, conceptualized as ‘belonging’, among older Americans who live in senior mobile home communities in Florida.

Design/Methodology/Approach – Pursuing a grounded theory approach, the chapter is based on 18 ethnographic interviews with senior mobile home households, conducted between 2005 and 2007.

Findings – Following lifestyle migration, senior Floridians developed interrelated, yet distinct, forms of belonging within their varying social and spatial environments, combining elements of selective, elective and resistant belonging.

Originality/Value – The study participants’ focus on shared and socially valued group characteristics in their construction of place-based identity problematizes the possibility of a successful integration of outsiders, raising new questions for the concept and future study of belonging.


Purpose – This chapter explores how a group of African academics at a university in South Africa experience belonging at varying levels of geographical scale. It considers how race, class and professional status intersect to influence the scholars’ experiences.

Design/Methodology/Approach – Narrative interviews were conducted with 24 individuals from nine African countries. All were current doctoral or postdoctoral fellows at the University of the Free State. The focus is decidedly qualitative in approach, with an emphasis on understanding the subjectivity of the people under study.

Findings – The interviews reveal that, while participants have struggled to forge a sense of belonging to South African society due to high levels of xenophobia and structural racism, they have found other spaces to validate their professional identities and, hence, forge a sense of belonging. These spaces include certain university departments and meeting places at the university. Importantly, these spaces have a very specific, local location, but are international in their linkages and their orientation. The professional identity of the scholars helps them overcome challenges to traditional modes of belonging based on race and class in the South African context.

Originality/Value – The findings contribute to broader discussions on the scale of migrant belongings and on the increasingly complex ways migrants relate to space and place. It also offers a new perspective on the belonging(s) of international scholars, which is largely understudied in the South African context.


Purpose – Based on a case study of citizens’ summits in Amsterdam, this chapter examines competing aims bound up in attempts to create an in-between space where participants struggle to obtain a sense of belonging against the background of (non)diversity.

Methodology/Approach – A qualitative case study approach is used based on participant observation, informal talks with participants, and interviews with the summit organizers.

Findings – A citizens’ summit can be seen as an in-between space where narratives of citizens should dominate instead of (local) governmental rhetoric. Citizens´ summits create a voice for citizens who are normally less heard in the public debate. To what extent this can be achieved depends on how a summit enables a diversity of participants to practice dialogue, create common ground and share ownership of ideas, problems and solutions. Our findings provide insight into contested belonging within the democratic system in the Netherlands and elsewhere.

Social Implications – We suggest that belonging, space and diversity affect social boundaries between those in the electoral democratic system and those participating in citizens’ summits. Focussing on these can lead towards more inclusive democratic systems for all.

Originality/Value of the Paper – Citizens’ summits are often seen as a democratic tool that supplements the electoral democracy. This study looks at the interactions between participants, revealing much about the functioning of deliberative space in citizens’ summits. We also focus on the issue of participant diversity and how senses of belonging include or exclude sections of society.


Purpose – This chapter examines place attachment and spatial mobility intentions among highly skilled professionals who are descendants of low-skilled migrants from Turkey. Having achieved considerable intergenerational mobility, these professionals work in prestigious international firms.

Research Design – The analysis in this chapter is based on 27 indepth interviews with descendants of migrants from Turkey, who now occupy leading positions within the corporate business sector in France, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands.

Findings – The study reveals that respondents feel attached to the city they live and work in, but feel less attached to the country at large. Along with this ambiguity towards their home country, they are open to spatial mobility and would move to another country based on their career aspirations. They display a feeling of ‘inbetweenness’, but they are able to turn this condition to their advantage by framing it as an inherent adaptability to the marketdriven requirement to be mobile.

Originality and Implications – The study provides an original contribution to the field by focussing on an understudied group: highly educated descendants of migrants from Turkey. The findings have practical and social implications, showing that, despite their steep upward mobility and success in the labour market, descendants of migrants continue to be the subject of integration and exclusion discourses that influence their sense of belonging to the countries where they were born and raised.

Part II: Practices


Purpose – In this chapter I engage with central debates in sociology regarding ways of thinking about identity, belonging and diversity. The purpose is to provide a critical engagement with the problems involved, at both a conceptual and political level and to suggest ways forward.

Approach – I critically examine and compare the notions of belonging and identity, both as conceptual tools and how they are embedded in political discourses, particularly on issues of diversity. I also examine diversity and superdiversity and propose a translocational lens as a useful means for rethinking the issues involved, both conceptually and politically.

Findings – Belonging and identity can be seen as part of the same ‘family’ of concepts, and while both are used politically in similar ways, belonging enables a greater engagement with place and location and the structural and contextual facets of social life. Notions of diversity and superdiversity are highly normative, and an intersectional and translocational analysis is proposed.

Social Implications – It is suggested that dominant notions of belonging, identity and diversity essentialize and perpetuate social boundaries of otherness and that those policies that use such notions, particularly integration policies, fail to address issues of participation, access and parity, which are necessary for the development of an inclusionary society.

Originality – The chapter engages critically with important issues of theory and practice and contributes to the development of theoretical tools for understanding central issues of social and political debate. It develops a ‘translocational’ lens for understanding social divisions in society.


Purpose – Studies have described how migrants progressively transform extraneous spaces into familiar, meaningful environments, turning them into ‘homes’. However, in some contexts the opposite process occurs: what once felt like home becomes alien, unrecognizable and extraneous. Building on ethnographic vignettes on the everyday life of immobile young Eritreans, this chapter explores the paradox of ‘not feeling at home’ while being physically there.

Methodology – The chapter builds on three months’ ethnographic fieldwork in Eritrea and extended participant observation among Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, Sudan and Italy from 2012 to 2014.

Findings – I show how the youth, in a pervasive context of migration culture, articulate a sense of belonging towards what they imagine as the ‘outside world’, while being unable to make sense of their lives in their own homeland. Using the notions of ‘estrangement’ and home-unmaking, it is possible to account for the feelings of those living in conditions of protracted crisis and explore the subjective worlds of prospective refugees.

Originality/Value – The chapter’s originality lies in the uniqueness of the ethnographic material and in the innovative approach to the debate on home-making and refugee studies. Instead of considering refugees’ home-making processes in other countries, this chapter analyses the experience of losing home without moving. By using the concept of estrangement, it investigates the manifold meanings of immobility while adding to the theoretical discussion on home-making/unmaking processes. Moreover, it contributes to the empirical investigation of determinants of asylum flows by investigating the case of Eritrea, a major refugee-producing country.


Purpose – In this chapter, we explore how normalization of exclusionary practices and of privilege for seemingly same professionals and disadvantage for seemingly different professionals in academic healthcare organizations can be challenged via meaningful culturalization in the interference zone between system and life world, subsequently developing space for belonging and difference.

Methodology – This nested case study focusses on professionals’ narratives from one specific setting (team) within the broader research and research field of the Dutch academic hospital (Abma & Stake, 2014). We followed a responsive design, conducting interviews with cultural minority and majority professionals and recording participant observations.

Findings – In the Netherlands, the instrumental, system-inspired business model of diversity is reflected in two discourses in academic hospitals: first, an ideology of equality as sameness, and second, professionalism as neutral, rational, impersonal and decontextual. Due to these discourses, cultural minority professionals can be identified as ‘different’ and evaluated as less professional than cultural majority, or seemingly ‘same’, professionals. Furthermore, life world values of trust and connectedness, and professionals’ emotions and social contexts are devalued, and professionals’ desire to belong comes under pressure.

Value – Diversity management from a system-based logic can never be successful. Instead, system norms of productivity and efficiency need to be reconnected to life world values of connectivity, personal recognition, embodied knowledge and taking time to reflect. Working towards alternative safe spaces that generate transformative meaningful culturalization and may enable structural inclusion of minority professionals further entails critical reflexivity on power dynamics and sameness–difference hierarchy in the academic hospital.


Purpose – This chapter discusses the belonging of second-generation Finnish Somalis based on a participatory performative research project conducted in Helsinki with young second-generation immigrants.

Methodology/approach – The project involved organizing workshops with teams of art and media professionals and, together with the co-researching participants, staging productions, such as photo and video exhibitions and producing books and documentaries; these artworks, in turn, formed an important part of the research reporting. In these productions, the search for multiple homes and belonging formed a narrative that was expressed in both the audio-visual materials and the written stories.

Findings – The performative approaches and audio-visual methods employed in the study assisted the participants in dealing with questions of belonging and othering by emphasizing the strength and multifacetedness offered by outsider positions. In the ‘potential spaces’ created in the project setting, memories and experiences could be expressed in symbolic form, discussed and rearticulated. This, in turn, made possible the negotiation of a form of cultural citizenship that combined different homes, nations and senses of belonging.

Social implications – By claiming a cultural citizenship in their productions, the young participants were able to create multiple narrations for themselves and Finnishness, which also supported their resilience. By creating works of art with the young people, we other participants were able to observe our own participation and research from a critical perspective.

Originality/value of the chapter – The chapter demonstrates how varied perspectives and different epistemological understandings can be recognized and shared with an audience in a performative research setting.

Part III: Biographies


Purpose – This chapter examines the problem of belonging for Muslims in the United States in a political environment where Muslims are increasingly represented as a threatening ‘other’ by conservative politicians and right-wing media. The goal is to demonstrate how an emotionally charged event, the murder of three middle class Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 2015, was taken up by the media in ways that reflected sharply contested political agendas and constituted divergent stories and biographies of belonging and stigmatization for the victims, their families and the broader Muslim community.

Approach – The research draws on a wide range of media representations of the murder, including local, national and international news sources and social networking sites. The analysis is based on close readings of this range of stories.

Social Implications – The analysis demonstrates that this murder drew widespread attention in the Muslim community because these particular victims readily became representative of a Muslim ‘model minority’. Despite the ambivalence associated with belonging on such terms, the families and Muslim community used the stories of these murder victims to speak out against negative stereotypes and to remind the American public of the dangers of inflammatory rhetoric.

Originality – The chapter takes an original approach to the problem of belonging by tracing in detail how a single event can generate divergent stories that mark their narrators as belonging in ways that are contested by others, vividly demonstrating the process of différance articulated by Derrida.


Purpose – The purpose of this chapter is to show how Moroccan-Dutch young people discuss national belonging in a context fraught with experiences of exclusion.

Design and Methodology – Data were collected in three rounds of focus groups with the same Moroccan-Dutch participants, addressing a different aspect of their identity in each round. To analyse the data, a narrative approach was used that considers both the import of stories as well as the contextual opportunities and constraints for sharing stories.

Findings – The analyses show how participants used ‘subjunctive stories’, which highlight the possibility of alternative meanings, to address the controversial issue of national belonging without contradicting the dominant storyline of exclusion. While the Dutch national identity could not be explicitly adopted – at least not in the company of their peers – Moroccan-Dutch young people imagined what national belonging might look like in their stories.

Research Implications – An approach to narrative that considers its subjunctive properties may sensitize researchers to the ways in which people express hopes and desires in spite of macro- and microcontextual constraints.

Value/Originality – This study takes issue with the tendency in academic research on belonging to focus on exclusion; it shows how the actual narratives reveal a longing to belong, even in the face of exclusion.


Purpose – This chapter revisits an archive of life-story interviews of immigrant care workers in Italy in order to map the underlying placements, meanings and emotional connotations of the word ‘home’ (casa). The discursive ways of using this word are connected to the respondents’ shifting life milieus and orientations towards receiving and sending societies.

Methodology – The chapter builds on the content analysis of a subset of biographical interviews of immigrant women employed in live-in care work in Italy.

Findings – Three categories emerge across respondents’ narratives. Their everyday life experience is based in Home_here-and-now (the present dwelling place) and thus depends on its often limited inclusive potential. However, their everyday life experience is also affected by the home conditions in their country of origin (Home_there-and-now) and by their recollections, understandings and revisits of the past home experience prior to migration (Home_there-and-then). These immigrant women are engaged in an ongoing balancing act between different spatial and temporal dimensions of what they frame as home. Critical to their wellbeing is the ability to keep cultivating meaningful connections with Home_there-and-now and to reproduce some patterns of Home_there-and-then.

Originality/Value – As my study suggests, their present dwelling and living conditions remain the central arena for immigrants negotiating a more inclusive sense of home. Reconstructing home-related views and practices is a good heuristic strategy for researchers to illuminate ‘biographies of belonging’ as a whole. An analytical focus on the ways of using the word ‘home’ reveals broader patterns of integration and transnational participation.


Purpose – With political tensions surrounding migrants in post-9/11 Western societies, scholarship on second-generation immigrants has surged. This study explores the narratives of second-generation Iranian-Dutch women, a previously unstudied group, in relation to their positionality regarding identity and belonging.

Methodology/Approach – By combining focus group discussions with in-depth individual interviews, we explored the narratives of 13 second-generation Iranian-Dutch women. Our focus was on their senses of belonging, cultural identities and lived experiences as they navigated between Dutch society and their parents’ complicated heritage, against the backdrop of the post-9/11 world.

Findings – Although these women are perfectly ‘integrated’, they are still frequently approached and labelled as ‘foreigners’ in society, which negatively impacts their sense of belonging in Dutch society. However, our participants navigated contradicting parental and societal expectations, finding new ways to belong and fashioning cultural identities in multiplicity.

Originality/Value of the Paper – To our knowledge, the specific experiences of second-generation Iranian-Dutch migrants have received no scholarly attention. Our findings further the understanding on relevant second-generation themes such as the immigrant bargain, solidarity between different ethnic minority groups, and new ways of belonging.


Purpose – This chapter shows how professional women from diverse geographic locations claim belonging in the public sphere by using motherhood as an important strategy for negotiating gendered and classed spaces of belonging while constructing moral agency and proper citizenship as women.

Methodology/Approach – During anthropological research in Sudan and Mexico, the biographic narratives of two women, both key informants in larger, long-term ethnographic projects, were obtained by each researcher by engaging in a process of intersubjective knowledge production. These were analysed using the method of context analysis for dialogically constructed ‘narrations of the nation’.

Findings – The trope of moral motherhood works in widely differing national contexts as a means for women to claim a position in a public space and at the same time to negotiate the boundaries between private and public domains. Invoking this trope enables professional women to forge public belonging and to participate in politics, while still safeguarding their femininity and their decency.

Originality – This chapter demonstrates that national discourses about motherhood can be instrumental in creating a sense of civic belonging for professional women in two nation-states with widely diverse (post)colonial histories. Comparing narratives of belonging from such different national contexts can provide insight into belonging as an intrinsic part of identity constructions in paternalistic states. Both narratives show similarities in the way that motherhood constitutes a trope for active female citizenship whereby women actively claim public spaces and contest dominant discourses, which in the process de-essentializes motherhood.

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