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Looking at different social scientific definitions of belonging, the concept ranges between a personal feeling, the sense of belonging to a certain group, place or social location - to the understanding of belonging as a resource, used to draw social demarcations and establish border regimes, the so-called politics of belonging (Antonsich 2010, Yuval-Davis 2006, 2011). The politics of belonging is the “arena of contestation” (Yuval-Davis 2011: 18) of people and groups with similar senses of belonging, why it is necessary to first describe known social scientific definitions of belonging, and continue with examples of the politics of belonging in Latin American societies subsequently.


While ethnicity and citizenship are well known among various disciplines and have long been discussed in social sciences and history (for ethnicity c.f. Anderson 1983, Barth 1969, Elwert 1989, Gabbert 2006, Pedone 2003, and for citizenship; Conrad and Kocka 2001; Isin and Turner 2002; Cachón Rodríguez 2009), belonging is still a rather new theoretical term. Belonging has often been used interchangeably with the term of identity (Antonsich 2010, Pfaff-Czarnecka 2011) and has been used as a synonym of or in association with citizenship, being agreed on as an entitlement describing a contractual relationship between a person and the state (ibid, Yuval-Davis 2011). It was recently conceptualized in studies of migration, in sociology, and anthropology (Anthias 2006, 2009, Bogner and Rosenthal 2009, Christensen 2009; Pfaff-Czarnecka 2011, Savage et al., SIRC 2007, Yuval-Davis 2006, 2011) to better understand political contestations and their ethnic (Yashar 2005, Büschges und Pfaff-Czarnecka 2007, Ströbele-Gregor 2010, for Africa see Lentz 2006) and religious legitimizations (Haynes 2009, Castells 2003 [1997]). With respect to migration studies, where belonging is increasingly contested between and among ‘host’ and ‘guest’ communities, Yuval-Davies (2006, 2011) and Anthias (2006, 2009) made important contributions to the theorization of belonging. According to Yuval-Davies (2006, 199f), belonging is about a) different social locations that emerge along different power axes and social categorizations, b) individuals’ identifications and emotional attachments, and c) shared ethical and political value systems. Using an intersectional approach, belonging is a dynamic process, constructed and negotiated along multiple axes of difference like class, race, gender, stage in life cycle, sexuality, ability (ibid: 200). Intersectionality approaches were introduced as a theoretical and methodological perspective by feminist theorists to include women as a subject of research systematically and to stress gender as an analytical category (McCall 2005, Maj 2013). Yuval-Davis reasons the importance of intersectionality approaches by arguing that social locations of belonging are never constructed along one power axes but refer to different social sections and are, therefore, multidimensional (Yuval-Davis 2011: 6). The attractiveness here is the consideration of multiple narratives of belonging, influenced by different historical trajectories, and social realities that are able to make up senses of belonging far beyond ones which are tied to ancestry, authenticity, and places of origin.

According to Anthias, belonging is situated at the interface between the local and the global, and by that means is able to dissolve the binary semantic of these spatial dimensions. Anthias (2006; 2008) introduced the term “translocational positionalities” to contest the inherent spatialities of concepts of belonging and identity, to break with essentialized categorizations of social difference, and to stress the growing complexity of forms of otherness. The concept also describes peoples’ positionalities within the complex and shifting life-worlds of an individual (26f). By this interpretation of belonging, Anthias bridges the analytical gap between structure and agency, between different scales and localities and sensitizes for processes of social exclusion at the intersection of different categorizations.

Politics of belonging in Latin America

In Latin America, the politics of belonging alongside national boundaries are legitimized and enacted by both hegemonic structures and orders to gain ‘power on’ people as well as by political agents to gain empowerment and ‘power of’ something (Yuval-Davis 2011: 20). Indeed, the nation state is, as much in Latin America as in other parts of the world, the most influential political project of belonging (Isin and Turner 2007, Yuval Davis 2011) not least because it marks the era of independency of most Latin American countries. The path to integration by the 13 Mercosur states is an attempt to overcome these economic and political boundaries in order to compete as a South-South free trade agreement with the global North. The reservations towards establishing a currency union or allowing free movement of people across the member states shows that national boundary making is not about to disappear soon (Munck and Hyland 2013).

But, also other political projects, such as ethnic and religious communities as well as multinational enterprises are attributively organized alongside national boundaries even though operating across them, as demonstrated by the dynamics of Catholicism in transnational migration (Levitt 2004, Youkhana 2014). The concept of ethnicity, for instance, has been connected to the notion of a joint territorial origin or heritage, an argument used by political actors from governments to activists of indigenous rights movements in order to employ the primordial elements of ethnicity. Conflicts about land rights and access to natural resources are linked to people’s livelihoods all over rural-indigenous spaces. Territorial demarcations are, therefore, essential to the claim for free access to land and natural resources. The social boundary-making linked to tenure and property rights is where essentialism is used as a strategic resource by a temporary creation (with long term dynamics) of group identities in contentious politics (Spivak 1996, cf. Ströbele-Gregor 2010). The ethno-plural society, for instance, is a concept that emanates from indigenous rights movements and is used by the new left governments in Bolivia and Ecuador to empower indigenous groups, to save tenure and access to natural resources. In Europe, the debate reflects aspirations of the “New Right” to separate the European populations and exclude people who migrate into Europe as labor migrants or refugees to improve their living conditions.

In the urban arena, the politics of belonging range from administrative endeavors, to belong to a selection of global cities competing with cities in other regions, to the emergence of urban tribes and hybrid youth cultures, that connect young urban dwellers with other parts of the world by joint aesthetics and agendas. Inspired by mass media and actuated by the use of new communication technologies, they form part of an entangled urban landscape worldwide. In Latin America, these tribus urbanas often take ethnic concepts as a reference point to call attention to the impacts of economic, cultural and political globalization, migration to cities, to the rural–urban poverty continuance, and are related to increasing unemployment rate within the youth (Maffesoli 1996). In times of constant exchange through travel, mass media, and communication technologies, a sociological concept of belonging may indicate the compatibility of difference and, thus, stress the permeability and not the fixation of socio-spatial boundaries. Looking at migration dynamics, a new ‘cartography of belonging’ that goes beyond national and ethnic boundaries is needed, as stressed by Fernando Aínsa (2012), a Latin American writer and essayist. The histories written by migrants, and the continuous trans-locational exchange through travel and social media, create new sociocultural realities that cannot be described in over-coded categories but overrides physical and cultural demarcations inherent to discourses of belonging and the connected politics.

Eva Youkhana

Please cite as:
Youkhana, Eva. 2016. “Belonging.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives.


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