Feedback and Belonging: Explaining the Dynamics of Diversity
French writer Albert Camus once called it the most painful question of our time: "Where can I be at home?" The question, of course, has less to do with geography than intangibles like identity, comfort, and interpersonal networks. The idea of being "at home" — or belonging — is a powerful lens through which to examine immigrant integration in modern times.
This article sets out an emerging approach to social belonging that seeks to explain what makes people belong in a community and how they might belong more. It draws on several decades of research on family and kinship in East London, as well as recent ethnographic work in several areas of England.
The central premise: people are keenly attuned to reading feedback from social environments on whether they belong. These feedback systems — which range from informal networks to politics —explain much about why some very diverse communities feel strong senses of belonging and other fairly homogeneous ones do not, including groups with a long history in the same place.
This framework of examining feedback systems can serve as a practical tool to help shape community engagement and involvement in Europe and beyond.
It offers an alternative perspective to the theory of "thick multiculturalism," which portrays modern societies as made up of distinct communities, each with its own strong identity and belonging.
It is also differs from some recent research on social capital (defined as value created through human relationships or networks) that has struggled with the incompatibility of diversity and strong attachment to a larger community.
Background: Snapshots from London
For settled communities in stable times, the question of belonging is straightforward.
But in unstable times with high levels of migration and high turnover in urban neighborhoods, many people are likely to feel they do not belong. Indeed, this may be the explicit or implicit message they receive from the labor market, landlords, and public authorities. This group includes not just new migrants arriving in bustling and alien cities but also longstanding residents who see their localities transformed around them.
In London, for example, 42 percent of the workforce is now foreign born, and the city has 34 communities of foreign nationals with more than 10,000 members each. London's schoolchildren speak over 300 languages.
For England as a whole, over 20 percent of births are now to foreign-born mothers. The speed of these changes has been extraordinary, but not unlike the experiences of European cities such as Hamburg, Marseilles, or Rotterdam.
In the 1950s, Michael Young and Peter Willmott's study of neighborhood and community relations found a world where residents of the East London neighborhood Bethnal Green were not lonely people: wherever they went, they knew the faces in the crowd. The study analyzed the social relations underpinning this web of mutual recognition, support, and interaction.
Longstanding residency across generations, reinforced by overlapping ties of extended family and friendship, had fostered a strong sense of ultralocal identity. Bethnal Green was a socially homogeneous place — white and working class — with the men employed mostly in the docks, as artisans, or as manual laborers.
Formal female employment in Bethnal Green was low. Grandparents living nearby helped to raise grandchildren. Private space offered few amenities and was reserved for the immediate family, but front doors were unlocked and the street was a playground not yet overtaken by cars.
A follow-up study published in 2006 found a very different picture. The Bangladeshi families who now lived in many of the same streets in the London neighborhood of Tower Hamlets had similarly strong kinship networks.
But East London's white working-class population felt alienated from its own neighborhoods, perceiving the allocation of resources (in particular housing) to be unfair.
The white working class saw its culture and traditions disrespected in public celebrations — which were more likely to mark Eid, an Islamic holiday at the end of Ramadan, or Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights — as well as in the mass media, which portrayed them in an unflattering light as "chavs" and "yobs" (British slang for working-class youth who are typically white, wear branded clothing, and are perceived to be poorly educated and aggressive).
A similar pattern has been found in the Young Foundation's forthcoming research on the working-class communities of Barking and Dagenham in East London and Stoke-on-Trent (between Manchester and Birmingham). In these places, a culture and economy based on full-time male breadwinners working in manufacturing has disappeared without a viable successor.
High levels of worklessness have persisted, and most available jobs are relatively insecure ones in services and distribution. These areas show significant support for the far-right, anti-immigrant British National Party, and marked alienation from the mainstream political parties.
Meanwhile, other new groups in areas of East London — including a 30,000-strong Somali community in Tower Hamlets — doubt whether they belong. They suffer very high levels of unemployment (over 90 percent, according to official statistics) and disengagement from mainstream public services and politics.
Reading Our Surroundings
Our framework for making sense of these patterns starts from the simple observation that human beings evolved to be able to read surrounding physical and social environments because this was essential to our prospects for survival.
It is in our nature to be able to analyze whether a group still has a place for us, whether we are likely to be cared for and protected in a particular place, or ostracized and rejected.
These survival sensitivities can be seen at work among small children in school playgrounds, teenagers on the street, or employees in workplaces. But the systems we need to read have changed, and the sheer range of people and institutions we have to interpret and negotiate with are of an order greater than ever before.
We argue that people belong when the most important systems around them send signals that confirm and recognize their value. These systems provide the essentials of life: nourishment, care, protection, prosperity.
The Framework: 10 Feedback Circuits
We have provisionally identified 10 key feedback circuits, or areas from which people receive messages about belonging.
1. Informal but strong ties of family and friendship. People feel they belong when they have ready access to others who know them well and care for them, including family and close friends.
The importance of these ties explains why first-generation migrants cluster in the same localities, and why, even today, a third of British citizens live within five miles of their birthplace. Such ties explain why many communities can thrive with little support from the state.
2. Ties of association. Churches, clubs, and voluntary organizations bind people who find connection and common purpose. There is a growing body of evidence (notably in the work of social psychologist Miles Hewstone) on the importance of contact in shaping community dynamics: where people see their peers engaging with people from other communities (as friends, coworkers, or spouses), they are more likely to feel a sense of common cause and less likely to feel enmity.
To a lesser extent we belong as we become used to the same people in local streets and parks — the people who psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1972 called the "familiar strangers."
3. Economy. Positive messages from the economy include the availability of entry-level jobs as well as opportunities for advancement. Negative messages include overt discrimination or the sense that the local economy has no interest in a significant part of the population. This may be particularly important for university graduates who do not see job opportunities that match their skills and education.
4. Power and politics. A political system in which people who look like you and share your values fill key roles will encourage feelings of belonging. So too will leaders who give shape to a community, articulating common aspirations.
Europe's cities vary greatly in this respect. In some, such as Paris, large minorities are effectively disenfranchised while in others, such as Bradford, the governing elites are more broadly representative. Leaders can also transcend or accentuate community divisions.
5. Culture. Whether in the form of billboard advertisements, media representations, or festivals, all can reinforce either a sense of belonging or alienation. Extensive historical evidence shows the impact of shared symbols and mythologies and of activities (like choirs or dancing) where people "keep together in time," in historian William McNeil's words.
Formal rituals like citizenship ceremonies can play a part in reinforcing belonging, as can histories that newcomers can opt into (such as those emphasizing past migration). Many local areas are now trying to construct more inclusive local histories and myths (the London borough of Lambeth, for example, has deliberately cultivated more inclusive myths). One of the most damaging features of some contemporary UK communities is that their only myths are located in the past, in a lost age of homogenous community.
6. Safety. It is hard to belong if you and your family feel physically at risk on the streets. Levels of violent crime and antisocial behavior strongly influence feelings of belonging.
In a recent UK government survey, 83 percent of people who felt they belonged to the neighborhood thought people would intervene if children were spray-painting graffiti, compared to 67 percent of people who did not feel they belonged to the neighborhood.
7. Physical environment. Attractive buildings, trees, green spaces, and public squares can make people feel at home — and a lack of them can amplify feelings of dispossession.
Much is now known about which designs do most to encourage neighborliness (through appropriate scale, lines of sight, and building density). Recognizable boundaries that give shape to a community can also reinforce belonging, so long as those living there receive other positive messages.
8. Everyday public services that are of the people as well as for the people. In rural societies, police officers, health professionals, and teachers live in the same communities they serve. The patterns in cities are less clear-cut, and the mismatch between public services and communities creates tensions, such as the continuing battles over Muslim schools, or health care that is attuned to Koranic teachings.
A related issue — acute now for long-standing working-class communities — is the perceived injustice of decisions and distributions. In the United Kingdom, public hostility to asylum seekers often comes from the perception that asylum seekers have privileged access to resources.
9. Homes. If people like you, your family, and your friends can afford housing in the community (to rent or to buy), and the owners or landlords are willing to rent or sell to you and those like you, then you are receiving a positive message.
Public-housing policy also matters. The Young Foundation's work showed the very damaging effects of UK public-housing policies that separated families in an effort to allocate strictly according to need. Although classic social-policy terms justify this type of rationing, such policies essentially told local people they had no claim on their locality.
10. Law and its enforcement. The legitimacy of law — that it reflects the community's values and protects its interests — is critical to belonging. In many places, new negotiations are needed over nonnegotiable rules (for example, on the place of forced marriage).
The law can also foster belonging when it enables legitimate "asymmetric deals," or special rights for certain communities, such as UK laws exempting Sikhs from wearing helmets while riding motorcycles. Other examples include special provisions for halal foods or special housing provisions for Hasidic families.
Equally important is how laws are enforced. Policing strategies that appear discriminatory have fueled community conflict in many cities.
Undoubtedly, many other feedback circuits are at work. This list is only a provisional one. But it should already be apparent that it is possible to roughly map out the messages different groups receive about whether they do or do not fit in, and, in light of this, to shape strategies that address the biggest barriers to belonging.
The Young Foundation's research suggests that in many traditional UK working-class communities (such as the Barking and Dagenham in London), every one of these 10 feedback circuits, with the partial exception of the first, is sending negative belonging messages to significant groups of citizens. They are not recognized by the economy, political power, or visible culture, and they feel unsafe.
By contrast, in many highly diverse but more affluent communities, such as Margaret Thatcher's former constituency of Finchley in London, the feedback systems send positive messages about everything from the economic value of newcomers to appreciation of their cultures.
Questions the Feedback-Circuit Framework Raises
This preliminary sketch throws up many questions. First, what is the right level of belonging? In relation to each of these feedback systems, the maximum is not necessarily the optimum. Hostility to others can accompany an overly strong sense of belonging.
Similarly, too much attachment to family and friends may mitigate against taking up opportunities while too much deference to political leaders may permit corruption. What communities generally need is enough belonging but not too much. Indeed, many individuals find some security in the relative anonymity of big cities.
The most dangerous groups may be the ones that switch from very weak feelings of belonging to very strong ones.
As anthropologist Mary Douglas suggests in her "grid and group" theory, people who experience little belonging (the isolates) are the most likely targets of extremist political entrepreneurs who then try to bring them into what Douglas calls "enclaves," with high degrees of belonging and a very "black and white" vision of the world.
Enclaves such as terrorist groups, gangs, or extreme right groups often form in less wealthy areas, providing people with new frames of reference, sources of support, and enemies.
A second question concerns which feedback systems matter most. Is there a hierarchy of importance? This may in part depend on the values of the wider society. In capitalistic societies, the economy may be paramount as the symbol of belonging; in others, recognition of religions or access to power channels like the military may be more important.
A third question concerns the importance of geography. It is feasible to feel a strong sense of belonging without living in a particular place. Increasingly, immigrant diasporas are held together by media, the Internet, greater levels of transnational ownership (e.g., a home in the country of origin), cheap air travel, and remittances.
Interestingly, migrants who feel they belong to a diaspora do not automatically feel out of place in the country where they live. As sociologists such as Peggy Levitt have shown, one can feel "at home" in two or more places.
Equally, many educated "elites" have a very strong sense of belonging to the world held together by their employers, networks of university alumni, and the ubiquitous Blackberry (though again this does not always mean they are detached from where they live).
For others, particularly young families and the elderly, geography is paramount, and neighborliness is particularly important to well-being. The tension between groups who see a locality more like a hotel than a home is already acute in some inner urban areas, such as Westminster in London or Manhattan.
The last question considered here is the ability of individuals to make independent choices. Social scientist Charles Tilly's work explained why, in some contexts, feelings of alienation fester and explode while in others they are contained.
Although underlying social and economic conditions may create the breeding ground for conflict, the actions of community leaders, police, and politicians — and whether political entrepreneurs inflame tensions or heal them — are often decisive.
In other words, it is misleading to assume that conflict automatically results from particular patterns of ethnicity or religion.
The underlying assumptions of this article are not at all new. Philosopher Georg Hegel wrote that "one becomes an individual subject only by virtue of recognizing, and being recognized by, another subject."
Much of the feedback-circuit framework is essentially about recognition or its absence.
Another more recent philosopher, Charles Taylor, wrote that "our identity is partly shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the misrecognition of others — and so a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves."
This article attempts to analyze in more detail what these mirrors are and to avoid the assumption of recent political theories of recognition that claim defined group identities as all-important.
In the United Kingdom, the most prominent arguments about belonging in recent years have focused on the concept of "Britishness" and whether public policy can or should deliberately cultivate it.
The argument here suggests that such attempts are misdirected at abstract identities when they should be aimed at daily life. It also challenges the classic multiculturalist view that presents cultures as coherent and bounded.
As philosopher Kenneth Appiah wrote, cultural purity is an oxymoron. Belonging is made up of many strands that are constantly being woven but also unraveled. The ability of communities to understand and shape these processes may be key to achieving greater well-being in growing, diverse, and fluid cities in years ahead.
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McNeil, William McNeil. 1997. Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.
Milgram, Stanley. 2009. The Individual in a Social World: Essays and Experiments. Pinter.
Tilly, Charles. 2006. Identities, Boundaries, and Social Ties. Paradigm.
Young, Michael and Peter Wilmott. 1957. Family and Kinship in East London. London: Routledge.