This chapter discusses the historical development of theories of belonging.
1930 – 1943
Viennese psychiatrist Alfred Adler proposed one of the first psychological theories about belonging and, in his development of the concept of individual psychology (Orgler, 1976), broke new ground by suggesting that, for an experience of belonging, a person’s whole environment must be taken into account (Adler, 1930, 1931). Adler suggested that childhood antecedents were critical to experiencing belonging in adulthood. In his book titled What Life Should Mean to You, Adler proposed a social interest theory which suggested that parents have a critical responsibility to train a child in the development of ‘social feelings’ in order to prepare them for future adult sociability and belonging (p.115). Thus, adult sociability was achieved through the use of social interest skills learned in childhood. According to Adler; three ‘ties’ to belonging, place, society, and a commitment in a man-woman marriage relationship underpinned adult sociability.
This third tie, regarding marriage, reflected the social influence of the time and projected Adler’s own religious beliefs. Adler also proposed that people without well-developed social interest skills lacked social feelings, and, as a consequence, were predisposed to mental health afflictions and maladaptive behaviours.
Thirteen years after Adler, American humanist and psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that the need to belong was a mid-tier fundamental need equal to love in a structured hierarchy of human motivation (Maslow, 1943). In his book The Theory of Human Motivation, Maslow argued that once human physiological needs such as food, shelter and sex were fulfilled, psychological needs of belonging and love took primacy in a person’s motivation. Once belonging and love were satisfied, Maslow suggested that the human need for self-actualization became primary, followed then by self-transcendence. After Maslow, there appeared to be little development in the advancement of belonging theories for a number of years.
1966 – 1970
A further contribution to belonging theory came 23 years after Maslow from Santokh Anant, an Asian Indian migrant resident in Canada who was an academic, researcher, and clinical psychologist. Historically, Anant was not as well-known as Adler or Maslow; however, his contribution formed ideas that future researchers would cultivate (Hagerty & Patusky, 1995). Anant (1966) suggested that a sense of belonging or as he called it, ‘belongingness’ was “the missing link” in people’s wellbeing (p.21) as it described the type and quality of interpersonal relationships most effective for healthy social, emotional, and mental growth. Firstly, Anant proposed that a person’s belongingness was embodied by their presence in and involvement with social groups in their social system and that personal involvement was the anchoring psychological platform through which positive feelings of a sense of belonging were experienced. Secondly, he proposed that belongingness was experienced when an individual felt acknowledged, indispensable, valued, and integral within those social groups (Anant, 1966). Anant argued that a person’s social group membership was the nexus of interaction between them and their social milieu, and that a sense of belonging or belongingness was a consequence of positive interaction with others.
Anant also proposed that belongingness and social identification were two different concepts but suggested that identification and belongingness had an “empathic relationship” (Anant, 1966, p. 23). He suggested that social identification was developed through external modelling; firstly, parental and family behaviour and then the influence of others outside the family. Anant’s proposal regarding the relationship between social identity and belonging, and what he meant by an individual’s feelings of belongingness, was outlined in his original diagram and explanation (see Figure 1). The circle depicted a social group in a social system.
A central tenet to Anant’s proposition was the suggestion that both selfacceptance of their own membership of a social group, and the associated feeling of being accepted by other members were critical, such that a “person felt an integral part of that system” (Anant, 1966, p. 22). One of his concluding hypotheses was “the more a person feels that his needs are being satisfied in a particular group or system, the more he will feel he belongs to it” (p. 26). Consequently, Anant argued that acceptance was an important characteristic of belongingness and that a person needed to self-accept a social group identity and also be accepted by others in that social identity in order that a sense of belonging was experienced.
As an Asian Indian migrant resident in Canada, Anant’s writing appeared to suggest he was curious about identity in relation to belongingness experienced by Asian Indian migrants living in Canada compared with Indians living in India. As a result, he conducted one of the first cross-cultural and transnational investigations of belonging (Anant, 1969). Canada was a westernised multicultural society, whereas, India’s society was defined by a social hierarchy and social order established through a Vedic-based caste system (Smith, 1994). Therefore, in India, a person’s birth determined their caste and their subsequent social location in a fixed hierarchy of six castes. Each caste identity had prescribed vocational roles and behaviours deemed by society as irrevocable. Consequently, it could be argued that the immutability of the caste identity produced a degree of self-acceptance and acceptance from others in relation to an individual’s identity.
Using these two very different social environments as contexts for the same cultural group, Anant found that levels of belongingness for Asian Indians differed in each society (Anant, 1969). Asian Indians who were resident in Canada were found to experience higher levels of acceptance on an individual basis within Canada’s multicultural social system than Indian participants in the caste based social system in India. “Asian Indians living in Canada were found to have higher perceived levels of belongingness than Indians living in India, but lower levels than majority Canadians” (Hodgins et al., 2015, p. 6). Anant reasoned that Asian Indians resident in Canada were neither economically nor socially restrained from choosing any type of personal involvement in the Canadian social system through vocation, friendships, clubs, and communities. In contrast, Indians living in India were restrained by the social and economic limits of the caste system such that they were confined economically, socially, and psychologically to family, vocational and community groups associated with their caste.
Belongingness of the Indian participants resident in India were also found to vary between Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Sudras castes (Anant, 1969). Anant argued that a close relationship existed between belonging and roleprescribed behaviours. He suggested that gaining clarity of an identity roleprescription and behaviour had a significantly positive effect on an individual’s belongingness. When a person understood what appropriate role-behaviours were expected in their family situation and, more importantly, within their social system, they felt efficacious, confident, and secure. This perceived congruence between behaviour and role identity was argued to create a stronger sense of belongingness for the individual within the social system. For example, Anant suggested that, during the time of British rule in India, the Kshatriyas were well accepted by the British due to similarities between the two cultural groups in their roles and behaviours. Kshatriyas had historically been warriors, property owners, and leaders and thus self-accepted their caste identity because it aligned well with British social customs. As a result of this behavioural congruence and mutual acceptance, Kshatriyas were suggested to experience higher levels of belonging than other castes during this time.
Anant also proposed a theory of developmental belongingness (Anant, 1970) that supported Adler’s earlier social interest theory. Anant suggested that parents held a critical role in developing a child’s social readiness for adult belongingness. Anant’s views were also in accord with Adler and Maslow in that he proposed that a sense of belonging was a key predictor of the mental health of an individual and that it underpinned the health of a society at large.
1992 – 2005
After the studies carried out in the 1960s and 1970s there appeared to be a significant gap of more than 20 years in the literature contributing to belonging theory. Then, in the 1990’s, public awareness of mental health issues began to grow, and within the discipline of nursing, and particularly psychiatric nursing, further research into belonging emerged. Hagerty et al. (1992a) drew from Anant’s 1966 hypothesis and expanded the definition of belonging beyond a social system to include any social context within an individual’s environment. Hagerty et al. defined belonging as “the experience of personal involvement in a system or environment so that persons feel themselves to be an integral part of that system or environment” (p. 172).
Three characteristics were proposed as antecedents to a positive experience of adult belonging, “a person’s energy for involvement, their potential and desire for meaningful involvement, and their potential for shared or complementary characteristics for belonging” (Hagerty et al., 1992a, p. 174). This study formed the conceptual foundation on which Hagerty and others would base further empirical research as a sense of belonging became recognised as an “important health phenomenon” in the mental health arena (p.176).
The development of two psychometric instruments soon followed; the Sense of Belonging Instrument-Psychological (SOBI-P) scale where two factors of belongingness emerged, valued involvement and fit; and, the Sense of Belonging Instrument-Antecedent (SOBI-A) scale developed as measure of childhood antecedents to adult belonging (Hagerty & Patusky, 1995). Positivity of adult belonging was argued by Hagerty and Patusky (1995) as being more strongly related to the antecedent of family of origin relationships in childhood, than those of childhood peer relationships.
The resurgence of interest in belonging research through the discipline of psychology appeared in the early and mid-1990’s. Social psychologists Baumeister and Leary (1995) published a seminal paper empirically that demonstrated the need to belong as a central human motivation, as had been suggested by Maslow in 1943.
Baumeister and Leary (1995) found that the need to belong met nine criteria they suggested as underpinning a fundamental human motivation. They proposed that the need to belong
• produced effects readily under all but adverse conditions;
• guided cognition;
• guided emotions;
• lead to pathological outcomes when lost or thwarted;
• elicited goal-directed behaviour seeking to satisfy it;
• was universal and beyond cultural boundaries;
• was non-derivative of other motives;
• influenced a diverse range of human behaviours; and
• had implications beyond instantaneous psychological functioning (p. 498)
The definition of the need to belong was proposed as “a strong desire to form, and maintain enduring interpersonal attachments” (Baumeister & Leary, 1995, p. 522). Interestingly, the interpersonal attachments referred to were later demonstrated to be gender specific in their form and processing. Baumeister and Sommer (1997) found that women were oriented towards close forms of dyadic relationships to fulfil a need for sociality and belonging whereas men pursued their attachments through a greater number of acquaintance level groups and relationships.
Baumeister and Leary’s research inspired further examinations of belonging, and the development of psychometric instruments with which to measure aspects of belonging. Lee and Robbins (1995) developed the Social Assurance Scale (SAS) that aimed to measure the need to belong based on a person’s need for reassurance from at least one other person, along with the Social Connectedness Scale (SCS), whereby the perceived emotional distance between oneself and others was a measure of a sense of belonging.
In the mid-nineties, Hagerty, Williams, Coyne, and Early (1996) proposed the first ‘sense of belonging model’. The model showed that a linear connection existed between precursors or antecedents to belonging, a sense of belonging, and consequences of belonging or not belonging (see Figure 2). Using this model as a framework, an individual’s social and psychological functioning were found to be positively and strongly related to a sense of belonging (Hagerty et al., 1992a; Hagerty & Patusky, 1995). Lower levels of a sense of belonging were found to relate to higher levels of loneliness, anxiety, prior psychiatric treatment, and suicidal ideation.
2006 –present day
From 2006, there was a resurgence in belonging research due to increasing global migration, particularly of refugees from Africa and the Middle East into the UK and Western European countries. Increased migration brought a political focus to the interdisciplinary need to improve levels of analysis, explanation, and communication of belonging. This led to a ‘sociological’ interest in the concept of belonging, particularly in the politics of belonging. Sociologist Yuval-Davis (2006) argued that, overall, the social sciences lacked consensus on what constituted the construct of belonging and that a comprehensive analytical framework was needed to examine and explain the phenomenon. Yuval-Davis proposed that belonging was not static or a fixed state of being; rather, belonging was dynamic and subject to different temporal and spatial contexts. She suggested that belonging varied according to three aspects; “the first level concerns social locations; an individual’s identifications and emotional attachments to various collectives and groupings, and the third relates to ethical and political value systems which people judge their own and others’ belonging/s” (p.199).
During the mid-2000’s European countries were struggling with high levels of migration and ‘who deserved to belong’ appeared to become a significant political question posed by majority cultural groups in some European countries (Geschiere & Jackson, 2006). Increased migration from Africa was suggested as causing citizens of the majority cultural group to feel threatened and fear potential dilution of their mainstream culture (Bhambra, 2006; Geschiere & Jackson, 2006).
Geschiere and Jackson (2006) described how the notion of autochthony, meaning ‘born from the soil’, was cropping up in Dutch and Flemish discourse as a heavily emotive term suggesting a localist form of belonging incorporating radical exclusions as a means of dealing with migration. In the Netherlands for instance, discussions suggested that autochthons should be granted higher levels of citizenship and entitlements than migrants who should be given a lower and less favourable form of residency and citizenship, and therefore a lower form of belonging.
In 2006 an Australian study further contributed to the theoretical understanding of belonging by explaining the phenomenon at an intrapsychic level (Miller, 2006). In discussing the subject of belonging in Australia, Miller drew on Indigenous history and culture and suggested that there was a need for congruence between three aspects of belonging-identity relations: social connections in a community; historical-ancestral connections; and a connection to a locality or place.
Miller suggested that belonging was an ontological phenomenon that was tantamount to being in a state of belonging qua correct relation (p.9) meaning belonging by virtue of congruent relations between individuals and these three key areas. Miller argued that when in this intrapsychic harmonious state, there was reciprocation by others and the environment, resulting in a sense of balance, a feeling of a natural relationship between oneself, one’s interpersonal relationships and one’s environment. Miller’s philosophical proposal appears to embody aspects of the previously suggested concepts of belonging from Japan (Ibasho), Afghanistan (Watan) and New Guinea (Peles).
Between 2007 and 2009, a series of Australian studies drew upon the theory and empirical research of Anant and Hagerty and examined the characteristics of a sense of belonging of student nurses in teaching hospitals (Levett-Jones & Lathlean, 2009; Levett-Jones et al., 2009a; Levett-Jones, Lathlean, Higgins, & McMillan, 2009b; Levett-Jones, Lathlean, Maguire, & McMillan, 2007; Levett-Jones, Lathlean, McMillan, & Higgins, 2007).
Levett-Jones found the characteristics of a positive sense of belonging included acceptance, valued involvement, fit, self-efficacy, connectedness, and reciprocation. As predicted by Anant (1966), self-acceptance combined with acceptance from others was found to feature strongly in positive interaction between nursing students, the teaching professionals, and other resident nurses (Levett-Jones et al., 2009b). This positive interaction was characterised by feelings of mutual acceptance and produced an evolving positive engagement between the stakeholders. Critically, it was found that the mutuality of acceptance needed to be in balance, and when in balance, reciprocity of self-acceptance and acceptance from others strengthened during the learning process and resulted in an improved sense of belonging of nursing students. New characteristics of belonging were also suggested, including experience of legitimacy (in the participant’s social context), and congruence between personal and professional values. As a result of their findings, a definition of belongingness was proposed as:
a deeply personal and contextually-mediated experience that evolves in response to the degree to which the individual feels: (a) secure, accepted, included, valued and respected by a defined group, (b) connected with or integral to the group, and (c) that their professional and/or personal values are in harmony with those of the group.
The experience of belongingness may evolve passively in response to the actions of the group to which one aspires to belong and/or actively through the actions initiated by the individual (Levett-Jones et al., 2009b, p. 319).
Also at this time in Australia, the importance of developing belonging skills in early childhood was recognised within the Australian education system. An early childhood development program is known as Belonging, Being, and Becoming: Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) was developed and incorporated into the school curriculum. The program had learning goals that included helping develop a child’s connection with their social world and assisting their development of a strong sense of their identity (Australian Government, 2009). A central tenet of this program involved both educators and parents working together.
Meanwhile, Leary and Cox (2008) were continuing to expand their contribution to theoretical knowledge regarding the need to belong and suggested that the belonging motivation was inextricably linked to much of a person’s social behaviour, so much so that the motivation constitutes “a mainspring of social action” (p. 27).
In 2011 a further research study examined the idea of a person’s motivation to gain acceptance and thus avoid rejection. DeWall, Deckman, Pond, and Bonser (2011) argued that belongingness was a core personality trait. A year later, in a further attempt to link personality traits and belongingness, Malone, Pillow, and Osman (2012) developed the General Belongingness Scale (GBS) which suggested that two factors, acceptance/inclusion and rejection/exclusion, measured ‘achieved belongingness’ (2012). In this same study, two of the ‘big five’ personality traits (Costa & McCrae, 1992), neuroticism and extraversion, were found to strongly correlate negatively and positively respectively, with achieved belongingness.
Walton, Cohen, Cwir, and Spencer (2012) introduced the concept of ‘mere belonging’ as a “minimal social connection to another person or group in a performance domain” (p. 513). Walton et al argued that social connectedness, even though sharing the same birthday with another person in a group, indicated an increased motivation to share in the activities of that group. This introduced the idea that a variation in levels of belongingness may be experienced in different social contexts, and in relation to the salience of different social identities.
In 2013, Mahar, Cobigo, and Stuart (2013) examined the concept of ‘social belonging’ with the intention of developing indicators for facets of social inclusion for people were intellectually disabled. They found “five intersecting themes, subjectivity, groundedness to an external referent, reciprocity, dynamism, and self-determination” (p.1026). As a result, Mahar, Cobigo, and Stuart (2013) suggested a new definition of a sense of belonging as:
a subjective feeling of value and respect derived from a reciprocal relationship to an external referent that is built on a foundation of shared experiences, beliefs or personal characteristics. These feelings of external connectedness are grounded to the context or referent group, to whom one chooses, wants and feels permission to belong. This dynamic phenomenon may be either hindered or promoted by complex interactions between environmental and personal factors (p.1026).
In 2013, the New South Wales (NSW) Government in Australia recognised the importance of developing the belonging capability of young people in the adolescent stage of education. The NSW Higher School Certificate (HSC) offered a unit of study called ‘Belonging’ in the years 7-12 English curriculum. Student learning was focused on exploring the meaning of belonging and the consequences of not belonging using a variety of reference texts. Perceptions and ideas of belonging were shaped within personal, cultural, historical, and social frameworks. Students had to consider belonging in terms of experiences, identity, relationships, acceptance and understanding (New South Wales Government, 2013).
In another distinctly Australian study, Neville, Oyama, Odunewu, and Huggins (2014) explored, what they termed as, the sense of Racial-Ethnic-Cultural (REC) belonging among Indigenous Australians. Neville et al. proposed “five interrelated dimensions of REC belonging; history/memory, place and peoplehood, sense of community, acceptance and pride, shared language and culture, and interconnections” (p.414). “History/memory reflects identification with and connection to the memory of one’s people and homeland” (p. 420). The sense of community was related to the Aboriginal community, family, extended family, and a commitment to give to the community. Acceptance and pride “reflects an affirmation of the self who is Aboriginal … incorporates comfort with and acknowledging one’s Aboriginality” (p. 420). Interconnection was suggested as feeling a level of spiritual connection to all indigenous peoples of the world.
Hugh Mackay, a well-known Australian social psychologist and researcher published a book titled The Art of Belonging: It’s not where you live, it’s how you live (McKay, 2014). Mackay focused on the concept of community belonging in Australia and argued that life was not lived in isolation but as part of a community, where trust and mutual respect were the principal characteristics that afforded a good life. In recent years, the state government in New South Wales introduced into the education system The Wellbeing Framework for Schools as a means of expanding the potential for community belonging (New South Wales Government, 2015). Part of the rationale behind this initiative was the recognition that building positive relationships for young people fosters connectedness and feelings of belonging. “Children and young people in public education in NSW will experience a sense of connection, inclusion, respect for individuality and difference, resilience, empowerment, a capacity to contribute to their school and the wider community, and confidence to positively shape their own futures” (p. 9). In both the early childhood and adolescent stages of education, the importance of developing the capability for belongingness in adulthood would seem to have become institutionalised within the Australian education system.
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