the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2011 December 9


Under various guises, belonging has been central to the work of many cultural geographers, as well as many things that have influenced them. If Yi-Fu Tuan has analyzed matters correctly, humans had for much of the race’s existence such a strong attachment to place (physical and social-metaphorical) that they were unaware of themselves as separate from the place, and unaware of the place as separate from themselves. They belonged to each other and to their communities, and were incapable of forming the intent to change that relationship; they were “rooted” to place and community. “Sense of place” is something that could only be developed by the modern individual who was aware of a separate existence, of the place and self as different, and who was psychologically capable of leaving.

Siegfried Kracauer (as related by Zygmunt Baumann) made much the same point in placing humans for much of their existence into “communities of life and fate” — fate in the strictest sense, where human agency was essentially not an option. Only later did humans develop “communities of ideas and principles”, in which it was not accident of birth and un-self-aware intransigence that bound individuals (for now they finally were individuals) to each other, but recognition of shared values, values held voluntarily. Baumann marks this as the beginning of identity — a sense of belonging to a community — and sees further development, in which a solid modern identity, fixed and generally based on the individual’s role in production, yielded to a liquid modern identity, fluid and more oriented around the role in consumption. Baumann wrestles with his own identity in part because he has many possible identities, and in part because he does not feel embraced by some of them.

The nation, and with it the purported nation-state, are very much a matter of belonging. Individuals identify with a group, assign themselves to it, in the voluntary conception of nationhood; they are inextricably, involuntarily linked in the ethnic conception. The attempts by the state to usurp the role of the nation, or the attempts by a nation to control a state, are about the belonging of the individual to a group, but also about the belonging of the polity to the group. And every state of the present Westphalian system takes an obsessive interest in the ownership of territory, in whom the land belongs to. That individuals may also belong to the land is more consonant with the rootedness or serfdom of the past, but surely there are many who, in some sense, would claim such a relationship.

The Greeks (see ‘Non-Aristotelian conception of place’) had a strong sense of that an individual belonged in a certain physical and social position; to presume to rise above that station was a great risk, even a sin. Of course, discouraging persons from challenging the supremacy of the gods, as was often the subject of myth, was unlikely to be the main impetus behind such a cultural idea; individuals were expected likewise not to challenge their social superiors. If you are a slave, you are meant to be a slave, and that cannot be changed, so it must be accepted.

The Greek understanding of propriety extended to broader geographical questions as well. Individuals belonged to their countries, which at the time primarily meant city-states or rural territories. Collectively Greeks were distinguished from the barbarians (“bar-bar”, from their incomprehensible language), and each had its rightful place in the world. But we also see a rudimentary understanding of climate, with the world divided into temperate and torrid zones, for instance, lead to a rudimentary environmental determinism, in which races are connected to climatic belts, and behavioral and cultural characteristics are connected to races.

As modern individuals, we are taught particular, culturally-determined proprieties. Among these would be the sense of behaviors, objects, and even people as belonging to various spheres, often existing in geographical as well as metaphorical or social space. A significant contrast exists between public and private spaces, as well, in many tellings, as an intermediate space variously described as “societal” (Joan DeJean), “parochial” (Claude Fischer), or “third” (Homi Bhabha, Ray Oldenburg). DeJean’s study of early modern architecture finds a revolution in the creation and use of home space, with privacy now a priority both within the family, and between the family and outsiders, necessitating the creation of societal space that can be shared with intimates, in addition to more public space to which strangers are welcome. Fischer examines the movements in US history toward more and then less public engagement, both physically and politically (and virtually as well), which again brings about an awareness of a need for something in between public and private, semi-public areas that function as though reserved for intimates. Belonging is central to Oldenburg’s celebration of the third place, not just in the sense of what belongs in which sphere, but in the sense of belonging that the individual can develop with regard to the third place; an well-run tavern with an open, welcoming atmosphere in which strangers become friends gives the patron something to feel a part of, and brings a regular intimacy that just happens to have a geographical origin. Rebecca Spang chronicles the development, in eating practices, of a private experience in a public place, as the collective model of the one-price, one-meal table d’hôte gave way to the individualized model of the menu-driven, time-independent “restaurant”, whose purpose was originally to cater to individual health needs but whose practices gradually became the dominant form of public eating. And a related dichotomy, between work and home, is explored by Christena Nippert-Eng, as she records the various devices workers use to keep home life and work life separate, or to integrate them instead. For those of her subjects who chose to segment work and home, certain actions and certain objects belong to one sphere or the other.

If Edward Casey is right, that the self and the place are mutually creating (“constitutive coingredience”, as philosophers occasionally cannot restrain themselves from describing things), then we belong to the place and the place to us. Cultural geography could not escape the implications. But ultimately, any litany of references such as the preceding cannot prove anything, cannot prove in this case the centrality of belonging in a discourse. While I think the case is strong that cultural geography employs the concept routinely, it would perhaps be more useful to imagine the field that does not. Is there a field that takes no interest in strong relationships between objects of interest and groups or places, that will not say that something under examination belongs to something else, or in a particular place? This would almost be a negation of classification. And while geography has for centuries been ducking the specter of environmental determinism, surely geographers as a group believe that there is a relationship between things and places; else, what are we doing?


Zygmunt Bauman. ‘Identity’, p9-32 in ‘Identity: conversations with Benedetto Vecchi’. Polity, 2004.
Edward S. Casey. ‘Between geography and philosophy: what does it mean to be in the place-world?’, p683-93 in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, v91 n4 (2001).
—————. ‘On habitus and place: responding to my critics’, p716-23 in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, v91 n4 (2001).
Joan DeJean. ‘The architecture of comfort’, p44-66 in ‘The age of comfort: when Paris discovered casual ? and the modern home began’. Bloomsbury, 2009.
Claude S. Fischer. ‘Public spaces’, p161-95 in ‘Made in America: a social history of American culture and character’. University of Chicago, 2010.
Christena E. Nippert-Eng. ‘Territories of the self: recognizing the home-work boundary’, p34-83 in ‘Home and work: negotiating boundaries through everyday life’. University of Chicago, 1996.
Ray Oldenburg. ‘The American tavern’, p165-82 in ‘The great good place: cafés, coffee shops, community centers, beauty parlors, general stores, bars, hangouts, and how they get you through the day’. Marlowe & Co., 1999.
Rebecca L. Spang. ‘Private appetites in a public space’, p 64-87 in ‘The invention of the restaurant: Paris and modern gastronomic culture’. Harvard University, 2000.
Yi-Fu Tuan. ‘Rootedness versus sense of place’, p3-8 in Landscape, v24 n1 (1980).


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