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Safe at home in a place where I belong?

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In a new blog for DD317 Advancing social psychology, Stephanie Taylor discusses social research findings about place and belonging. She considers the connections we draw between feeling at home and feeling safe and suggests that these contribute to the continuing strong emotions around the Grenfell tower tragedy. Stephanie will be speaking about place, belonging and identity at an event for the London Festival of Architecture on Wednesday 6th June 2018 https://www.adamarchitecture.com/press/identity-and-the-identifiable-debate,-6th-june-2018-in-london.htm

 I recently had a conversation with a woman who is planning to move permanently to a country that she knows well but has previously visited only for finite periods. Of course this major life change has not been easy to arrange, but she was confident that the red tape will be dealt with within a few months, and she will then migrate permanently. ‘So’ I asked ‘will that feel like leaving home or going home?’ ‘Going home’ she said confidently, and talked positively about the climate and lifestyle of the new country, the ways that people interact there, and the particular apartment she will live in. She feels that all of these match who she is ,so she will belong there.

I was interested in her response because it confirmed findings from research I conducted two decades ago*, about home and identification with place. The research indicated that people construct an image of home selectively, through what they value or indeed notice about where they live, or would like to live. My research participants talked about the place where they belonged, or wanted to belong. It could be the interior of a house or flat, a street, neighbourhood, town or city, or a particular landscape or part of the world. ‘Place’ is a fluid concept, referring to any or indeed all of these, and this fluidity enabled the participants to interpret a current or ideal place of residence as home, to identify with features which matched who they felt themselves to be, or wanted to be.

Our thoughts and feelings about belonging are based in part on a shared cultural or discursive resource which I call the ‘born and bred’ narrative. This is the familiar idea that each of us is linked through birth and family to an original place (literally, a place of ‘origin’). We are defined by this place and have a permanent claim on it. Logically, of course, places change, people move and this kind of connection through long-term and generational residence is unusual, especially in contemporary affluent societies like the UK. However, people often continue to claim it and may try to pin down the place by researching their family histories. In my research, even though only a few participants continued to live where they had grown up, I found that they invoked the born and bred narrative in their constructions of home and belonging. For example, they might emphasise that they had lived in their current place of residence for a long time, and they had important memories attached to it. They might explain their feeling of belonging by linking the place to the past, for example, through their memories of childhood, or distant family connections, or  by emphasising some similarity to their childhood or family home. A number planned to move ‘back’ to the childhood place at some later point in their lives.

 But the selective interpretation in this ‘identity work’ inevitably has its limits. The participants’ accounts emphasised personal connections, but belonging in a place is also social, requiring some recognition and acceptance by other people. The woman who is changing country will almost certainly find her status challenged. People will note her accent or refer to her recent arrival. Her status as a newcomer may be invoked in trivial disagreements (‘we don’t do things like that’). More seriously, people’s claims to belong can be contested by the actions of others. This can occur in small ways. For example, when new neighbours interrupt local routines, perhaps by making noise or dropping rubbish, longer term residents may feel that their claims on a place are not being respected, as if they no longer belong. More seriously, crime, and especially crime against the person, like mugging, is an enormous threat to belonging. People who live in areas of rising crime are likely to feel that they are being ‘driven out’, because ultimately one of the most important associations of home and belonging is being in a place that is safe.

These connections have appeared with particular poignancy in the recent testimonials to people who died in the Grenfell tower fire. At the Grenfell inquiry, relatives and friends have been talking about the victims, and have referred again and again to the length of those people’s residence, in the tower itself, in the North Kensington neighbourhood, in London and Britain. The testimonials have emphasised that the victims were people who felt they belonged, locally and nationally, and were also recognised by others to belong, as valued citizens and members of the community. The testimonials are statements of loss and tributes to the personal qualities of the people who were lost, and also a protest at the betrayal that the fire involved. These victims were people at home, where they belonged and should have been safe. The failures that enabled the fire to kill them are therefore additionally a failure to respect the important personal and social values attached to home, so ultimately a threat to all of our claims to belong.


* S.Taylor (2010) Narratives of identity and place London Routledge / Psychology Press. ISBN-10: 0415480477 /13: 978-0415480475


This week's blog has links to ideas discussed in the new module Advancing social psychology (DD317). For more information about the module, you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk You can also look at the new Open Learn course course DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0

Stephanie Taylor will be talking about identification with place on Wednesday 6th June 2018 at an event for the London Festival of Architecture https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/identity-the-identifiable-tickets-45967899224 and https://www.adamarchitecture.com/press/identity-and-the-identifiable-debate,-6th-june-2018-in-london.htm

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