Thursday, 22 September 2011

20: Yuval-Davis: Belonging and the Politics of Belonging

I turned to Nira Yuval-Davis's paper  'Belonging and the Politics of Belonging' (Patterns of Prejudice 40(3) 2006) in search of conceptual clarity as I begin further work on the Technologies of Belonging project with Katharina Schramm and Amade M'Charek. If you are the sort who likes conceptual frameworks (as I am) then you'll find this a worthwhile read.

The first useful distinction Yuval-Davis draws is between belonging ( an emotional sense of home and security) and a politics of belonging: her argument being that belonging only becomes articulated and politicised when under threat. Hence consideration of belonging and the politics of belonging brings us back to core themes of psychoanalysis (e.g. anxiety), social psychology (e.g. conformity), and sociology (e.g. anomie and alienation).

Yuval Davis begins her paper by highlighting the different levels at which analysis of belonging should take place.
"People can 'belong' in many different ways and to many different objects of attachments. These can vary from a particular person to the whole of humanity, in a concrete or abstract way; belonging can be an act of self-identification or identification by others, in a stable, contested or transient way. Even in its most stable 'primordial' forms, however, belonging is always a dynamic process, not a reified fixity, which is only a naturalized construction of a particular hegemonic form of power relations." (p199)
She differentiates three analytical levels at which belonging is constructed (constituted might be a better term):

1) Social location . This is people's place in the intersection of divisions of age, class, gender, ethnicity and sexuality.
2) Identifications and emotional attachments. Yuval-Davis views identities as "stories that people tell themselves and others about who they are (and who they are not)"(p202) and highlights the interplay between narratives of self and narratives of group. These stories have a particular emotional charge in times of threat and insecurity.
3) Ethical and political values. Belonging is also about the ways in which social locations and identifications and attachments are valued and judged.

Yuval-Davis begins her discussion of the politicisation of belonging thus:
" John Crowley defined the politics of belonging as  'the dirty work of boundary maintenance'. The boundaries that the politics of belonging is concerned with are the boundaries of the political community of belonging, the boundaries that separate the world population into 'us' and 'them'." (p204)
For Yuval-Davis this politics is not just about the continual work that hegemonic powers put into maintaining and reproducing community boundaries but is also about the on-going challenges to those boundaries by other political actors. In discussing this politics she draws a distinction between contestations of community membership and citizenship and contestations of associated status and entitlements. These two politics often come together around the nation state as power apparatus and imagined community (e.g. in debates about migrants right of settlement or in access to welfare) but, as Yuval-Davis points out, the links between nation and community are highly ambiguous and a feature of contemporary politics is continuing attempts to draw distinctions between formal membership of the nation and other measures of belonging and entitlement. Yuval-Davis wrote this paper in the aftermath of the 7/7 London atrocities and cites the ensuing public debate as to how to interpret the formal and cultural Britishness of the suicide bombers as an example of the potential for questions of 'belonging' to generate emotional and political heat.

As Yuval-Davis points out apparently nebulous debates about community membership often relate to all too concrete issues of citizenship rights and duties, spatial rights (i.e. the right to enter and remain in a territory)  and entitlement to legal and economic protection. These issues are being reframed not just by migration but by a wider set of developments associated with globalisation, changing international relations and neoliberal reforms of work, welfare and the military. Thus:

" When it comes to membership's rights and responsibilities in the arena of the politics of belonging, the duties involved become much more ephemeral and actually become requirements,  rather than mere duties. The central question here is what is required from a specific person for him/her to be entitled to belong, to be considered as belonging, to the collectivity." (p209)
Each of the levels of belonging described by Yuval-Davis earlier in the paper - social location, identification and attachment, and ethical and political values - can become politicised requisites of belonging. This to me is one of the big contributions of the paper: to firstly recognise that in many settings the requirements of belonging have been both ramped up and made more complex. Yuval-Davis is right to focus on the ways that  contemporary political projects articulate requirements for belonging may encompass common descent, common language, common religion, and common political values. Hence projects may also vary in the degree of fixity and permeability they assume and allow:
" Requisites of belonging that relate to social locations  - origin, 'race', place of birth - would be the most racialized and the least permeable. Language, culture and sometimes religion are more open to voluntary, often assimilatory, identification with particular collectivities, Using a common set of values, such as 'democracy' or 'human rights', as signifiers of belonging can be seen as having the most permeable boundaries of all ." (p209)
But as Yuval-Davis points out this apparent difference in openness and permeability can be deceptive. This is a powerful insight deserving further development not least because it echoes many of the best analyses of the changing forms and focus of racialised discourse which explore the long running capacity of 'race' to stand for the fixed and the plastic at one and the same time.

Yuval-Davis illustrates her argument by looking at the changing terms of political discourse and policy making centred on Britain's black and Asian minorities.  She traces the shift from the colour and descent based anti-immigration racism of Enoch Powell, through the emphasis under Thatcherism on identification with nation (think Norman Tebbit's cricket test), through to New Labour's requirement that migrants sign up to common values that encompass both commitment to a specific national community and to supposedly universalistic notions of human rights.

The paper does us a particular service by making strange New Labour's recent rejection of multiculturalism and the ways it illustrates the odd conjuctions of universalism and particularism at play in early twentieth century politics and policy-making on 'race' and migration. We should be careful, however, to talk of absolute discursive shifts since a striking feature of the politics of belonging seems to me to be the continuing slippage between apparently distinct registers of descent, culture and values in representations and requisites for belonging.

One final gripe is that Yuval-Davis makes the helpful distinction between belonging and a politics of belonging early in the paper but beyond this largely discusses the latter and the expense of the former. Yes there is a connection between individuals' emotional attachments to locale and group and the discursive politics of belonging but Yuval-Davis only scratches the surface of that relationship.

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