Social Belonging

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It is necessary to distinguish four different dimensions or states in the involvement of individuals in the context of human relations: territorial location, ecological participation, social belonging, and cultural conformity (Pollini 1990) (Figure 1). Territorial location, as Weber showed in his famous sociological analysis of the medieval European city (Weber 1921) does not involve any form of social relation among the individuals of a population in a particular territorial area. This dimension was subsequently defined by Parsons as one of the three primary relational criteria, with the other two being biological position and temporal location (Parsons 1959, pp. 89–96).

Unlike territorial location, ecological participation involves some sort of reciprocal relationality among the individual members of a human population, whether settled in the same territorial area or not. To use the terminology of human and social ecology in reference to nonsymbolic social relations, recalling Mead's well-known distinction (Mead 1934), ecological participation involves a specific form of interdependence among individuals ("symbiosis") (Park 1936, 1939) that is distinctly different from social interaction (Quinn 1939). For Parsons, the ecological system is "a state of mutually oriented interdependence of a plurality of actors who are not integrated by bonds of solidarity to form a collectivity but who are objects to one another" (1959, p. 93). Thus, instrumentally, the customers of a commercial firm, the participants in a market, and the antagonists in a struggle, and expressively, a network of purely personal friendships and the inhabitants of a neighborhood or district in a modern metropolis are paradigmatic examples of the dimension of participation in networks of ecological interaction or in purely ecological systems. Parsons defined the state of ecological participation as a secondary relational criterion.

Social belonging refers to the state in which an individual, by assuming a role, is characterized by inclusion in the social collectivity, which is exclusively a Gemeinschaft, according to Weber (Weber 1922, 136), and which is a Gemeinschaft (an organization or association), according to Parsons (Parsons 1959, p. 100). In this frame of reference, the dimension of social belonging relates to any form of social collectivity, whether predominantly expressive (nonrational in Weber's terms) or predominantly instrumental. Strictly speaking, the status of belonging concerns only the symbolic dimension of human and social relations and interactions (Durkheim 1912; Pareto 1916; Weber 1921, 1922; Mead 1934; Park 1939; Parsons 1959; Merton 1963; Shils 1975). Parsons defines it as a secondary relational criterion.

Cultural conformity is symbolic in character. This dimension differs from social belonging in that it involves the sharing by individuals of value systems and therefore of attitudes of "consensus" as defined by Weber (Weber 1913) as well as, though not necessarily, conformism (Parsons 1959). The distinction between social belonging and cultural conformity demonstrates that belonging to a collectivity can be compatible with the exercise of internal opposition; thus, social membership does not exclude the possibility of disagreement, especially in regard to value orientations.

The distinction between social belonging and cultural conformity also has been drawn by Robert K. Merton, who expressly asserts the noncoincidence between membership groups and reference groups. The latter groups constitute a focus of reference toward which a certain degree of positive orientation is shown rather than being an already-established social bond that is manifest in the interactions among the individual members of a group (the membership group).

On the basis of the distinction between ecological participation and social belonging—both of which are secondary relational criteria, according to Parsons—it is possible to use the findings of human ecology and sociological analysis to differentiate between attachment to the community and belonging to the Gemeinschaft. Whereas attachment to the community involves the ecological concept of community defined as "a) a population, territorially organized; b) more or less completely rooted in the soil it occupies; c) its individual units living in a relationship of mutual interdependence that is symbiotic rather than societal" (Park 1936, p. 148), the belonging to the Gemeinschaft concerns that sociological concept of Gemeinschaft as defined by Toennies (1887), Weber (Vergemeinschaftung) (1922), and Parsons (1959), although for Parsons as well as for some others, social belonging concerns not Gemeinschaft alone but any social collectivity and the social collectivity qua talis.


The distinction between attachment to the ecological community and belonging to the social collectivity (particularly the Gemeinschaft) introduces the fundamental question of the structure of social belonging and the relations among its main components, which from an analytic and multidimensional perspective include attachment. Using Parsons's scheme of reference, together with the contributions of other sociologists, the structure of social belonging can be described by starting from the relations among the four chief components that define it as such: attachment, loyalty, solidarity, and the sense of affinity or we-feeling (Figure 2).

Attachment is a form of investment or "cathexis" (from the Freudian term Besetzung, denoting the relationship between emotional energy and an object) in a social object (the collectivity in this case), where "cathexis" refers to "the significance of ego's relation to the object or objects in question for the gratification-deprivation balance of his personality" (Parsons 1959, p. 17). Attachment involves an "orientation to alter in which the paramount focus of cathective-evaluative significance is in alter's attitudes" (Parsons 1959, p. 213), where "the relation to alter is the source, not merely of discrete, unorganized, ad hoc gratifications for ego, but of an organized system of gratifications which include expectations of the future continuance and development of alter's gratificatory significance" (Parsons 1959, p. 77).

When attachment is organized into a symbolic pattern, particularly a pattern of expressive symbols whose meaning's shared between ego and alter, become values—in other words, when they serve as a criterion or standard for selection (or an appreciative criterion in this case, which concerns expressive symbolism) among the alternatives of orientation that are intrinsically available in the situation—loyalty arises (Parsons 1959, p. 77). In the case of social belonging, loyalty defines the relation between ego as a subject and the collectivity as social object of which the ego is a member. Besides being the social object of attachment, the social collectivity thus becomes the object of loyalty as well. This raises the question of the trust the collectivity requires and the individual grants.

Along with attachment and loyalty, social belonging involves the solidarity of the collectivity. Solidarity, which "involves going a step beyond 'loyalty,"' is defined by Parsons as "the institutionalized integration of collectivity," and it is distinguished from loyalty because it entails that "collectivity-orientation converts this 'propensity' into an institutionalized obbligation of the role-expectation. Then whether the actor 'feels like it' or not, he is obligated to act in certain ways and risks the application of negative sanctions if he does not" (Parsons 1959, p. 98).

The final component that defines the structure of social belonging is what has been called the "sense of affinity" (Shils 1975) or the "we-feeling" (MacIver and page 1949, p. 5ff). (Weber treated belonging in terms of Zusammengehoerigkeit, or "subjective feeling of the parties, whether affectual or traditional, that they belong together") (Weber 1922, p. 136). Although this component can be considered the final outcome of attachment, loyalty and solidarity, it also can be viewed as the component that controls and legitimates the others and therefore performs the function of pattern maintenance in the system of social belonging. It may include, at least in part, two of the factors that Merton states constitute a collectivity as a social group: people's definition of themselves as "members" of the group and definition by others as "belonging to the group," with the others, including fellow members and nonmembers (Merton 1963).

In short, social belonging is constituted by the relations of interdependence among the dimensions of attachment, loyalty, solidarity, and sense of affinity, according to paths that extend from attachment to a sense of affinity or we-feeling and back, passing through the intermediate components of loyalty and solidarity.

From the point of view of the collectivity as a social system, belonging is the dimension that can be called a "residue," to use Pareto's term. A residue is the relatively constant symbolic-social element that can be deduced from the symbolic-linguistic expressions (or nonlogicoexperimental theories) associated with the nonlogical actions of associated individuals and that performs a function of "persistence of aggregates" maintain the equilibrium of the system. This equilibrium is characterized by the interdependence relations among the residues of various classes, genera, and specie, and between these and the system's other "internal' elements," such as derivations, interests and social heterogeneity, and which is the circulation among the parts (Pareto 1916; Pollini 1987).

In regards to attachment, Shils, adopting a concrete rather than an analytic perspective, has drawn up a typology of four kinds of attachment that can be compared with the notions presented here. Shils's first type of attachment is the primordial attachment that arises among individuals by virtue of "particularist existential connections" (such as the biological bond of kinship) and stable sexual relations or the sharing of a territorial area. It can be compared with the community attachment of human ecology and, more generally, the cathexis in a broad sense involved in ecological participation.

Personal attachment and civil attachment operate at different levels of the process of social structuring. They are distinctive of the social belonging defined by the "emerging" components of loyalty, solidarity, and the we-feeling.

Sacred attachment is grounded in beliefs and therefore also in notions of truth, justice, goodness, and beauty. It mainly but not exclusively includes cultural conformity and a consensus on beliefs, although it gives rise to a social community that Shils views as a community of believers (Shils 1961).


This discussion of the structure of social belonging and its main components has identified a number of elements by which it is constituted and conditioned. By adding further elements of fundamental importance, we may outline a complete frame of reference which social belonging involves interrelations among the following subsystems or "complexes": the ecological complex of territorial location and ecological interaction, the mental complex of the identity of the personality, the social complex of the solidarity of the collectivity, and the cultural complex of expressive and evaluative symbolism (Figure 3).

Starting from territorial location and ecological interaction, central importance is assumed by the relationship between the identity of the personality and the solidarity of the collectivity, both of which stand in relation to the complex of expressive and evaluative symbolism. It is the latter factor in particular that, through internalization and institutionalization, characterizes personal identity and collective solidarity (Durkheim 1912), of which the personal identity involves the process by which the symbolic complex is acknowledged and the collective solidarity later involves the process by which it is represented.

The process by which the social collectivity relates to the individual person can be called the process of inclusion, while the mental process by which a person comes to be inducted in a collectivity may be called the mechanism of identification, or the mechanism by which a person learns "to play a role complementary to those of other members in accord with the pattern of values governing the collectivity" (Parsons 1958, p. 91). In other words, identification is "motivational 'acceptance'— at levels of 'deep' motivational 'commitment'—of membership in collective systems" (Parsons 1970, p. 356).

From the point of view of the personality, the multiple social belongings or even belonging to multiple collectivities or social circles so distinctive of the individual condition today are inevitable components of an identity (Parsons 1968, p. 21), to the point where the perception of personal individuality is determined by membership in a collectivity or social circle (first sociological a priori) (Simmel 1890, 1908). However, just as the individual as a member of society (a social person) is determined not wholly by the fact that she/he is a member of society but also by the fact that she or he is "not socialized" (second sociological a priori) (Simmel 1890, 1908), identity marks out "the individual autonomy relative to any role and collectivity membership" (Parsons 1968, p. 20).

Simmel defined the relations between individual identity and belonging to social circles on the basis of the following principles:

  1. A positive correlation exists between the development of personal identity and the widening of the social circle of belonging.
  2. There is a positive correlation between the increased extension of the social circle and the centrifugal tendency of the individual toward other circles.
  3. The individual belongs to an intermediate social circle that fosters the individualization of identity even in very large communities.
  4. The determinacy of personal identity increases in direct proportion to belonging to other social circles.
  5. The determinacy of individual identity is positively correlated with the dispersion and diffusion of the multiple social circles of belonging rather than with their overlapping, concentration and coincidence.
  6. The shared belonging of several individuals to the same social circle may not be incompatible with their single and distinct belonging to other competing and conflicting circles.
  7. The modern form of belonging displays voluntary and autonomous, rather than coercive and heteronomous, belonging to a social circle or circles.
  8. In the modern age, the totalizing and globalizing nature of belonging to a single and all-encompassing social circle tends to give way to the functional feature of belonging to multiple social circles (Simmel 1890, 1908).

A person's role as member of the collectivity, which is acquired by means of the mechanism of identification by which social belongings come to constitute inevitable components of personal identity, entails acknowledgment and internalization by the individual personality of the symbolic complex. This is both the foundation of the social collectivity and its representation. According to Durkheim, for whom the social group is defined by the symbolic complex and especially by the totemic symbol (Durkheim 1912), and according to Parsons, for whom expressive symbolism involves not only individual members or units (in that it is shared by each of them) but the entire collectivity constituted as a social object by symbolic social interaction, membership in the social collectivity is not expressed and represented only by the symbolic complex and by distinct symbols and emblems. More important, it is reinforced, developed, and augmented by them, in particular by participation in specific symbolic actions and rituals such as ceremonies, celebrations, gatherings, and meetings and by the projection of shared value sentiments into individual members, especially those who assume the role of chief or leader and thus symbolically embody shared value patterns (Parsons 1959, pp. 395–399). Thus, ritual participation does not only express and manifest belonging to the collectivity and group; it also strengthens and develops this belonging, in particular the component of it denominated we-feeling or sense of affinity.


On the basis of the theory of the reference group, Merton has examined the limiting condition of nonmembership, which he defines as a positive orientation toward groups that, although not belonged to, are nevertheless reference groups. It is thus possible to identify a diversified set of nonmembership features that depend on the one hand on the nonmember's attitudes toward membership and on the other hand on possession of the qualities necessary for membership established by the group. Merton uses these two distinct dimensions to draw up a typology of a nonmembership group that includes a variety of forms and conditions of nonmembership that may or may not eventually give rise to membership. These forms range from the "antagonistic nonmember" (out-group) to the "candidate for membership" through the intermediate types "potential member," "autonomous nonmember," "marginal man," and "detached nonmember." Merton thus overcomes the membership-nonmembership dichotomy by proposing gradations of nonmembership and investigating the various types of membership that cannot be defined by lack of membership.

A brief discussion is required of the type of nonmembership Merton calls "marginal man," following Stonequist (1937) and Park (1928). This is the individual who, although he or she aspires to join a particular group, does not fulfil the requirements established by the group to do so. In other words, the marginal man is a person who, by simultaneously participating in two cultures, tends to occupy not the center but the margins of both. As a consequence, he is not fully accepted by either culture. More precisely, the "marginal man" is the individual who seeks to abandon his membership group, leaving its institutionalized value patterns and norms behind, but is unable to belong to the new group to which he aspires even though he has already absorbed its values and norms to some extent. This process by which the "marginal man" absorbs the values and groups of the group to which he aspires but does not yet belong is called "anticipatory socialization" by Merton (1963).

The "marginal man" also may be likened to the "stranger" described by Simmel (1908, 1964) and Schutz (1944).


Belonging to a collectivity or social group characterized by solidarity through the assumption of some sort of role within it by an individual is brought about by two concomitant processes: inclusion and participation. By means of the process of inclusion, the social collectivity constantly retains or acquires individuals within its relational ambit, thus responding to the problem of integration by eliminating possible exclusion. The intensity of the inclusion process by which individuals become full-fledged members of the collectivity may vary greatly with the features of the collectivity, primarily according to the criteria that must be fulfilled to join it. These criteria are defined by the collectivity itself and can be characterized as universalism or particularism (Levy 1952).

At the micro level it is possible to identify a number of ways in which the inclusion process comes about: physical and mental coercion, monetary and symbolic remuneration, persuasion, and co-option. At the macro-sociological level, the ways in which individuals are included in collectivities have been variously defined, mainly in the context of membership in the national community (i.e., citizenship) (Turner 1993; van Steenbergen 1994) and in relation to immigration (Alexander 1980; Bauböck 1994; Miles and Thränhardt 1995). With no claim to exhaustiveness, one can point out some of these forms of inclusion: adjustment (Eisenstadt 1954), incorporation (Smith 1974; Horowitz 1975; Portes and Boeroecz 1989; Schmitter Heisler 1992), absorption (Eisenstadt 1954), and assimilation (Park 1913; Gordon 1964; Horowitz 1975; Geazer 1993).

While inclusion is the process that moves from the collectivity to the individual as object, participation is the process that moves from the individual as subject to the collectivity.

The etymology of the term "participation" has a twofold meaning by which it can denote either "taking part in" something or "being part of" something. It is therefore advisable to distinguish the concept of participation from that of belonging by defining "participation" only in the former sense, in other words, on the basis of the action of "taking part in," and defining "belonging" as "being part of." However, it is possible to identify a relationship between belonging and participation, since participation denotes the action of "taking part in" the collectivity, of which one "becomes part" by virtue of the process of inclusion activated by the collectivity.

Besides operating "transitively"—through the relationship a person establishes with the collectivity as a symbolic-social object of attachment and loyalty—participation operates "intransitively" through the relationship the person establishes with himself or herself while participating. By undertaking the action of "taking part in" the collectivity, a person exerts effects on himself or herself, generally in the direction of change in the elements, aspects, and traits of the psychic structure of his or her personality. Participation thus not only helps reinforce belonging but changes and develops the various components of the individual unit.

From the transitive point of view or from that of the individual vis-à-vis the collectivity, Smelser's theory of collective behaviour (Smelser 1963) and Merton's modes of individual adaptation (Merton 1963) provide the basis for the identification of at least four dimensions of participation: diffuse participation, technical decision-making participation, reformatory participation, and revolutionary participation.

Diffuse participation is the dimension of participation, of adaptive character, that accepts the institutionalized means and ends established by the collectivity and attempts to ensure its continued functioning. Technical decision-making participation is the dimension of participation that, while accepting the ends of the collectivity of membership, attempts to change its institutionalized means, which are deemed unable to achieve the goals established. Innovative-reformatory participation accepts the collectivity's means or at any rate is unconcerned by them and attempts instead to change its ends and goals. Revolutionary participation endeavours to change the institutionalized means and ends of the collectivity with a view to creating a "collectivity of the future" that differs from the "collectivity of the present."


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Gabriele Pollini

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Social Belonging

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