Territorial Belonging

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Belonging is defined as the state of being part of something. Territorial belonging implies being part of a territory. The definition of a territory, although it is conditioned by the morphology of space, is essentially a social operation that is connected with the factors that induce the perception of boundaries. These are complex factors that researchers in the "psychology of form" (Gestaltpsychologie) have attempted to specify (Reusch 1956, pp. 340–361). Campbell has identified seven of these factors. Those analytically most relevant to social systems are similarity and shared destiny or "common fate" (Campbell 1958), to which the ecological, economic, and sociological traditions (Hawley 1950, p. 258) add interdependence, which is related to Campbell's (1958) notion of internal diffusion.

Territorial belonging is therefore a form of social belonging (for a detailed treatment, see Pollini 1987) that is displayed by a spatially defined collectivity. Spatial definition more or less precisely and more or less sharply delimits (where the concept of a boundary refers to a line or zone) a territory to which a name is given. Belonging to a spatially defined collectivity thus may be related to the name given to a territory, so that it becomes simply territorial without ceasing to be social as well. To emphasize its twofold nature, it also may be called "socioterritorial belonging" (Pollini 1992, pp. 55–58).


Like any form of social belonging, territorial belonging may relate to objective or subjective elements and may be defined by the self or by others (Merton 1963). Like social belonging, it may be largely exclusive or admit to multiplicity and may be ascribed or acquired (Simmel 1908).

Workers in human ecology, human geography, sociology, and land economics have long attempted to provide a definition of the most suitable territorial units for social purposes. They have oscillated between emphasizing the principle of similarity (the morphology of the territory, the physical and cultural features of the individuals who inhabit it, the predominant type of economic activity, etc.) and emphasizing the principle of interdependence (on the basis of gravitational flows for work and services, areas of relatively intense exchange, etc.) (see Galtung 1968). The implementation of the political function of governing human communities, moreover, has led to the fixing of territorial boundaries that express (and produce) a common fate (Hawley 1950, p. 258).

Reciprocal relations are among the main criteria used to define territorial units (similarity, interdependence, and common fate, taking the proximity of elements for granted). As studies of "nation building" have shown (see Deutsch [1953] 1966), similarity tends to create relations of interdependence and interdependence generates perceptions of similarity (Simmel 1890, p. 40; Shils 1975, p. 17); in the same manner, a common fate induces perceptions of similarity and interdependence and similarity and interdependence heighten the perception of a common fate.

The most enduring and significant spatial units are those with multi-confirmed boundaries (Campbell 1958), that is, those for which the criteria of similarity, functional interdependence, and common fate are congruent. The European nation-states of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries exemplify the successful achievement of this congruence (Eisenstadt 1973, pp. 231–235).

In traditional nomadic and agricultural societies, similarity, interdependence, and common fate are properties that relate substantially to a single socioterritorial unit that includes everyday life almost in its entirety, except when extraordinary occasions (great feasts and celebrations, great markets, wars, etc.) demonstrate the importance of a broader socioterritorial unit that is ethnic and/or tribal in nature or sometimes is of state dimension (kingdoms and empires, churches and great religious organizations). This is the social order that is called the "segmentary society of mechanical solidarity" by Durkheim (1893), Gemeinschaft by Toennies (1887), and the "independent community" by Hawley (1950, pp. 223 ff) and is exemplified by numerous contemporary societies (Dyson Hudson 1966).

As a significant division of territorial labor develops—induced by the reduced spatial friction brought about by advances in transport and communications that allow more frequent exchanges over longer distances (the "mobiletic revolution" of Russet 1967) and by technical progress, which requires the greater accumulation of capital and is not uniformly distributed across the territory (industrial revolution)—the areas of interdependence expand and are structured into several levels (Hawley 1950, pp. 236–257). This has evident effects on areas of common fate. Increased interdependence facilitates temporary or permanent movements across the territory and thus alters similarities and differences as well as the criteria for their definition and perception (Sola Pool 1965).

In short, mainly as a result of these phenomena, a socioterritorial structure grows more complex. Important socioterritorial units proliferate, intersect, and are organized into larger (Parsons 1961, pp. 123 ff) and relatively fluid systems, while the congruence among the three main principals of sociospatial structuring diminishes. These changes have been interpreted as the decay of Gemeinschaft (Toennies 1887) and of the territorial state (Herz 1957), as stages in an ongoing evolution into cosmopolitanism, and as the onset of a single overarching socioterritorial unit: the world in its entirety. Parsons (1951) introduced in his theoretical pattern of variables for the definition of roles the dichotomy between particularism and universalism. Although of general analytic significance, this dichotomy also has been used to characterize the process of modernization (Parsons 1971), which, with reference to territorial belonging, includes the localism–cosmopolitanism dichotomy. The term "globalization," which now has general currency although it dates from the early 1970s (Kaufman 1974), has been employed more recently to define this trend.

The increased complexity of socioterritorial belonging is obviously correlated to the complexity of the social structuring of the territory. All individuals are involved in relational networks that may be micro-local (habitation), local, regional, national, continental, and global, and they shift easily and rapidly from one level to another by virtue of the ease of communications and transportation or simply pass subjectively from one role to another (Webber 1963, 1964).

Owing to the ease of communications and transport, every individual may encounter and assimilate elements of other cultures. Cultural diversity has dwindled before the advance of modern culture as it is interpreted by Western society. Intellectual elements ("scientific" criteria for the reliability of knowledge) and most emotional (aspirations and values) and evaluative ones (ethics and hierarchies of values) are widely shared by humankind (Inglehart 1997). Consequently, similarities and differences are difficult to define in territorial terms, and when they are thus definable, they are increasingly so only as symbols (languages, flags, cultural artifacts, physical resemblances, etc.), since knowledge-evoking and evaluative elements have been reduced to being options that are private, individual, and socially irrelevant (ethical and gnoseological relativism, individualism) (Thomas and Znaniecki 1918–1920; Halman, et al. 1987).

The state itself, which is called on to define the conditions of the collective control of the collective destiny, although it is still characterized by distinct territorial boundaries, is undergoing profound change as a result of the erosion of its sovereignty and power by the rise of supranational political organizations (e.g., the United Nations) and, in centralized states, infrastate political organizations (Galtung 1967), as well as by the growth of multinational economic enterprises and other noneconomic associations over which it can exert little or no control.

Consequently, if the continuing determination of the territorial boundaries of political and/or administrative units (Herz 1968) allows belongings to be related to them, those belongings grow increasingly less socially significant in regards to not only interdependencies and similarities but also common destiny. This occurs because social relevance is divided among several units organized into a system of relationships that need not be hierarchical and may indeed compete with each other.


The localism–cosmopolitanism of territorial belonging: A single-or multidimensional concept? The growing complexity of territorial belonging, along with the hypothesis that it is the manifestation of an ongoing process whose final outcome is cosmopolitanism (or the erasure of any nonglobal, nonecumenical sense of belonging), has prompted sociologists to study the phenomenon empirically by focusing on the subjective definition of belonging provided by individuals with reference to themselves. Taking the process of growing systemization at the "energetic" level for granted, attention has been focused on how the phenomenon is subjectively reflected in the subjective definition individuals give to their territorial belongings. The aim of these studies has been to single out the factors that induce a person to feel that she or he belongs primarily to one unit rather than to another and, more generally, why she or he expresses a primarily cosmopolitan sense of belonging rather than one anchored in a particular geographic unit. Other studies have explored attachment to units of a particular size (home and neighborhood, local community, region, nation, continent, etc.).

The data gathered in both types of studies have included highly modernized contexts. On the home and neighborhood, see Fried and Gleicher (1961), Galster and Hesser (1981), and Fried (1982). On the local community, see Kasarda and Janowitz (1974), Rojek et al. (1975), Taylor and Townsend (1976), Wasserman (1982), Fried (1982), Goudy (1990), and Beggs et al. (1996). On regional units, see Piveteau (1969) and Gubert (1997). On belongings and national pride, apart from studies of nationalism and ethnicity, see the European Values Study in Ashford and Timms (1992, pp. 89–91) and the World Values Study in Ingleheart (1997, pp.303–305). On territorial belongings on the localism–cosmopolitanism contiuum, see Treinen (1965), Gubert and Struffi (1987), Gubert (1992a), and Strassoldo and Tessarin (1992). These data confirm the complexity of the phenomenon of territorial belonging when it is defined subjectively (a sentiment of belonging). Subjectively felt belongings are multiple, and each has its own role to play; that is, they become socially important in accordance with the particular context, which may change rapidly. For example, the sense of national belonging is exalted during international sports events, but local and regional senses of belonging emerge during sports events within a country. This multiplicity of territorial belongings therefore rules out their mutual exclusiveness; this emerges clearly when subjects are asked to declare the absolute level of attachment they feel to different territorial units (Gubert 1998).

It is probable that partly diversified belongings underlie this multiplicity. This diversity was not grasped in early empirical studies of the sentiment of belonging, which relied largely on relative measures of the strength of attachment to socioterritorial units arranged along a continuum, with the neighborhood and community at one extreme and cosmopolitanism at the other (Terhune 1965; Gubert 1972, p. 181). Relative measures also were used in later large-scale surveys such as the European Values Study and the World Values Study. It is difficult to imagine that a Pole's identification with his or her nation is the same as his or her attachment to his or her place of residence. One may feel strongly Polish while also having close bonds with one's local community, and this cannot be explained by a single-dimensional conception of localism–cosmopolitanism, which instead suggests a social experience in which the nation as a sociospatial unit has weaker emotional connotations.

Further evidence that feelings of belonging to diverse socioterritorial units differ is provided by analyses of the attitudes of subjects who declare that they do not feel attached to any particular territorial unit. These individuals may be called cosmopolitans, but their cosmopolitanism is not only the extreme position on the localism–cosmopolitanism continuum; it is also symptomatic of difficulties of social integration, or anomie (Bertelli 1992). The distribution of the strength of socioterritorial belonging therefore measures not only the territorial size of the main social collectivities of reference but also the intensity of social integration, which in the case of declared nonbelonging to any territorial unit is markedly diminished, perhaps more in some cases than in others; therefore, cosmopolitanism is internally differentiated or heterogeneous. Parsons's assumption that there is social belonging (and therefore loyalty and attachment) if there is social conformity—if, that is, the subject conforms with the institutional obligations of solidarity (Parsons 1951)—receives empirical support in that a lack of social integration is connected with a lack of belonging to any socioterritorial unit.

Localism–cosmopolitanism as a single-dimensional continuum. Taken for granted (or given) the multiplicity of socioterritorial belongings and their partly diverse nature a further finding of empirical surveys concerns the relative importance of each of these belongings with respect to the others. It is assumed here that, to some extent, they express the localism–cosmopolitanism dimension and therefore can be plotted along a continuum.

When asked about the matter, even interviewees in highly modernized contexts tend to assign more importance to local belongings than to national and supranational ones. Overall, the two units that predominate are the commune and the nation or state. The importance of the other subnational and supracommunal units (province, region) depends on the structure of the public powers (the federal or nonfederal structure of the state) (Gubert 1995) or on whether an ethnic and/or national minority constitutes the majority in a subnational unit (Gubert 1975, p. 305). By contrast, the emergence of subcommunal units (neighborhoods, districts) depends on the settlement pattern of a commune: When it is articulated into several settlements (districts), importance is more frequently ascribed to subcommunal units, while the neighborhood acquires more importance when it constitutes a "natural area" within the communal settlement and has weak links with the rest of the urban territory.

If, rather than proposing a predetermined set of spatial units largely defined in political-administrative terms, individuals who declare their attachment to a particular territory are asked to freely describe it, to give it a name or define its boundaries, the area of belonging is generally more circumscribed. Indeed, it is sometimes restricted to the domestic ambit and its immediate surroundings, with little consideration of supralocal spatial units (Gubert 1992b, pp. 266–277). One therefore may conclude that the immediate bond with a territory is mainly local or microlocal and that only the mention of larger socioterritorial units prompts individuals to consider supralocal territorial attachments.

Between negation of the hypothesis of an evolution toward cosmopolitanism and the reasons for the persistence of localism in a modern society. Multiple regression analysis shows that the social conditions that orient people to cosmopolitan or supralocal belongings (e.g., higher educational level, greater geographic mobility, residence in a metropolis) attenuate local attachments, although they do not entirely eliminate them (Gubert 1992d, pp. 506–523). These conditions seeming to affect the intensity of territorial attachment, attenuating it all levels rather than eliminating its primacy at the local level. Residential mobility seems to multiply local attachments rather than creating a single cosmopolitan attachment (Rubinstein and Parmalee 1992, 1996; Gubert 1992b, pp. 326—330; Feldman 1996).

This phenomenon can be explained to some extent by the reasons adduced to account for the most important territorial attachments. These reasons mainly concern day-to-day living (Kasarda and Janowitz's [1974] duration of residence) and the places of infancy and the family (Taylor and Townsend 1976); much less important are the physical characteristics of places (except for places which are morphologically very distinct, such as mountains and coastlines, partially confirming Fried's [1982] argument) or utility and opportunity.

Therefore, the strongest territorial attachment is connected with strongly affective social relations or with affectively important individual experiences, such as those of a child who progressively establishes a relationship with his or her immediate surroundings.

It is evident that the geographic mobility for mainly utilitarian reasons (work, access to services, use of free time) typically induced by life in modern society does not affect this type of attachment greatly. For the same reason, little influence is exerted by educational level: Although it may extend relational ambits, it does so mainly for utilitarian reasons or ones tied to a person's professional role (Webber 1964). This has evident consequences for the territorial area of matrimonial choice and the areas which contain a person's best friends or relatives; these areas have increased in size, but they are nevertheless of modest proportions. Also, as was found for residential mobility, the consequence of this extension is more to increase the number of places of particular attachment than to induce an attachment to broader spatial units. In other words, the elasticity of relational ambits to the reduced costs of overcoming distance is much greater for secondary instrumental relationships than it is for primary relationships, especially family ones, which are firmly anchored in residence (Parsons 1951, p. 180 ff; 1960, p. 250 ff).

Regression analysis not of the size of the area of main attachment but of the (absolute) intensity of the feeling of belonging to it reveals, as was already mentioned, that the social conditions most typical of modernity (residence in large cities, geographic mobility, residential mobility, higher levels of education, secularization, ethical relativism, individualism, etc.) tend to attenuate the intensity of local attachment but do not erase it. Another explanation for the continuing primacy of local attachments over cosmopolitan ones is therefore that modernity tends to reduce the intensity of territorial belongings, but not to such a varied extent across territorial units that it alters the hierarchy of subjective importance assigned to them by most individuals. This sheds light on why the indicators of localism and cosmopolitanism with regard to the territorial extension of main attachments are determined by a factor independent of the one that groups together the indicators of the intensity of attachment (in any case, the correlation between the indicators is weak).

In addition to intensity, the features that connote greater "modernity" of ecological social and cultural positions in individuals exert a certain amount of influence on the social importance of the sentiment of territorial belonging (Gubert 1992d). Perception of the boundaries that mark the zone of principal attachment are less sharp: The inside–outside boundary, unless it is marked by obvious physical barriers against communication and vision, is not connected with the perception of distinct sociocultural differences and tends to assume the features of a zone rather than those of a line. The identifying features of the collectivity on the other side of the boundary, except in the case of physical barriers against communication or vision, display not abrupt discontinuities but gradual variations. Stereotypes and the ingroup–out-group opposition are not as marked as those which arise when racial or ethnic differences are involved.

Moreover, the multiplicity of territorial belongings and their dependence on the particular and contingent nature of the context prevent the onset of radical in-group–out-group conflicts. Factor analysis has shown that the intensity of territorial attachment and in-group–out-group opposition (which is measurable, for example, by acceptance or rejection of immigrants in the area of principal belonging) are independent factors. Feeling stronger attachment to a particular territory therefore is weakly correlated with greater hostility toward or less acceptance of outsiders. The explanation of variance in these attitudes has more to do with the sphere of interests than with that of territorial belongings.

Equally independent (or weakly correlated) are factors relative to the social significance of the sentiment of territorial belonging and indicators of the territorial extension of the most important units.

Expectations of a positive relation between modernity and cosmopolitanism are not borne out by the data, although cross-sectional analysis is not conclusive on this matter. Certainly contradicted are claims that cosmopolitan attachments predominate in contemporary societies. What the advance of modernity seems to have done is breed a plurality of territorial belongings and reduce their intensity and social significance.

Distribution models of territorial attachments. Having ascertained that territorial attachment is felt mainly at the local level (the primary community of everyday life), one may inquire about the distribution pattern of the intensity of territorial attachment, extending the analysis to ambits that do not occupy the highest position in the hierarchy of spatial units.

Once again, the most detailed surveys have been carried out in Italy, a country where the dialectic among localism, nationalism, and cosmopolitanism is particularly lively. If one considers the first three positions in a decreasing scale of attachment from subcommunal units to the whole world, it is possible to identify the most common and significant rank orderings (Gubert 1992b, pp. 279–281). By far the most prevalent is a model one may call "lococentric:" Territorial units diminish in importance as they grow larger. In three-dimensional space, where a two-dimensional geographic plane constitutes the horizontal axes and the relative intensity of territorial attachment is the vertical axis, they assume a cone shape whose apex is the smallest spatial unit.

Two other patterns emerge: the opposite model (upside-down cone), where the importance of a territorial unit decreases as one moves from broader to narrower spatial units, and, more commonly, a volcano-shaped model, a variant of the cone where the greatest importance is attributed to intermediate units, the next greatest importance to smaller units, and the least importance to larger ones.

Despite the prevalence of the lococentric model, a model that might develop instead of the "cosmopolitan" one (upside-down cone) as a consequence of the continuing advance of modernity is the volcano model, which places greater emphasis on supralocal sociospatial units compared with smaller communal or subcommunal ones, but without the units assuming greater importance as they become more inclusive and extensive. This is a type of territoriality that reflects adaptation to the extension of relational spaces beyond the settlement of residence that assumes a form other than cosmopolitanism.


Sociological research into territorial belonging as it is subjectively defined by self-reference contradicts the claim that the extension of relational spaces and the increased frequency of relations across larger distances (continental and global) have led to the superseding of local or at least noncosmopolitan attachments. Attachment to local ambits still largely predominates. If anything, one discerns adaptations of a different kind, such as the increased complexity of the subjectively felt territorial bond and its closer dependence on changing contexts, the diminished intensity and social significance of various kinds of attachment, and a shift of primary attachment from the local level to one midway between localness and ecumene (the inhabited world). Rejection of any particular territorial attachment that might represent the outcome of cosmopolitan development is at least partly due to a lack of social integration.

Predictions that the demise of Toennies's Gemeischaft and Durkheim's segmentary society would indicate the end of the overriding importance of attachment to particular places is not supported by empirical inquiry. Toennies's Gemeinschaft has disappeared from modern society, but territorially restricted areas still have social relations of a communitarian nature, that is, relation in which community action in Weber's sense (Weber [1922] 1972, p. 21) predominates.

However, this may not explain the facts unless one refers to Pareto's assertion (1916, vol. II, sections 112–120, 1023–1041; Treinen 1965) that the sentiment of territorial belonging is a "residue" that can be included among those of the "persistence of aggregates." A sentiment springs from the psychological association between emotionally significant experiences and the context in which they happen. For example, emotionally positive experiences tied to childhood and the family and relationships involving sexuality are positively associated with the places in which they have occurred. This gives rise to deep emotional bonds with those places, bonds that lie beyond reasoning or rationalization. In Pareto's account, the attachment to places thus depends not on the communitarian or societal nature of the collectivity settled in the place of residence but instead on the fact that the most emotionally significant experiences in a person's life necessarily occur in a territorially limited context, if only because of the limits imposed by the perceptive horizon. This also explains why the dispersion of these emotionally significant experiences tends more to multiply the places of attachment than to create broad and inclusive attachments.

The technical progress of the means of communications and the means of transportation that facilitate the expansion of relational ambits, the individualization and secularization of culture, and the proliferation of the utilitarian businesslike relationships of Gesellschaft have had little or no effect on the processes that, according to Pareto's theory, cause the birth and persistence of attachment to place. As the negation of a particular bond with a particular place, cosmopolitanism unless it is not an ideological position that is deliberately assumed and declared to the interviewer, therefore may be a symptom of social marginalization caused by a lack of emotionally significant positive experiences. It is thus only rarely caused by the extreme territorial dispersion of those experiences and much more frequently caused by other personal and family events.

There are a number of reservations about the premises of the phenomenon known as globalization. Although relational ambits certainly extend over broader areas or, more precisely, relations have increased in intensity in even the largest of those areas, there is little evidence that the relative intensity of relations has increased. One cannot rule out the possibility that a diminution in the "friction of space" has intensified relations with all the territorial levels into which social life is structured, and it is likely that the intensification at medium and low levels is even greater for certain types of relation than it is at higher and broader ones. The increase in international trade, for example, does not mean that the system is becoming increasingly globalized; the increase may be greater at the national and regional levels, and so in relative terms, regional and national systems have become more self-contained (Deutsch 1960; Deutsch and Eckstein 1960– 1961). The unproven assumption that the increase in the absolute density of relations has been accompanied by an increase in their relative density is credited to the existence of globalization processes that may not exist or may exist only for particular types of relations. Moreover, it is evident that in subjective perception (and not only in this area), the importance of the various levels depends much more on their relative density than on their absolute density.

If more detailed empirical research confirms the validity of these remarks, the persisting primacy of local, or at least noncosmopolitan, belongings may be explained not only by Paretian hypotheses but also by the predominance at the relational level of local, regional, and national systems compared with continental and global ones.

Belonging as being part of is a phenomenon of central importance in sociological analysis. Territorial belonging is only one way to manifest social belonging. It may be associated with (ethnic and national belonging) or in competition with (membership in universal religions or international interest groups) other forms of social belonging. It also is a complex phenomenon, but it nevertheless seems to be characterized by features more durable than those of other social or group belongings. It resembles ethnic and national belongings but may be less exposed to change if the Paretian hypothesis is correct. It is a phenomenon that probably is grounded in enduring features of human experience, in what once might have been called human nature. Even the dissolution of Toennies's Gemeinschaft into a nonorganic assembly of communitarian relations or the reduction of these relations to simple human relations confined to interindividual space has not severed the bond felt by individuals with the places where they had their most emotionally significant and gratifying personal experiences. Theories of modernity should take account of this fact, and the historicist paradigms that hypothesize a progressive evolution toward cosmopolitanism should be revised. Empirical research must continue, enrich itself with longitudinal surveys, and increase the number of cases observed. Feeling part of a territory and feeling tied to places are still important phenomena in numerous areas of social life.


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Renzo Gubert