Rediscovering the sense of belonging in social research: A new survey measure

Social integration and participation cannot be conceived of without a "sense of belonging", but so far there has been no instrument that is suitable to measure this important social concept. The authors of a new validation study introduced an emotion-centered survey instrument with important applications to the analysis of marginalization, unemployment, gentrification, migration, and the impact of Covid-19 pandemic on social disintegration and isolation.

Defining the sense of belonging

It is part and parcel of human well-being to feel a “sense of belonging” – that is, to feel connected, to feel a part of something, to feel like one fits in an environment or group and can identify with values, ideas, and roles.

A sense of belonging is also an essential hallmark of social integration and participation. In times of globalization and an increasingly dynamic and fragmented social fabric, belonging and sense of belonging may well be key concepts for investigating social inclusion and exclusion, embeddedness and well-being.

The concepts of “belonging”, “belongingness”, and “sense of belonging” have long been employed across various disciplines in the social and behavioral sciences. However, sense of belonging as an empirical concept remains underdeveloped.

In classical sociological conceptions, belonging has long been defined in terms of “membership” to a certain group or entity. In sociological surveys, questions are often asked about the extent to which respondents feel belonging to the country they live in or to their religious group. Focusing on pre-defined objects of belonging seems somewhat narrow and, in the case of categories like nations, outdated and abstract to present-day respondents. We also argue that these conceptions of belonging fail to capture what’s essential for an individual: to feel a sense of belonging somehow and somewhere.

Other strands of research, personality psychology for example, have studied belonging to understand individual differences. Here, the likelihood of feeling a sense of belonging is treated as an individual psychological trait, which helps explain how an individual relates to her surroundings. This belongingness construct is very specific and was never suited for large-scale sociological inquiries.

An emotion-centered measurement instrument

We believe that there is need for a sense of belonging construct and a corresponding measurement instrument that is emotion-centric and sensitive to the impacts of an individual’s circumstances over and above personality features. Such measurement instrument holds great potential for numerous facets of social research:

There are manifold societal developments and social circumstances whose ramifications might be better understood with the help of a sense of belonging measure – for example, marginalisation, unemployment, gentrification, migration, and the Covid-19 pandemic with its potential to promote social disintegration and isolation. In all of these contexts, a suitable sense of belonging construct could capture vital elements of social embeddedness, which are directly related to overall well-being.

Image by MetsikGarden from Pixabay

The pillars of belonging

To effectively assess the sense of belonging concept we suggest, we rely on four central pillars of belonging:

  • connectedness
  • participation
  • identification
  • congruence.

These elements are the foundation for our 4-item brief scale, the Challenged Sense of Belonging Scale (CSBS):

  • I feel disconnected from those around me
  • I don’t feel that I participate with anyone or any group
  • I am troubled by a feeling I have no place in this world
  • I feel torn between worlds

Feelings of disconnection, of not participating, and of not having a place in the world tap into various facets of being part of a social entity or system. These feelings are neither mutually in- nor exclusive. A worker doing a particular job, for instance, may be well integrated and feel connected to her colleagues and even feel valued in the workplace, yet, at the same time feel out of place because she doesn’t identify with the job.

Migration and the sense of belonging

The congruence element captures the erosion of sense of belonging that may arise when different contexts within which one is embedded conflict. A classic example is that of migrants feeling torn between their pre-migration and post-migration lives: perhaps feeling accepted by, and attached to, new social circles after migration but never feeling fully understood and experiencing discord between old and new values and practices.

Migration, of course, is one area in which questions of belonging are of particular interest in general. We therefore tested and validated our newly developed CSBS scale in the third wave of the IAB-BAMF-SOEP Survey of Refugees, a sample of 4376 asylum seekers and refugees who migrated to Germany between 2013 and 2016. Our study provides evidence for the scale’s validity and internal reliability in English, Standard Arabic, and Farsi/Dari.

Sense of belonging is a potentially valuable and timely construct for a large variety of populations and contexts. The CSBS is a rich instrument for measuring a challenged or eroded sense of belonging that can readily be included in surveys of any size.

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