The Politics of Belonging
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The Politics of Belonging

Intersectional Contestations

Nira Yuval-Davis

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eBook - ePub

The Politics of Belonging

Intersectional Contestations

Nira Yuval-Davis

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About This Book

"This is an in-depth examination of a slippery and contradictory subject. Knowledge alone is not enough for this type of project. It takes breaking out of narrow conceptual cages and unsettling what we think of as stable meanings. The author brings all of this to life in often unforgettable ways."
- Saskia Sassen, Professor, Columbia University "National identities were once taken largely for granted in social science. Now they are part of an even more complex ?politics of belonging? that challenges both public affairs and the categories of social science. Nira Yuval-Davis offers a nuanced account that will be important for scholars and all those concerned with contemporary politics."
- Craig Calhoun, Director, LSE This is a cutting-edge investigation of the challenging debates around belonging and the politics of belonging. Alongside the hegemonic forms of citizenship and nationalism which have tended to dominate our recent political and social history, Nira Yuval-Davis examines alternative contemporary political projects of belonging constructed around the notions of religion, cosmopolitanism and the feminist ?ethics of care?. The book also explores the effects of globalization, mass migration, the rise of both fundamentalist and human rights movements on such politics of belonging, as well as some of its racialized and gendered dimensions. A special space is given to the various feminist political movements that have been engaged as part of or in resistance to the political projects of belonging.

Yuval-Davis deconstructs notions of national and ethnic and interrogates the effects that different political projects of belonging have on members of these collectivities who are differentially located socially, economically and politically.

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Introduction: Framing the Questions

In the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings in London during the summer of 2005, one question seems to have bothered many of the journalists who wrote about this – how is it possible that ‘British’ people were able to carry out such atrocities in Britain? The reasons why these particular people became suicide bombers are no doubt complex and could be found in the particular biographies of these people as well as in some more general micro and macro social and political factors. I shall try and relate to some of these in Chapter 4 which looks at issues concerning religion, fundamentalism and contemporary politics of belonging. However, the theoretical question which is at the heart of the project of this book as a whole concerns the assumptions which led these journalists – and so many others in the general public in Britain and outside it – to feel that carrying a British passport, or even being born and educated in Britain, should have automatically made them belong with other British citizens and ‘immune’ from taking part in such an attack. In other words, why would people’s nationality be more important to them than their religious and political beliefs, and why should they feel more loyal to the British nation than to other political and religious collectivities? Are nationalist politics of belonging still the hegemonic model of belonging at the beginning of the twenty-first century? And if so, what kind of nationalism is this? And if not, what other political projects of belonging are now competing with nationalism? Mohammad Sidique Khan, one of the 7/7 bombers who made a videotape that was shown by Al Jazeera (September 1, 2005), does talk about ‘my people’ in his statement, but he meant Muslims ‘all over the world’ and definitely not the British people.
The questions of belonging and the politics of belonging constitute some of the most difficult issues that are confronting all of us these days and this book hopes to contribute to the understanding of some of them. In these post 9/11 (and 7/7) times, ‘strangers’ are seen not only as a threat to the cohesion of the political and cultural community, but also as potential terrorists, especially the younger men among them. The question of who is ‘a stranger’ and who ‘does not belong’, however, is also continuously being modified and contested, with growing ethnic, cultural and religious tensions within as well as between societies and states. Politics of belonging have come to occupy the heart of the political agenda almost everywhere in the world, even when reified assumptions about ‘the clash of civilizations’ (Huntington, 1993) are not necessarily applied. As Francis B. Nyamnjoh points out (2005: 18), ‘in Africa, as elsewhere, there is a growing obsession with belonging, along with new questions concerning conventional assumptions about nationality and citizenship’. And Hedetoff and Hjort (2002: x) point out in the introduction to their edited book that ‘today belonging constitutes a political and cultural field of global contestation, anywhere between ascriptions of belonging and self-constructed definitions of new spaces of culture, freedom and identity’.
The aim of this chapter is to frame, both theoretically and contextually, the questions which are going to be explored elsewhere in this book. I aim to outline some of the main debates that have emerged both in academia and in the political arena around various major political projects of belonging. Alongside the hegemonic forms of citizenship and nationalism which have tended to dominate the twentieth century, the book also investigates alternative contemporary political projects of belonging that are constructed around the notions of religion, cosmopolitanism and the feminist ‘ethics of care’. Constructions and contestations of multiculturalism, multi-faithism, indigenous and diasporic political projects of belonging constitute only some of these debates. The effects of globalization, mass migration, the rise of both fundamentalist and human rights movements on such politics of belonging, as well as some of its racialized and gendered dimensions will also be investigated. A special place will also be given to the various feminist political movements that have been engaged as part of or in resistance to the political projects of belonging discussed in the book.
The analytical perspective which is used is intersectional, deconstructing simplistic notions of national and ethnic collectivities and their boundaries and interrogating some of the differential effects that different political projects of belonging have on different members of these collectivities who are differentially located socially, economically and politically. It is for this reason that the first part of this introductory chapter examines the notion of intersectionality.
Once this theoretical framework has been clarified, the chapter introduces the notions of belonging and the politics of belonging, the subject matter of the book, and the notions of social locations, identifications and values which are central for their understanding. It also illustrates some of the different relationships between different constructions of belonging and different political projects of belonging, using examples from related discourses in the UK.
This introduction then moves on to outline some of the general features of the contemporary globalization context, within which the various intersectional political projects of belonging discussed in this book operate. It discusses globalization, how states have been reconfigured under neo-liberal globalization and the ways in which mass migration and the discourse of securitization can affect and are affected by these processes.
The following chapters, a brief description of which ends this chapter, then explore some of the major contemporary political projects of belonging constructed around citizenship, nationalism, religion, cosmopolitanism and the feminist project of ‘ethics of care’. Given the limitations of space in this book, these chapters will mainly focus on various theoretical and political issues relating to these projects and their differential intersectional effects can only be pointed to rather than explored in detail. The final concluding chapter briefly sums up the subjects discussed in the book and highlights their normative, as well as emotional and analytical facets. The book ends with a short meditation on the notion of hope and the role it plays in transversal feminist politics.


Lesley McCall (2005: 1771) and others would argue that intersectionality is ‘the most important theoretical contribution that women’s studies, in conjunction with related fields, has made so far’. Indeed, the imprint of intersectional analysis can be easily traced to innovations in equality legislation, human rights and development discourses. Amazingly enough, however, in spite of the term’s ‘brilliant career’ (Lutz, 2002), intersectionality hardly appears in sociological stratification theories (a notable exception is Anthias, 2005; see also Yuval-Davis, 2011a). So what is intersectionality?
Epistemologically, intersectionality can be described as a development of feminist standpoint theory which claims, in somewhat different ways, that it is vital to account for the social positioning of the social agent and challenge ‘the god-trick of seeing everything from nowhere’ (Haraway, 1991: 189) as a cover for and a legitimization of a hegemonic masculinist ‘positivistic’ positioning. Situated gaze, situated knowledge and situated imagination (Stoetzler & Yuval-Davis, 2002), construct how we see the world in different ways. However, intersectionality theory was even more interested in how the differential situatedness of different social agents affects the ways they affect and are affected by different social, economic and political projects. In this way it can no doubt be considered as one of the outcomes of the mobilization and proliferation of different identity groups’ struggles for recognition (Taylor, 1992; Fraser, 1995).
The history of what is currently called ‘intersectional thinking’ is long, and many pinpoint the famous speech of the emancipated slave Sojourner Truth (Brah & Phoenix, 2004) during the first wave of feminism as one early illustration of it. Sojourner Truth was speaking at an abolitionist convention and argued that, given her position in society, although she worked hard and carried heavy loads, etc., this did not make her less of a woman and a mother than women of a privileged background who were constructed as weak and in need of constant help and protection as a result of what society considered to be ‘feminine’ ways.
Indeed, intersectional analysis, before becoming ‘mainstreamed’, was carried out for many years mainly by black and other racialized women who, from their situated gaze, perceived as absurd, and not just misleading, any attempt by feminists and others, since the start of the second wave of feminism, to homogenize women’s situation and especially to find it analogous to that of blacks. As bell hooks, who chose Truth’s crie du coeur ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ as the title of her first book (hooks, 1981), mockingly remarked in the introduction to that book: ‘This implies that all women are White and all Blacks are men’.
As Brah and Phoenix (2004: 80) point out, other black feminists fulfilled significant roles in the development of intersectional analysis, such as the Combahee River Collective, the black lesbian feminist organization from Boston, who as early as 1977 pointed to the need to develop an integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression were interlocking. Angela Davis, who has come to symbolize for many the spirit of revolutionary black feminism, published her book Women, Race and Class in 1981. However, the term ‘intersectionality’ was itself introduced in 1989 by another American black feminist, the legal and critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989), when she discussed the issues surrounding black women’s employment in the USA and the intersection of gender, race and class matters in their exploitation and exclusion.
However, what can be called intersectional analysis was developed roughly at the same time by several European and post-colonial feminists (e.g. Bryan et al., 1985; James, 1986; Essed, 1991; Lutz, 1991) as well. As Sandra Harding claimed, when she examined the parallel development of feminist standpoint theory:
…[F]eminist standpoint theory was evidently an idea whose time had come, since most of these authors worked independently and were unaware of each other’s work. (Standpoint theory would itself call for such a social history of ideas, would it not?) (Harding, 1997: 389)
This was obviously the case also with the development of intersectionality theory.
My own work in the field of intersectionality (although back then we called it ‘social divisions’) started in the early 1980s when, in collaboration with Floya Anthias (e.g. Anthias & Yuval-Davis, 1983, 1992), we started to study gender and ethnic divisions in South East London and at the same time became engaged in a debate with British black feminists, organized then as OWAAD1, on the right way to theorize what would now be called an intersectional approach.
As argued in my (2006b) article, some of the basic debates we had with them then still continue to occupy those who are engaged in intersectional analysis today, after it became ‘mainstreamed’ and came to be accepted by the United Nations, the European Union and other equality and equity policy organizations in many countries. Part of the differences among those who use intersectionality have resulted from the different disciplines and purposes for which it is being used: others differences have not.
Rather than engage in describing some of the historical debates around intersectionality, whether in Britain or in the UN (as I did in my (2006b) article, but see also Brah & Phoenix, 2004; Nash, 2008), I am going to outline below the main characteristics of the constitutive intersectional approach which is applied throughout this book. While doing so, however, I would also recognize the sense of discomfort that many feminists (including myself) share regarding the term ‘intersectionality’ itself.
Intersectionality is a metaphorical term, aimed at evoking images of a road intersection, with an indeterminate or contested number of intersecting roads, depending on the various users of the terms and how many social divisions are considered in the particular intersectional analysis. As will be developed a bit further below, this can change considerably from two to infinity. In a lecture in 2008, Kum-Kum Bhavnani used the term ‘configurations’ as an alternative metaphor, wanting to emphasize the flowing interweaving threads which constitute intersectionality, which she found a much too rigid and fixed metaphor. Davina Cooper (2004: 12) also explains that she used the term ‘social dynamics’ rather than intersectionality, because she wanted her terminology to trace the shifting ways relations of inequality become attached to various aspects of social life. While agreeing with all these reservations, which are important for the theorization of intersectionality in this book, I do retain the term as being so widespread it evokes an intuitive understanding of the subject matter discussed in spite of all the reservations.
Three main positions in relation to the intersectionality approach used in this book need to be clarified here. The first relates to the division McCall (2005) makes between those approaches to intersectionality which she calls ‘inter-categorical’ and ‘intra-categorical’; the second relates to the relationships which should be understood as existing between the various intersectional categories; and the third relates to the boundaries of the intersectional approach and thus the number of as well as which social categories should be included in intersectional analysis inter- or intra-categories?
According to McCall, studies that have used an intersectional approach differ as to whether they have used an inter- or intra-categorical approach. By an inter-categorical approach she means focusing on the way the intersection of different social categories, such as race, gender, class, etc., affects particular social behaviours or the distribution of resources. Intra-categorical studies, on the other hand, are less occupied with the relationships among various social categories and instead problematize the meaning and boundaries of the categories themselves, such as whether black women were included in the category ‘women’ or what are the shifting boundaries of who is considered to be ‘black’ in a particular place and time.
Unlike McCall, I do not see these two approaches as mutually exclusive and instead would ask for an intersectionality approach which combines the sensitivity and dynamism of the intra-categorical approach with the more macro socio-economic perspective of the inter-categorical approach. As will be elaborated below, I consider as crucial the analytical differentiation between different facets of social analysis – that of people’s positionings along socio-economic grids of power; that of people’s experiential and identificatory perspectives of where they belong; and that of their normative value systems. These different facets2 are related to each other but are also irreducible to each other (on the different ontological bases of the different social divisions please see my article – Yuval-Davis, 2006a). Moreover, although I consider intersectional analysis to be a development of feminist standpoint theory, I would also argue that there is no direct causal relationship between the situatedness of people’s gaze and their cognitive, emotional and moral perspectives on life. People born into the same families and/or the same time and social environment can have different identifications and political views. For this reason alone it is not enough to construct inter-categorical tabulations in order to predict and, even more so, to understand people’s positions and attitudes to life.

The relationship between the social categories

There is another reason for the inadequacy of using an inter-categorical approach on its own. Unless it is complemented with an intra-categorical approach, it can be understood as an additive rather than a mutually constitutive approach to the relationships between social categories.
Although discourses of race, gender, class, etc. have their own ontological bases which cannot be reduced down to each other, there is no separate concrete meaning of any facet of these social categories, as they are mutually constitutive in any concrete historical moment. To be a woman will be different whether you are middle class or working class, a member of the hegemonic majority or a racialized minority, living in the city or in the country, young or old, gay or straight, etc. Viewing intersectional analysis in this way links the interrogation of concrete meanings of categories and their boundaries to specific historical contexts which are shifting and contested, rather than just abstracting ontological and epistemological enquiries. However, simply assuming that any particular inter-categorical study would result in a full understanding of the specific constructions of any particular social category in any particular context, as McCall does, is also reductionist.

The boundaries of intersectional analysis and intersectional categories

Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989: 139) define intersectionality as ‘the multidimensionality of marginalized subjects’ lived experiences’. Other black feminists (e.g. Dill, 1983; Bryan et al., 1985) also remain within the triad boundaries of race, class and gender. Philomena Essed (1991) even limits this to the two dimensions of ‘gendered racisms’ and ‘racist genderisms’. Others have added the specific categories they were interested in, such as age (e.g. Bradley, 1996); disability (e.g. Oliver, 1995; Meekosha & Dowse, 1997); sedentarism (e.g. Lentin, 1999); or sexuality (e.g. Kitzinger, 1987). In other works, however, feminists attempted to develop complete lists and included in them much higher numbers – for example, Helma Lutz (2002) relates this to 14 categories while Charlotte ...

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Citation styles for The Politics of Belonging
APA 6 Citation
Yuval-Davis, N. (2011). The Politics of Belonging (1st ed.). SAGE Publications. Retrieved from (Original work published 2011)
Chicago Citation
Yuval-Davis, Nira. (2011) 2011. The Politics of Belonging. 1st ed. SAGE Publications.
Harvard Citation
Yuval-Davis, N. (2011) The Politics of Belonging. 1st edn. SAGE Publications. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Yuval-Davis, Nira. The Politics of Belonging. 1st ed. SAGE Publications, 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.