Reading about a sense of belonging, and how it is more complicated than we might think

Belonging is a tricky concept and there is no consensus on how to measure it. And belonging can be in the university environment, in a course, in a discipline, with peers… Many scales include an aspect of “fitting in”, which is then sometimes turned around on students as pressure to fit in with their peers, or a deficit if they don’t. And the focus is often on students that are in some way “disadvantaged”, which basically means everyone who is not young, white, middle class and male. But despite “belonging” maybe not being what we should be looking at, or maybe not even exactly what we mean, I read a bit more.

Ahn & Davis (2023) investigate “Students’ sense of belonging and their socio-economic status in higher education: a quantitative approach”. In a survey, they find that there is a strong link between belonging (especially academic and social engagement, but without those two being correlated) and retention. They find a correlation between being non-traditional/disadvantaged and not participating in social activities and thus being dissatisfied with social life, but this was the only factor where all those student characteristics are correlated in the same direction. Other than that, it is complicated: Mature students might have more life experiences to cope with stress, but at the same time might have more caring responsibilities and less time for studies, but then again more money to invest in child care. In summary, the authors recommend a) investigating belonging, and especially factors for disadvantage, in a more nuanced way depending on which student population one wants to serve, and b) supporting social engagement through e.g. transport to campus, financial support, etc..

Gravett & Ajjawi (2022) write about “Belonging as situated practice”. The article was motivated by the shift to emergency remote teaching during the covid-19 pandemic, and the clear impact that must have had on what it means to “belong”, when extracurricular or curricular activities suddenly changed completely, and also spaces like the campus or libraries were not part of students’ daily routines any more. What does it mean now to belong? The authors challenge several implicit assumptions: (i) that belonging is a uniform and universal experience, rather than one that depends on e.g. gender, race, or class; which then begs the question of who is it really that belongs, and whom and what do they belong to? And is belonging really always desirable? And what happens if a sense of belonging with university is strengthened, what other belonging is weakened or lost? What if students actively and consciously choose not wanting to belong with university? (ii) that belonging can be achieved and is then a fixed state. But belonging can clearly also be influenced by non-human actors (like a virus… Or, what they talk about, the materials and artifacts and spaces used in learning), and the experiences relating to belonging are probably individual and depending on space and time. (iii) Online learning, then, isn’t as “do it anywhere, anytime” as it is sometimes sold as. It depends, very obviously, on the students having access to a space to sit with internet access, and that space might be shared with others, comfortable, quiet, or not. So learning can never be “fully online”, since the student themselves is still physically situated in a space — and likely multiple different spaces during a typical day — that influence their learning, and their sense of belonging — to university, or to other identities. So belonging is definitely a lot less well-defined or easy to explore as we might have thought, but at the same time so much more interesting!

I find this description and view of belonging really enriching, and to me it relates back to the lockdown during the pandemic, when I did a lot of #KitchenOceanography in video calls with people sitting at home, doing their hands-on experiments while I was showing more complex experiments from my kitchen, and for me the practice of doing #KitchenOceanography, and the community in the virtual space, definitely contributed a lot to my feeling of belonging and purpose, even though I was stuck in my own home, and it also raises the question of how much we can and maybe should help students create work spaces that contribute to a sense of belonging, not just through access, but maybe through objects related to their practice, or art? Glad I discovered this article, plenty to think about now!

Mi Young Ahn & Howard H. Davis (2023) Students’ sense of belonging and their socio-economic status in higher education: a quantitative approach, Teaching in Higher Education, 28:1, 136-149, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2020.1778664

Karen Gravett & Rola Ajjawi (2022) Belonging as situated practice, Studies in Higher Education, 47:7, 1386-1396, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2021.1894118

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