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On a sense of place ~ belonging, displacement and immigration

The making of meaning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Events happen in a specific context, in a real place and we make sense of what happens to us in that space. We form a sense of place as our bodies move through different spaces (in my model for the embodied sense of meaning, I call it spatiality).

How do we form a sense of place? Similar to the idea of spatiality, humans’ sense of place has been driven by an interconnectedness as a result of globalisation, the instantaneous availability of information through technology, receding the boundaries between places (and here it also refers to the sense of a virtual place in a virtual world), and increased mobility, with people experiencing a multiple sense of place. Sense of place is comprised by features such as the physical environment, meaningfulness, rootedness, emotional attachment, place satisfaction, place identity and belonging, with a crucial focus on relationships (Eyles & Williams 2008). Sense of place is a tangible, sensory experience of the physical environment, or an embodied sensing of a physical place. Sense of place relates to the health and well-being of the bodies within that place, and, I would argue, to the theological concept of human flourishing.

A variety of factors can influence this sensed relationship between bodies and place like age, ethnicity, time, residential status as well as the physical place itself (DeMiglio & Williams 2008). It takes time for people to establish a new sense of place as a result of events such as immigration and displacement. This process can happen based on what is happening in the present, while recalling the past. The geographers Kearns and Gesler write that sense of place is determined in the interactive relationship ‘between daily experiences of a (local) place and perceptions of one’s place in the world … and can be used to interpret a range of situated health effects that imply a link between mind, body and society’.

Places also have multiple meanings and the possibility of multiple associations connected to it based on activities, personal experience as well as social history, but these are closely attached to language practices. The use of different languages could potentially lead to the division of an ‘old self’ and ‘new self’ e.g. amongst immigrants (Taylor 2010). The issue for many immigrants is how they could ‘lose their foreign-ness while retaining a sense of self … an elastic balance between rigidity and self-effacement?’ (Craith 2012). This issue is an interplay with the relation between place and identity, of belonging somewhere, of being an outsider or insider. The quest for belonging and being at home is often tested when there is a threat to personal safety through violence.

A space is first of all connected to a specific, local place where belonging and attachment, a person’s sense of place heavily impacts on their well-being in a concrete and specific life-world. Within theological anthropology the notion of human flourishing embraces well-being and expands it, where human flourishing is to allow yourself and other bodies, human and non-human to thrive within the relationships one have to other creatures and institutions, through wise action and in accountability to God, in the way we live in the bodies that we have and the bodies that we are.

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