Imagine, if you might, the earth with no people. Don’t imagine it as if we have disappeared, but rather that we were never here. There are no houses, no roads, no farms, no institutions, no cities, no nations; just the land and the oceans, the created vegetation, and animals of the water, sea and land.
It seems to be an emptier space in my imagination. There are no cows in North America, nor corn in Europe. And even, if you think of it, the notion of North America and Europe makes no sense if there are no people. Perhaps the world is wilder. Perhaps it is not.
Human beings seem to have a need, perhaps a created desire, to assign meaning to all that we encounter. In giving something a name, we have identified it and categorized it. Often, when we identify something, we also assign it a value or a place. Further, when I identify something, I also make a determination about the level to which I feel connected or attached to it. Do I belong to it (or it to me)?
What does any of this have to do with this week’s topic of social geographies? I would suggest everything. Gill Valentine, in his textbook Social Geographies: Space & Society,  defines social geography as “the study of social relations and the spatial structures that underpin those relations.”  Valentine starts with the smallest spaces that human beings occupy, our own bodies, and explores increasingly larger spaces, from the home to the street, to urban, rural and national spaces. I found the textbook to be quite dissatisfying on multiple levels. Thus, rather than critique a work in which I found too many flaws to be useful, I thought I might instead suggest an alternative line of thought.
If social geography is indeed about social relations and the space that we collectively share, then I would suggest that belonging and identity play a crucial role in understanding social geography.
I have multiple identities. I am a white, dominant culture, educated, middle class, Christian, single, heterosexual, North American woman, from Portland, Oregon. My identity allows me a great deal of privilege in many ways: where I can travel, where I can shop, how others view me, and my access to resources, to name a few things. My identity gives me a sense of place in society (which wouldn’t matter if I were the only person on earth). My identity includes biological, cultural, social, and geographic indicators. Of course, the labels aren’t the only thing about my identity. Each of those indicators carries meaning. This meaning may be positive or negative or something in-between, based on the perspective of who is evaluating it. (Now I could digress into the development of a positive identity, but that is really not my purpose here).
My identity is tied to my sense of belonging. And belonging, in my opinion, is very important for us individually and collectively. Perhaps it is the most important. It is through discussion of belonging that we might be able to move away from a western individualistic perspective to a more multi-active, relational view of society. Belonging gives us a sense of meaning and purpose.
I start my community organization class with this quote from John Donne:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. 
The idea here, of course, is that we are all connected. My actions affect you, as yours affect me. Which takes me back to a sense of belonging. We all seem to have a deep need to belong: to an individual, to a group, to a place. Our sense of connection grounds us. Attachment theorists would say that this is what allows us to develop a healthy sense of self both in our individual identity and in our connection to others.
So let’s talk about the concept of home. I live in a house that I call my home. It is my most personal space. Its décor and contents (and cleanliness) reflect my values. It is the place where I invite family and friends. I belong there; I feel connected there. In more collective societies, this concept of home might be broader; it might be the neighborhood or village where I grew up as opposed to a single house. I also call my city, Portland, home. It’s also the place where I belong. I feel a connection there, and I understand the values and the culture of the city. I understand its comings and goings. It makes sense to me. I also call my country home. And I would also call the earth my home.
All of these places make sense to me. I belong to them and they to me. But it is not the object to which I feel connected so much as the feelings, the memories, the experiences, and most importantly, my connection to people that make these places home. If there were no people, it just wouldn’t matter so much. The stronger my attachment to the people, the stronger my feeling of place and belonging is.
Of course all of this is very simplistic. In a society of many people with many identities and values and practices, there are exchanges that occur. Some of those exchanges result in an increased sense of belonging for some, and a decreased sense of belonging for others. These exchanges are influenced by multiple factors: values, economics, beliefs, assumptions, access, and inclusion/isolation. I could talk about urban development, decay, investment, gentrification, oppression… but that might take a bit more time and space than this little essay. But I will say this: each of us in our individual and collective identities have places or spaces where we feel like we belong. Be it urban or rural, national or local, familial or cultural , or better, multiple intersections of all of these, there are spaces where we belong.
I recognize that not everyone feels like they are welcome or that they belong in all places. And I recognize that this is not simply limited to a personal feeling; that societal structures create inclusion and exclusion. But from a justice perspective I would love to see more and more spaces where all are welcome. Creating those spaces includes acknowledging and understanding the reality that various “ism’s” lead to systemic barriers that exclude people based on their identity/identities.
I am struggling to find an appropriate end to this post. So, I think I will simply include this quote from the Velveteen Rabbit. I think it describes the process of how we get to belong to each other: when we become real.
“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
 Gill Valentine, Social Geographies: Space & Society, Harlow, England: Pearson Education Ltd, 2001.
 ibid, p. 1.
 John Donne, “Meditation XVII”, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, 1624.