Hogeschool van Amsterdam


Individual belongingness in a multicultural environment

17 mei 2017 11:20 | BOOT

This essay is written by Øyvind Sundet and Nor Larsen, for BOOT Nieuw-West, as a part of an internship conducted at BOOT in the field of urban planning. Øyvind and Nor are currently studying the Bachelor’s programme in Administration and management, at the University of Applied Sciences in Oslo, Norway.

Amsterdam is a city with over 180 different nationalities, and has one of the most diverse populations in Europe.[1] This diversity creates a unique society consisting of many different subcultures. In this essay, we look at how subcultures affect individual belonging, and how this knowledge is important when working towards more inclusive societies. In particular: to which degree the strong presence of Moroccan and Turkish subcultures in Geuzenveld-Slotermeer affects the sense of belonging in the elderly Dutch population.[2]

Inclusion and belongingness

The Oxford Dictionary defines inclusiveness as “the quality of including all sections of society”. This implies that to measure how inclusive a society is, we must measure its capability to include all inhabitants. The definition points towards one important element: to which degree a city, neighborhood or community is inclusive, is greatly dependent on how we measure inclusion. We argue that inclusion should be measured as a sum of all the individuals' feeling of being included. Inclusiveness is a broad term. How people feel included will certainly vary between individuals. It could be connected to a sense of belongingness towards a community, or linked to a more engaging sense of the term inclusiveness, for example: degree of participation. For the sake of the essay, we choose to only focus on the feeling of belongingness, as a factor that affects inclusion. We define belongingness as the feeling of being socially and culturally connected to a certain part of society. In our definition of the word, the degree of belongingness is based upon a) the strength of social relations, and b) the degree of familiarity to the ruling culture[3].

The following will focus on individuals feeling of belongingness. It is important to state that the arguments are based upon highly subjective experiences from a random group of people, and should not be interpreted as representative for the population at large. Also, when referring to “Dutch culture”, it is the subjects' subjective understanding of the term we are referring to. We see no need to define “Dutch culture”, as the following statements are based on personal views.

Belongingness from the perspective of the elder Dutch population of Geuzenveld-Slotermeer, Amsterdam.

In the light of our conversations with the elderly Dutch population of Geuzenveld-Slotermeer, it appears they have experienced a significant change in belongingness towards their community, throughout their life. The fact that they have been a part of a time where Dutch society has transformed through the effect of mass immigration, makes their experience quite valuable.

In short: we spoke to a total of seven people in the “elderly segment”. They all claimed to have lost a sense of belonging over the course of their lifetime living in Amsterdam. The strength of this feeling did naturally depend on each individual experience, but nevertheless they all related to some degree of loss. Furthermore, they all related the loss of belonging to feeling less included in the local community. There was a shared opinion about this being related to the creation of strong subcultures in the neighborhood. The majority of the subjects pointed out the social and cultural differences as especially damaging for their own sense of belonging. Certain differences, like language and religion, make it hard to socially interact. In some cases there was a total lack of willingness to communicate between people of different subcultures. One of the subjects referred to this as a religious issue: ”They do not want to speak to me, because i am not a believer”.

Whether the lack of communication between individuals of different nationalities is in fact a religious issue or not, is not of importance when discussing inclusion as a feeling linked to belongingness. What is worth pointing out, is how segregated subcultures might affect individuals’ sense of belonging, especially in areas that are heavily influenced by one specific subculture.

Some of the subjects commented on how immigration has affected the physical space in the city. The influence of both Moroccan and Turkish culture is highly visible in most part of Geuzenveld-Slotermeer, with new shops, markets, companies and religious buildings. Few of the people we came into contact with were complaining about the ever increasing presence of these cultures. In fact, they talked about these cultures mostly in positive or neutral wording. However, they experienced the uneven distribution of nationality in the neighborhood as troublesome, because the increase of these cultures happens at the expense of Dutch culture. The decreasing presence of familiarity seems to affect the elderly’s sense of belonging in a negative fashion. Which ultimately leaves them feeling less included.

The elderly seem to link their sense of belonging to two factors: familiarity of culture and social belonging. It would be logical to believe that a more evenly distribution of subcultures in the area would help to increase their feeling of belongingness to a certain extent. More Dutch culture would lead to more familiarity, a bigger Dutch population would lead to a greater social belonging. Hypothetical, this could be of help. On the other hand, this is only one of many points of view. What makes the different inhabitants of Geuzenveld-Slotermeer feel a sense of belonging is highly subjective. Through the effort of trying to increase belongingness for the elderly Dutch, one might decrease the sense of belongingness for a middle-aged man with Turkish heritage. To add to the complexion, different social classes will probably connect their sense of belonging to different aspects of Dutch culture. Which furthermore questions the actual definition of what Dutch culture is and should be. On this basis, we argue that there is no such thing as an equally inclusive society for all. The sense of belonging is highly dynamic and will continually change with time, affected by many different variables. We can never fully control this dynamic process, but we can try to meet the challenges it creates. Rather than working towards a goal of equal inclusiveness, effort will be better invested by creating specific methods that will benefit the most vulnerable segments of society. In this case, as an example: developing methods that specifically aims to help elderly people create better social networks. Preferably connecting elderly people of different nationalities and social classes.

In this essay we have linked inclusiveness to the feeling of belongingness. Through the perspective of the elderly Dutch population, we have shown that strong subcultures can affect the individual sense of belonging. Further, we have argued that there never will be an equal sense of belonging for all the different demographics inside a society, and that working towards a goal of equal inclusion is a “dead end”. Rather, we suggest approaching the issue by focusing on increasing belongingness in specific segments, which will contribute to a more inclusive society in total. Accepting the fact that Geuzenveld-Slotermeer never will be similarly inclusive for all its inhabitants, does not mean we cannot work towards making it more inclusive.



[1] http://www.iamsterdam.com/en/local/about-amsterdam/people-culture/diversity-in-the-city

[2] The individuals referred to as ”elderly Dutch” in this essay are in the age segment of 55 – 75, and have lived their whole life in Amsterdam.

[3] Culture defined by characteristics like language, religion, cuisine, music, arts.