Iida Kauhanen

I am conducting a study in participation with youth who once arrived Finland as unaccompanied asylum seeking youth. The guiding theory in my research is recognition theory and it is the reason why I got involved with ReBel research group. I have previously not given much attention to the concept of belonging in the midst of doing everything else and thought rather blindly that sense of belonging is more or less something that is in relation to a community or some sort of a communal sense. But as we were talking about it in a meeting with the ReBel research group, I was left thinking about the concept more thoroughly. What are the basic conditions for belonging? How do the conditions differ in different contexts, for example when thinking about belonging to some social group or to a place? What is the relation of belonging and recognition (and is there even one – or several)?

In his 1995 book “The Struggle for Recognition. The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts”, Axel Honneth identifies three forms of recognition: Love, Rights and Solidarity. With the following thoughts, including excerpts of my life experiences, I will share my thoughts about the conditions of belonging and their relation to these three forms of recognition, hoping that it will raise some more discussion on the topic.


Love, in Honneth’s recognition theory refers to the primary deep and strong relationships with people, for example, with a parent and a child, but also with friends and with lovers. The aspect of love states that everyone needs to be recognised as a unique being with unique needs and feelings in a reciprocal loving relationships. Honneth sees that to gain a possibility for further self-respect, one needs first to be recognised through these loving relationships. He states that only the symbiotic bond between lovers, family or friends, create enough self-confidence to participate the community as an autonomous self. Many scholars have questioned this hierarchical dimension of recognition and do not see love aspect of recognition only as a primary source for gaining autonomy and self-respect, but they see all the aspects of recognition more as overlapping forms of building an appreciate image of oneself.

I grew up in small town in Northern Finland. I was not born there, but moved over there when I was three and half years old. All throughout my childhood, I remember not feeling like I belonged to my new town. Even now, being an adult, I never say I come from this are in Northern Finland, but proudly tell I come from the Savo area (center-eastern part of Finland). The strong connection to the small Savo town, where I was born in, remained. As a child, I always wanted to move back and repeatedly told that to my parents. Most of my extensive family lived in that town back then and I also had several friends about my own age, who I would meet up whenever we went over there. I definitely belonged there. At home, I also had several friends, but there was only one with whom I really felt belonging with. For me, as a child, the greatest defining factor of belonging would have been the people surrounding me. The importance of significant other in negotiating the sense of belonging, has also been pointed out in several research with unaccompanied asylum seeking children.

Thinking about myself and the small town in Savo, the sense of belonging seems to relate to many primary experiences of unconditional love that created a feeling of safety and security within the community. So at least in this part of my life, being recognised through the aspect of love, was very important in order for me to feel belonging.


Honneth’s second aspect of recognition is Rights. This refers to recognition of each person’s legal rights, but also to seeing each person as a bearer of duties. To be recognised through the rights aspect, one has to be seen as an autonomous member of a community and being counted equally worthy of being part of different societal actions within the community. The rights aspect also includes a notion of individual freedom.

As a white, more or less heterosexual woman, whose mother tongue is Finnish, living in Finland, the rights aspect of recognition is something I take mostly for granted. I tried to think of situations, where one could feel belonging without recognition through rights and started thinking about nature. Forests, for example, are a source of some sort of inner peace. Forests allow me (can they recognise?) to be exactly and only who I feel to be at that very moment. Somehow, being in nature has always given me a sense of belonging. Now why do I feel belonging in forests and is some form of recognition needed in order to feel belonging in nature? I have never really thought about the fact that as a person living in Finland, I have been given the right to be in nature almost anywhere in the country. But would not having that legal recognition for my right to be in nature, result in not being able to feel belonging in nature? Can one feel belonging to a place if one has no legal or social right to reside in that place or if the right is constantly being questioned – like in the case of asylum seeking people, for example? It may be possible, especially if the community within the place supports the sense of belonging, but if one does not have such a community, is it possible to feel belonging merely to a place without any form of recognition through rights?


My grandmother always said that when I play the piano, I give a soul to music and that music lives in me. My grandmothers’ words resemble perfectly the feeling I had as a child and how I mostly still feel when playing piano just for myself. Unfortunately the pure relationship with music was later disrupted by a demanding piano teacher who failed to recognise my needs and abilities as a student. Nevertheless, as a child, I was one with the piano and the piano was one with me. I shared a sense of belonging with the piano.

To be understood by a community in a way that recites to one’s own constructive self-image is essential in the solidarity part of recognition. Moreover, solidarity in recognition theory means that one’s unique characteristics and skills are being recognised within reciprocal relationships.

This example of solidarity part of recognition and its’ relation to music may be difficult to grasp, especially as I am not positive if one can say a relationship with a piano can be reciprocal. However, music for me is a communal element, even when being together with music without other beings. There is something in music that somehow resonates with most people. Also, I was able to have reciprocal relationships through music with people. And somehow music also created a safe and secure place for myself. I was recognised as the person I was, without any judgements.

Hence, music gave me a possibility to be recognised through my abilities as a pianist. Being allowed to perform in concerts, created a feeling of being accepted as a vital part of the community. In my childhood, music was one of the very few areas in life where I felt being recognised, which certainly enhanced, if not created, the feeling of belonging within the community of music.


The excerpt from my life were chosen randomly when I was thinking about situations or places that create or have created a strong sense of belonging for myself. Having gone through this small process of thinking of belonging and recognition, it seems that I am negotiating my sense of belonging with rather strict terms. I dare say that all three forms of recognition do not have to always be “fulfilled”. However, to be able to feel belonging, it seems that at least some form of recognition is required. Having said that, I realise that the discussion of these concepts presented here, is a sum of my present understanding of the history I share with the world. Thereafter, rather than finding any major conclusion for my thoughts I will finish this piece of writing with more questions: How can one negotiate sense of belonging, if they are not representing a majority in the residing country or if there are no representations resembling their personal selves in the society? If being would be repeatedly socially, culturally and legally questioned, could one really still feel belonging within that state or community? In these cases, would one then try to reach to any small evidences of belonging and cling to them as hard as they could when they found some and be able to feel belonging without being recognised?


To dig in deeper with recognition theory, here are some useful readings:

Honneth, A (1995a) Integrity and disrespect. In: Honneth, A. & Wright, C. W. (1995). The fragmented world of the social: Essays in social and political philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press. (pp. 247-260)

Honneth, A (1995b) The Struggle for Recognition. The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Honneth, A (2012) The I in We: Studies in the Theory of Recognition. Cambridge: Polity Press

Houston, S & Dolan, P (2008) Conceptualising child and family support: The contribution of Honneth’s critical theory of recognition. Children and Society, 22: 458-469

Kallio, K P (2014) Intergenerational recognition as political practice. In: Robert Vanderbeck & Nancy Worth (eds.) Intergenerational Space. London: Routledge, 139-154.

Kallio, K, Korkiamäki, R & Häkli, J (2015) Myönteinen tunnistaminen – näkökulma hyvinvoinnin edistämiseen ja syrjäytymisen ehkäisemiseen. Helsinki: Nuorisotutkimusseura.

Taylor, C (1994) Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Some examples of research related to belonging or recognition and unaccompanied asylum seeking children and youth:

Kaukko, M & Wernesjö, U (2017) Belonging and participation in liminality: Unaccompanied children in Finland and Sweden. Childhood, 24(1), 7-20. https://doi.org/10.1177/0907568216649104

Oppedal, B & Idsoe, T ( 2015) The role of social support in the acculturation and mental health of unaccompanied minor asylum seekers. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 56, 203-211.

O’Toole Thommessen SA, Corcoran P, Todd BK (2017) Voices rarely heard: Personal construct assessments of Sub-Saharan unaccompanied asylum-seeking and refugee youth in England. Children and Youth Services Review, 81:293-300. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2017.08.017

Sirriyeh, A, Ní Raghallaigh, M (2018) Foster care, recognition and transitions to adulthood for unaccompanied asylum seeking young people in England and Ireland. Children and services review, 92: 89-99.

Wernesjö, U (2015) Landing in a rural village: home and belonging from the perspectives of unaccompanied young refugees. Identities, 22(4): 451-467, https://doi.org/10.1080/1070289X.2014.962028

Wells, K (2011) The strength of weak ties: the social networks of young separated asylum seekers and refugees in London. Children’s Geographies, 9(3-4): 319-329, https://doi.org/10.1080/14733285.2011.590710


(Photo by Iida Kauhanen)

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