Geographies of the mind and the psychology of place attachment

Writing by Isabelle Woodhouse. Illustration by Caitlin Osfield.


Imagine the mind: how scientists illustrate the human brain and the connections within it for the world to understand. The deep wrinkles, the fleshy, physical furrows overlaid with the finest of lines connecting the dots; nerves connected to other nerves, different regions nonetheless drawn together as part of the whole.

Now imagine a map laid out flat on a table – a 3D, raised relief map, even better – dotted with coloured drawing pins, and the drawing pins connected by taught string. Maybe this setup is recording a journey through the wilderness, and all the stops made along the way. Or maybe it shows the villages and small settlements surrounding a city, interconnected in an inherently two-way relationship.

Combining these two visually similar models - if we consider the places we pass through in our lives as building up a personal psychological geography - might come a little closer to capturing how place impacts identity and shapes future experiences of belonging.

This concept of place playing a role in the shaping of the self can be termed ‘place attachment’ or ‘psychology of place’. While defined in a variety of ways, it is generally understood as a multidimensional concept describing the emotional or affective bonds, whether conscious or subconscious, between people and places.

Most recently, it has been understood through a model emphasising the three key aspects that enable place attachments to form: the person, the place itself, and the psychological processes that occur in that place. [1]

The first aspect, the person, refers to the individuals or communities who inhabit a space, collectively or individually ascribing meaning to it. On an individual level, the connections to place are often highly personal, influenced not just by the qualities of the place but the experiences they have there. For example, a stronger sense of place attachment would occur in a setting of vivid memories, realisations, milestones, important relationships or experiences of personal growth and change.

On a group level, place attachment describes how people of a particular culture, gender, religion - or even a small, place-bound community – collectively share an understanding of the symbolic meanings of a place. This frequently comes from a strong historical or cultural basis, where groups become attached to areas where it is possible to practice and preserve their cultures, and meanings arising from historical events are shared between generations. Alternatively, in the case of religious connections, places can be elevated to a sacred status where meaning is shared between worshippers and the sense of connection is almost automatic.

Then, there is the place itself, which includes the location-specific social and physical qualities that prompt bonds to form. In the case of physical qualities, this could refer to unique or familiar features of the physical landscape. And again, the connection to these features is strengthened by the meaning that they represent for people. Sometimes the connection to the physical landscape can go even deeper, with nature as a part of self-identification. However, the ability to foster social relationships and a group identity also plays a prominent role, as a place can come to represent a particular social group, strengthened by time, a sense of belonging, and familiarity and companionship with fellow residents.

Finally, the psychological process makes up the last component of place attachment, considering the interactions with place which cause people to create meaning and connect it to the self. Familiarity and regularity are usually key components here, with the sense of intimately knowing a place in the way that outsiders do not, or having a particular setting as a backdrop to significant life moments. The experiences from a place could prompt both positive and negative emotions. With a fond attachment, likely love, happiness and satisfaction; while with an attachment based on negative or traumatic experiences, a place might prompt unhappiness, aversion, anger, fear or hatred. A positive psychological impact might lead people to seek out certain types of places in the future that share similar features or a community of similar values. Maybe the attachment will be so strong that people decide to stay for their entire lives, as a place becomes the ideal for what it is to live out one’s culture, beliefs and preferences, the ideal place to raise a family or dedicate oneself to a community.

Often, so-called ‘place attachment’ is emphasised in positive terms and can be easily romanticised. However, in reality, a more uncertain relationship to place seems to be more common. What if you don’t fit in with the community of the place you call home? What if you see a world for yourself beyond a particular place? What if an important place is abruptly taken from you?

The last century has seen increasing rural-urban migration as primarily young people move away from small, rural areas into cities. Often this is a step of growth that is more symbolic than just moving for work. Small communities may find strength in regularity, familiarity, knowing that there will always be someone to meet on the street, talk to, or seek advice from. However, these strengths may also be a downfall for young people in a world of global possibilities with the chance to embrace identities with more freedom than ever before. A place may be powerful, but the qualities associated with it may not offer the mindset needed for young people to develop and express themselves without judgement. It seems that often young people move to a place that feels more homely - not through family connections or childhood memories, the more common examples given of place attachment, but through the chance to create their own sense of belonging. This might be as small-scale as a group of like-minded friends, or on a broader scale, to connect with a wider community such as a city’s LGBTQ scene.

But the odd link to a childhood home, for example, might remain, maybe in an involuntary nostalgia, a feeling of calm, or the strange realisation that the life you live in your memories can never be inhabited again. You might not be the same person, but an attachment to that place will still be there, having contributed to who you are today, and your responses to the world around you are influenced by these early experiences of place.

It is important to remember that movement from place to place is often involuntary. In light of natural disasters and humanitarian crises, which forcibly displace millions every year, so many people have to move to new places - often vastly different from their homeland, where it is more difficult to maintain the same sense of cultural, geographic, or religious connection to place.

Upon first moving to a new country, migrants can experience a lack of attachment, familiarity, and identity, arguably the three most important concepts needed for place attachment and a sense of belonging. [2] During this process of relocation and adaptation to the conditions of a new country and environment, it is common for diasporic communities to form, where immigrants simultaneously maintain and reconstruct their place identity. Whether intentional policy or not, the housing of migrant families in close proximity enables the maintenance of their language, food, religion, and social values for new generations. Furthermore, where immigrants do not feel fully accepted, the diasporic community offers a physical location of solidarity and shared experience, a place of safety and understanding.

In this situation, an understanding of home becomes complicated. The diaspora may never become home, yet the homeland becomes a mythic ideal, a place desired, but often a place of no return. But nevertheless the diaspora brings the qualities and socio-historical functions of home to a new place. [3] In this way, the webs of the psychological-geographic networks of place overlap, as the diaspora community exists as a place between two nations and two collective identities. [4] It is well worth considering these ideas today, given Home Secretary Priti Patel’s recently proposed ‘reforms’ to the UK asylum seeker system.


Places leave a mark - through their geographies, how people connect to them, and what they come to symbolise. This attachment can be individual, across generations, or for entire social groups. Establishing the importance of these connections for ourselves and others enables us to better understand how our unique psychological geographies, the networks of places that have shaped our identity, influence our ideas of society, community and belonging.

Sources

[1] An argument discussed in, ‘Defining place attachment: A tripartite organizing framework’, Leila Scannell and Robert Gifford, in Journal of Environmental Psychology Volume 30, Issue 1, March 2010, pp.1-10.

[2] ‘Psychiatric implications of displacement: contributions from the psychology of place’ in American Journal of Psychiatry, Volume 153, Issue 12, December 1996.

[3] .j, El., ‘The Concept of Home in Diaspora’, in Lapis Lazuli, Volume 4, pp.85-97 (89-90).

[4] Charusheela, S. ‘The Diaspora at Home’, in Cultural Dynamics Vol.19, Issue 2-3, 2007, pp.279-299 (284-285)


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