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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

WPA Symposium Contribution - "Belonging Without Boundaries: Settlers, Sojourners and Travellers in the 21st Century"

World Psychiatric Association Congress  
Bucharest, Romania - April 10, 2013

“Symposium on Belonging”

Co-chairs:             Vincenzo Di Nicola and Rachid Bennegadi
Discussant:            Rachid Bennegadi

Abstract (word count: 384)

Belonging Without Boundaries:
Settlers, Sojourners and Travellers in the 21st Century

Vincenzo Di Nicola, MPhil, MD, PhD, FAPA
Professor of Psychiatry, University of Montreal

“The Church of God sojourning in Rome to the Church of God sojourning in Corinth.”
—Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians

In Clement’s letter, the Greek paroikousa (sojourning) means a provisional abode as opposed to katokein, the citizen with residence, from which we may derive two modes of living: parokein (to sojourn like a stranger) and katokein (to reside like a citizen). His message was that the Church was not a permanent structure but a sojourn and that Christians live in messianic time.

The 20th century saw so many displacements of peoples across borders, languages and cultures that the terms emigrants, immigrants and migrants are sprinkled across the literature of every field of human endeavour from law to literature, from politics to philosophy, and certainly from psychiatry to psychoanalysis. Things have only gotten more complex in the 21st century where the bipolar world of the Cold War and “the end of history” has given way to a multicentric, polyglot cacaphony where culture has replaced class as the dominant signifier and language has become the major expressive vehicle of that shift. In the European Union alone, there are 23 official languages, the UN has 6 official languages, and battles over language as the emblem of culture are evident among peoples affirming their identity everywhere—from Quebec to Catalonia, Rwanda to East Timor.

Whither belonging in all this? The author argues that belonging has become a critical issue for sociocultural psychiatry and for global mental health. Belonging has a bi-valent, ambiguous, deeply unresolved/unresolvable quality, what philosophy calls an aporia, a puzzle. We can begin to describe this puzzle with the dichotomy settlers or sojourners—those who are “here” to settle and those who stay for work or other reasons, for shorter or longer periods, but do not make their home “there.” There is, however, a third state of being, intermediate between sojourners who merely stay a while and settlers who plant roots, and that is those who are still on the journey, in transit, “betwixt and between,” as anthropologist Victor Turner described it, neither here nor there, travellers on the threshold.

Whether it accompanies a language, a nation, a profession, or other organizing system of meaning, the construct of belonging can be more than an aporia for imagining identity and the very definition of subject and subjectivity. “Belonging” is a way of rethinking relational being, how we define mental health, how we understand the expression of its vicissitudes, and how we organize care and healing for sufferers. To do this, we need to recognize how belonging is experienced and negotiated, free of the constraints of our habitual patterns of practice and thought, to imagine belonging without borders for settlers, sojourners and travellers in the 21st century.


Di Nicola, Vincenzo F. (1997). A Stranger in the Family: Culture, Families, and Therapy. New York, NY and London, UK: W.W. Norton.

Di Nicola, Vincenzo (2004). Famiglie sulla soglia. Città invisibili, identità invisibili [Families on the threshold: Invisible cities, invisible identities]. In: Maurizio Andolfi, ed., Famiglie Immigrate e Psicoterapia Transculturale [Immigrant Families and Transcultural Psychotherapy]. Milano: FrancoAngeli, pp. 34-47.

Di Nicola, Vincenzo (2011). Letters to a Young Therapist: Relational Practices for the Coming Community. New York, NY and Dresden, Germany: Atropos Press.

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