Belonging and Othering in times of uncertainty: A study of the impact of Brexit in UK restaurants

Reeves, Laura (2022). Belonging and Othering in times of uncertainty: A study of the impact of Brexit in UK restaurants. PhD thesis The Open University.



Following the 2016 Referendum, in which the UK electorate voted to leave the European Union (EU), xenophobic and racist behaviours experienced by EU migrants become more visible. In this thesis, I argue that Brexit has been experienced by EU migrants as a ‘process of Othering,’ whereby EU migrants who live and work in the UK are considered strangers. Brexit is thus an issue of belonging and difference based on continual comparison between us (British citizens) and them (EU migrants). This binary logic relies on identity markers and associates difference with negativity.

To demonstrate how this logic may be challenged, this thesis is informed and inspired by notions of affirmative difference and non-unitary subjectivity. These theoretical concepts are aligned with nomadic theory, a critical feminist perspective which seeks to reduce marginalisation of the Other. The data focuses on individual employee experiences of belonging and not belonging and was collected in three restaurant chains operating in the UK, taking place during the political negotiation of Brexit (2019-’20). The analysis identifies two broad themes: i) in-between belonging and ii) tensions between sameness and difference. The findings suggest a sense of belonging is co-constituted between regulating identity and adapting (or not) to threats that disrupt feelings of belonging in organisations.

This interpretation provides an opportunity to better understand relational perspectives on belonging and identity. From this viewpoint, belonging can be explained in two ways. First, as in-between, where the experience of Othering leads to ruptures in identity, and a simultaneous tension between belonging and not belonging. Second, belonging can be experienced in multiple ways simultaneously. This allows for acknowledgment of contradictions that occur in research participants’ accounts of belonging and not belonging. In acknowledging these contradictions, the thesis encourages a disassociation of difference and negativity. It further argues that there is a need to see belonging differently in organisations - not as a demarcation of individuals based on identity markers, but as relational co-constitutions of sameness and difference. In so doing, the thesis seeks to add to discussions about identity in organisations by taking inspiration from deterritorialised, relational understandings of the subject. This will be used to explain how individuals experience belonging through (and despite) processes of Othering and to consider how belonging shapes identity in organisations.

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