Are you a Somewhere or an Anywhere?

Last years Brexit vote stunned many pundits and social commentators, who struggled to explain how it could have happened. But one of them, author David Goodhart has come up with an intriguing explanation for the deep divisions in British society.

It’s all about “people from Somewhere versus people from Anywhere.”

I think this fascinating idea helps make sense not only of Brexit, but the emergence of conservative nationalism in Europe and Australia, and the election of US President Donald Trump.

Let me explain. In his book The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, David Goodhart says society can be broken into two large groups.

First, there’s the Somewheres.

These are people whose identity is shaped by a sense of place and attachment to a group. In Britain, they could be a Scottish farmer, a working-class Geordie, or a Cornish housewife. The equivalent in the US might be an Appalachian car mechanic or Oklahoman farmer or Alabaman home-schooler.

They come from somewhere. They feel a deep attachment to their community, to a likeminded cohort, with a strong sense of where they’re from, sometimes with roots going back generations.

According to Goodhart, Somewheres have an ascribed identity. That is, an identity ascribed by the community and the place to which they belong. As a result, they value familiarity, security, and group attachments.

Goodhart says this group is less likely to be a college or university graduate. He estimates in total the Somewheres comprise around 50% of the British population.

Then, there’s the Anywheres.

Anywheres’ identity and self-worth is not tied to place, but rather to their achievements and position. While the Somewheres have an ascribed identity, the Anywheres have an achieved identity. Their values are more associated with their life experience than where they grew up. As a result, they tend to value freedom, openness, social diversity.

After all, if you have an achieved identity, you can fit anywhere. If you have an ascribed identity you only fit somewhere in particular.

Goodhart explains that people who grow up in the suburbs of large cities tend to be Anywheres, but even those kids who grew up in small towns and the country as Somewheres convert into Anywheres when they study at university.

Because residential colleges at universities uproot people from their home towns and sever their attachment to place, graduates are much more likely to become Anywheres. They replace their ascribed identities with the portable identities of the other Anywheres they’re studying with.

Add to that the fact that many British graduates often live and work in Europe for a time after university and it’s highly likely that they are well and truly Anywheres by their mid-20s.

“Anywheres are suspicious of group attachments—they don’t feel them themselves,” says Goodhart who numbers this group at around 25% of the British population.

It’s not simple enough to say these two groups are divided along strictly geographic lines. There are Somewheres in the big cities (working-class neighborhoods, for instance) and Anywheres in rural areas (upper-class professionals living in the country). The demarcation is based on where and how you construct your identity – either prescribed or achieved  – not just where you live.

You’ve probably figured out by now that Goodhart believes those who voted for Britain to leave the EU were the Somewheres who feel threatened by changes to immigration policy and the job market. Many trades and jobs in manufacturing and farming are being lost. If your ascribed identity is as a coal miner from Yorkshire and there’s no more coal mining in Yorkshire you’re going to feel incredibly unsettled.

It’s easier to think the problem is globalization and the influx of unskilled labor taking your jobs rather than where you get your values and identity from.

Goodhart’s ideas can explain why so many Americans rallied around Donald Trump in 2016. Rather than being “Deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton called them, they’re Somewheres undergoing a traumatic loss of identity.

In other words, it’s existential, not just economic.

There have been some criticisms of Goodhart’s analysis. And like any relatively simple explanation for a complex reality all sorts of factors can be overlooked. But that being said, I find it interesting that having a deep connection to place and a strong affiliation with a cohort is likely to make you more fearful, conservative and xenophobic.

Maybe it’s because I’m basically an Anywhere yearning to be a Somewhere that I have idealized those whose identity is tied to a place and strong group attachments.

I thought the more rooted in place you were the healthier you’d be. Obviously, so did the makers of TV shows like Northern Exposure and The Gilmore Girls. And so do many people writing about place-based mission these days. There seems to be a growing sense among church leaders and church planters that rooting deeply in neighborhood, belonging somewhere, is important for mission. But how possible is that really, if the church leaders and planters in question are Anywheres (as they’re likely to be if they’re seminary grads)?

Are we sending college grads with an achieved identity, many of whom have travelled widely and have a very portable sense of self, to try to work alongside Somewheres who are deeply suspicious of outsiders and less likely to share the church leaders’ values on immigration and social justice?

Is there a third category?

Tom Petty sang, “You belong among the wildflowers / You belong somewhere you feel free,” and while I don’t want to make a habit of living my life according to Tom Petty, he might be onto something. Is it possible to finesse this whole Somewhere/Anywhere thing in such a way that, while drawing on a sense of belonging to place and a people group, we can also be free enough to know the world is bigger than where we’re from?

Can we be both wild and rooted at the same time. Like those wildflowers.

Let me go further. Could it be true that you’ve got to belong somewhere in order to feel free?

See, I’m not that keen on just being an Anywhere. Being a so-called citizen of the world, pretending you’re an expert on everything, beholden to hardly anyone, belonging everywhere and nowhere… it makes me shudder. They sound like the liberal urban elite Trump voters were always crowing about.

But being a Somewhere, overvaluing familiarity and security, fearing the new and the outsider? No thanks.

What if we found another way to construe our identities? What if our identities were found in Christ, shaped by God’s love, inspired by God’s example in Jesus? What if I was truly free to accept others because I know I’m accepted by Christ?

I really do believe that Christians should belong somewhere in a way that sets them free. Like the wildflowers. Christians should be good belongers. We should value place, be great neighbors, anchored in community, contributing to the common good in practical, contextual ways. But lest that descend into parochialism and small-mindedness or worse, xenophobia and anxiety, we must be good citizens of the planet, aware of global issues and the challenges of life in other places.

We’re meant to be Somewheres and Anywheres. Like wildflowers. Because it’s in belonging somewhere that we feel free.



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