Conditions, Contestations, and Pockets of Belonging: Youth Citizenship in Small Town America

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Conditions, Contestations, and Pockets of Belonging: Youth Citizenship in Small Town America

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Small towns in the American Midwest, undergoing significant demographic, political, and economic shifts, are a microcosm reflecting the broader debate of “who belongs” in popular and academic discourse. This year-long, multi-sited ethnographic research study focuses on the personal narratives of six youth of different racial, ethnic, class, and gender identities to understand how youth negotiate and experience belonging within their daily lives. Drawing on an intersectional subjectification (“self-making” and “being-made”) framework, this dissertation advances three arguments. First, I contend belonging in Riverton for the youth is conditional on their positions in racial, class, and gendered hierarchies of belonging. Secondly, I maintain that conceptions of belonging in a small Midwestern town are continuously being shaped, contrived, and contested by actors whose interactions within the high school mirror broader negotiations within varying structures of power across the United States and the world. Through the everyday contestations of belonging, youth are violently excluded and youth create spaces where they experience belonging. Finally, I claim that youth carve out pockets of belonging, conceptualized as spaces where youth experience a sense of at-homeness and belonging, through their everyday interactions. Ultimately, this dissertation argues it is within the conditions, contestations, and pockets of belonging within formal and non-formal educational spaces that shed light on youths’ experiences and conceptions of belonging.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. June 2021. Major: Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development. Advisors: Joan DeJaeghere, Frances Vavrus. 1 computer file (PDF); ix, 359 pages.

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Fahning, Heidi. (2021). Conditions, Contestations, and Pockets of Belonging: Youth Citizenship in Small Town America. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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