Geographical Territoriality Research Paper

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Territoriality in humans, or human territoriality, is the act of delimiting and controlling an area of space—a territory—in order to control people and things. Human territoriality pervades our actions at all geographic scales, and undergirds socio-cultural power. It is a strategy that can be turned on and off. This, and the fact that human territoriality requires particular conceptions about space, make its use in humans different from its use in animals, where territoriality appears as an instinct that is often associated with aggression. Conceiving of human territoriality as an offshoot of animal instinct (Ardrey 1966, Montagu 1968) has resulted in misconstruing the problem. The most fruitful approach to human territoriality is through its relationship to non-territorial strategies; its connections to geographical place and space; and the advantages (and disadvantages) it provides.

1. Geographical Strategies Of Control

Consider a hypothetical example of a father and his two small children at home in their kitchen. The father is trying to cook a meal and take care of the children, and they want to help. The father enjoys their company but they are too young to help, and run the risk of injury as they try to touch a knife or dish. The father wants to limit their access to these things, and he has two geographic strategies. One is for the father to rush around the kitchen placing the knife and dish out of reach and to restrain the children physically. Here the father intends to alter or control their spatial actions directly. The other strategy is indirect and territorial. It arises if the parent decides simply to restrict the children’s access to things in space by telling them they ‘may not enter the kitchen at this time.’ That is, the kitchen for now is ‘off limits.’ Here the children’s access to things is being limited by the parent’s assertion of control over an area. (Sack 1986, p. 16) In the case, the area or territory was there to begin with; the parent took the opportunity to invoke it, and, after the meal is prepared, the territorial unit may recede into the background. Alternatively, the parent could have created a new territory by delimiting and asserting control over part of the kitchen. Whether creating a new territory or invoking the power of a pre-existing one, human territoriality is a strategy that can be turned on and off, and when it is not used, we then rely on direct spatial interactions to affect or control the flows and access to things in space.

This example points out that territoriality is found in everyday life and at even the smallest geographic scales. But territoriality is most commonly understood to involve political activity and state control, and leads to concerns of sovereignty and jurisdiction. At an in-between scale, we find territoriality to be conjoined with such things as zoning, or with (often private) ownership of land. These and countless other instances of the control of area are examples of territoriality; not to recognize this is to overlook how territoriality provides humans with advantages that make it a necessary geographical expression of power. These advantages are outlined in Sack’s theory of human territoriality (1986).

2. Theory Of Human Territoriality

The theory builds on the definition of human territoriality ‘as the attempt by an individual or group to affect, influence, or control people, phenomena, and relationships, by delimiting and asserting control over a geographic area [where the area is called the territory]’ ( p. 19) by pointing to three interrelated implications of this definition that reveal how and why territoriality works as an effective strategy. They are that territoriality:

(a) involves a form of classification by area, as opposed to classification by kind;

(b) that it must contain a form of communication by boundary; and

(c) it must rely on power to enforce control over the area. In shortened form, territoriality involves classification, communication, and control.

2.1 Classification By Area

Classification by area refers to the fact that when we assert control of an area, we are also using the area as a means of delimiting and defining the things we wish to control. Territorial control could mean that anything and everything inside the area is under someone’s or some group’s control. The things controlled do not have to be defined or enumerated. The father can tell his children to leave the kitchen or to not cross this particular threshold; in so doing he would be asserting control over any and everything within the area without telling the children what it is he does not want them to touch. In contrast, a non-territorial form of control would have to enumerate or disclose the objects and relationships that are to be controlled.

2.2 All Territorial Units Are Bounded

The boundary may be thin and precise or thick and vague—more like a zone of transition than a precise line—and boundaries can be more or less porous. Some boundaries let very little in and out, while others allow a great deal to flow through. Regardless of its form, the idea of a boundary must be successfully conveyed to others for territoriality to work. This is because the boundary acts as the primary means for communicating territoriality. The father would not be able to use territoriality in the kitchen if the children were not old enough to know what a boundary means.

2.3 Territorial Control

For territoriality to work, the territory must be backed up by authority and power that are recognized and respected. If the signs of the boundary and the authority backing it up are not recognized, then territoriality would vanish and we would have to employ non-territorial direct spatial interaction. If the children were to ignore the father and not leave the kitchen, or promptly re-enter it, the father would have little choice but to pick up the children and remove them, or remove all of the knives and plates.

Each instance of territoriality incorporates all three facets, but the effectiveness of territoriality stems from the fact that one or more of these provides advantages. For example, not enumerating what it is that one wishes to control can be advantageous when we do not know all of the things to which we will need access, or when we do not wish to, or cannot, disclose what we want to control. Not being able (or not wanting) to enumerate the things we need is common for most of our activities. Even a relatively simple place like a building contains mixes of conditions taken for granted such as light, heat, and acoustics, which may be just right for the task but which could not have been enumerated before hand. This is even more the case for complex and open-ended activities such as politics, and explains why political behavior is often the most territorial of all. Territorial sovereignty provided by the nation state is an effective strategy of controlling innumerable and potentially important things for political processes that are open-ended.

Communicating through a boundary is simpler than communicating through a variety of symbols, each indicating a particular relationship to people and objects. In the case of the father in the kitchen, the children may be too young to understand the difference between a sharp and a blunt knife, and so there may be no choice but to use the boundary.

In the case of using power, it may be more efficient to enforce territorial control than to follow all of the interactions between people and objects. Fences and ‘no trespassing’ signs are often more efficient to deter transgressions than is the non-territorial strategy of following people around. Similarly, it may save effort to have prisoners behind bars than to assign guards to follow them.

These three aspects of territoriality, which are found in all cultures and at all scales, provide advantages that can be taken up as reasons to use territoriality. However, different combinations of the three generate further advantages which only occur in particular historical contexts. For example, the territorial effect of defining things by area can impose new forms of social relationships when territory is used to classify and control people. An empire or a modern state may establish an administrative district which is then used to tax and conscript. People who before had nothing in common are now part of a new social entity. Colonies and post-colonial nation states are more complex examples. These uses of classification by area to define social relations and identities—a territorial definitions of social relations—is often contrasted with a social definition of the people and the place (Soja 1971).

Another complex consequence of territoriality is that it can lead to a container view of place or space. That is, once a territory is created, and if its contents have not been stipulated, or if its most important contents are not yet in place, it comes to be seen as an ‘empty’ space, even though there are still things in it. A room without occupants or furniture is ‘empty,’ even though it still contains air, heat and other aspects of nature. In this way, territoriality can help us to think of space as though it were content-less or empty. This container view of space reinforces and is reinforced by modern mapping which has us think of space as a geometric structure—a series of coordinates that describe space itself, independent of things, and it reinforces the idea that space can be bought, sold, and held as empty lots or parcels for speculation.

These advantages of territoriality can turn into disadvantages when conditions are not right. If the father employed territoriality too often, the children may never learn what it is they are not supposed to do. Stipulating what the right conditions are for taking up a territorial strategy is part of the theory of territoriality.

3. Territory, Place, And Space

Rooms, buildings, farms, factories and nation states are all territories and they are also places. What then is the distinction between territory and place? Place is a broader term, but one of its meanings merges with that of territory. ‘Primary place,’ as it is termed in a theory of place developed in Homo Geographicus (Sack 1997) or ‘place-as-territory’ is virtually the same as territoriality, though the two stress different qualities. Territoriality emphasizes how humans are served by boundaries that control what is in and out of place, while place-as-territory (or primary place) stresses how place is necessary for projects to be undertaken, and so focuses on the way place helps mix nature and culture to promote projects. Both point out that the boundaries and degrees of porosity of place, and the rules of what may or may not take place, affect the flows of things through space. These spatial flows and interactions then are generated and affected by territorial rules; and these rules of ‘in and out’ are in turn affected by the flows. The idea then of a socially constructed space should be understood to mean not that we construct physical space, but that the territories (and the places-as-territories) and the flows among them are created by us.

4. Territory, Transgressions, And Identities

Part of the effectiveness of territories in everyday life is that when they function according to plan, they often recede into the background and are taken for granted. Since territoriality supports and instantiates power, it is important to understand ‘who’ or ‘what’ group is in charge. A challenge to power through some sort of territorial transgression can make the territory reappear, drawing attention to and calling into question, the entire fabric of social conventions and power (Cresswell 1996). Sometimes this transgression seems to be playful or even without purpose, as in cases of graffiti. More deliberate transgressions of territorial rules for the sake of disclosing and changing power are found in pickets and sit-ins. Extreme cases of transgression are found in violations of territorial sovereignty and in acts of war.

5. Territoriality, Globalization, And Scale

Territories are always being transformed, dissolved, and created anew. However, modern conditions of a world economy and the electronic transmission of information have led to speculation that territories in general, and national territories in particular, are being radically transformed and may even be obsolete (Morley and Robins 1995). Instead of places and interactions through space, perhaps the proper description might be that of a constantly shifting set of nodes and networks. Many believe however, that national territories may not be facing wholesale dissolution (Newman and Paasi 1998). In the global economy they provide varying mixes of opportunities for capital and thus help mute economic crises (the ‘spatial fix’ according to Harvey 1982). The same mix of opportunities may also be provided by a constantly changing hierarchy of territorial scales within the state (a ‘scaler fix’ as in Brenner 1998, though he does not use this term.) Others see the nation state as remaining a vital means of expressing cultural and ethnic autonomy. Perhaps the greatest and most persistent challenges to territorial state sovereignty do not come from the economy but from ideas about world community and a common humanity that encourages individuals to care for distant strangers.

Whatever is the fate of nations, countless places-asterritories will exist and continue to be constructed because we cannot undertake projects without them. For now, the nation state is the most powerful one. But to ignore the fact that its powers to contain are permeable and changing is to fall into what Agnew (1994) calls the ‘territorial trap.’ We run the risk of falling into a different territorial trap when we ignore the power of territories and places-as-territories to mold events, for we might then observe that all kinds of actions seem to have bounded and spatially accordant geographies while being ignorant of the fact that they are shaped by a common territorial structure.


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