Territoriality involves rights to specific locations or bounded areas and the resources and activities within them. Our assumptions about territoriality often are shaped by the contemporary nation-state, which lays claim to a large number of rights over a large, unitary, and bounded territory. Also, we may well be influenced by the concept of private property, involving a high level of exclusive rights over real estate, subordinate in most cases only to the nation-state. Indeed, extreme possessiveness and exclusiveness is, at times, assumed to be human instinct. Cross-cultural and cross-historical evidence from anthropology shows, however, that the phenomenon of territoriality is more complex, variable, and changeable.
Studies of primate social organization suggest that there are biosocial roots of territoriality, but each species has its own pattern and there is a great deal of variation by habitat within species. Probably the most useful generalization is that species-specific patterns of territoriality and social organization are closely connected. In small-scale human societies, territoriality was not a matter of bounded, exclusive spaces, but one of diverse, socially organized rights to movement, products, and located ritual activities. Indeed, exclusion was probably less important as an organizing principle than choosing appropriate means of access. Small-scale societies are woven together by complicated networks of kinship (real and fictive), ritual brotherhood and sisterhood, marriage exchange, and gift-giving friendships. Each provide means for asking responsible parties (the “owners”) for rights to visit and use space and resources. This is consistent with the high degree of mobility and flexibility in such societies.
The bundling together of rights and association of them with bounded territories emerges as a correlate of social stratification and, especially, the state. Premodern states often made impressive claims to territory, about which we should be cautious. They lacked the technological and organizational capacity to control many territories, often relying on local proxies for real control. States were preoccupied with key cities and specific trade routes to high-value, low-bulk resources, as well as fortified outer shells along boundaries with autonomous mobile populations. Complex vertical and horizontal frameworks of aristocrats and peasant communities governed most rural areas, and a great deal of ethnography has documented these as kinship/residence rules.
Contemporary territoriality (bounded national territories and private real estate), then, is quite distinctive. The creation of this territorial framework required considerable struggle and change in the last 200 years. Changes include the destruction of feudal privileges inside the nation-state and the establishment of direct bureaucratic governance across its space, as well as the development of citizenship, rights of insiders within the national territory, effectively also instituting the outsider status of “alien”—visitors or migrants. Through enclosure, older collective rights to land and resources were ended and the space converted into individual property. Nor has this transformation ended. Under current conditions of globalization, wealthier and more privileged populations can move across national boundaries while poorer populations are more restricted or move illegally, and new private property regimes include an increasing range of distinctive spatial rights (gated communities, etc.).
- Cunningham, H., & Heyman, J. M. (2004). Introduction: Mobilities and enclosures at borders. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power, 11, 289-302.
- Sack, R. D. (1986). Human territoriality: Its theory and history. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press.