The Communicative Implications of Territory

The concept of territory has vast implications for interpersonal communication. Much of our knowledge of the concept of territory comes from studies that illustrate how animals identify and defend clearly delineated territories by means of instinct.

Territoriality in this sense is a basic concept in the study of animal behavior; it is defined as behavior by which an organism characteristically lays claim to an area and defends it against members of its own species and in so doing ensures the propagation of the species by regulating density (Hall, 1969).

In nonverbal communicationOpens in new window, specifically in the sphere of proxemicsOpens in new window, territoriality is a concept which refers to a stationary area or fixed geographic location to which we lay claim and protect from invasion by others. Your territory may include your room, your bathroom, your car, and even your particular seat at the dinner table.

Sommer (1966) recognized that the concept of territoriality now has great relevance for the study of human behavior, even if humans do not define their territories exclusively or even primarily by instinctual means. He saw territory as an area controlled by an individual, family, or a group, with the emphasis on physical possession, actual or potential, as well as defense.

The biggest and best territories since time immemorial have been controlled by the most powerful, the most influential, and often the wealthiest members of a society. The two sets of walls that surround Windor CastleOpens in new window in England clearly demarcate this type of choice territory.

William the ConquerorOpens in new window chose to build Windsor Castle on a large, steep hill that is directly above the Thames RiverOpens in new window. His motivation was straightforward. He built not a residence but a fortress. The result was an impregnable stronghold that could be used to monitor and control the activities of the hostile population that lived below the castle.

With the following assertion, Sommer (1966) captures the essential nature of territoriality:

  • Since human communication is based largely on symbols, territorial defense relies more on symbols such as name plates, fences, and personal possessions than on physical combat, or aggressive displays. ... Salesmen have, and actively defend, individual territories. One criterion of territoriality is .... the home team always wins .... [and] an animal on its own territory will fight with more vigor. ... [Hence] a male on its own territory is almost undefeatable against males of the species. (p. 61)

Territorial behavior, therefore, is defined by attempts to mark the boundaries of territories that are “owned” by individuals or groups.

We prevent territorial invasion in a number of ways. We place nameplates on the outside of our domiciles and office doors, and we hope that others will recognize that we “own” a parking spot or seat in a classroom if we use it long enough or often enough. Sometimes we use markers such as books, coats, and notebooks to communicate the ownership of territory such as a table in the library.

Through the use of personalized markers, we strive either to regulate social interaction within territories perceived as ours or to prevent unauthorized individuals from entering or using the territory.

Some markers might include leaving a book to save a seat while you leave the classroom, leaving a book at a library table to mark your territory while you search for another book, or at a ballet recital putting a sign on a row of seats in the auditorium to reserve the section for your friends.

Sometimes people get a bit carried away in their use of territorial markers. For example, the owner of an antique shop in Santa Monica, California, has posted a sign on his front door that says:

  • “No Browsing. Stay out unless you plan to make a purchase today.”

Some owners of souvenir shops near the Eiffel TowerOpens in new window in Paris will slap the hands of children who touch their merchandise. In an expensive store in Grindewald, Switzerland, stickers are attached to hand-carved music boxes that say:

  • “You drop it. You pay for it.”

Although the insensitive use of personal markers may have undesirable side effects, the more personal the markers used to delineate territorial boundaries, the more effective they are in controlling or preventing interaction (Altman, 1975).

If territories serve so central a function in regulating human interaction, the obvious question is: What types of territories are typically defined and defended?

Writing from a broad perspective, Lyman and Scott (1976) observe that there are four kinds of territories:

  1. public,
  2. home,
  3. interactional, and
  4. body.

We discuss each in turn below.

1.  Public Territories

Public territories are areas individuals may enter freely. Great constraints are placed on human interaction within public territories, however, because of explicit laws and social traditions. The fact that individuals are often anonymous when they use certain public territories means that they might be treated in ways that are impersonal and even rude.

The young men who serve as the Swiss Guard at the Vatican in Rome, for example, vigorously enforce rules about what territories visitors may and not enter and what may be done within different Vatican areas. They do so with an unseemly curtness that they might not exhibit if the visitors they encountered were not anonymous.

Similarly, the struggles to desegregate buses, restaurants, and beaches suggest that the term public territory can have a very restricted connotation for some individuals who choose to enter and attempt to interact with others within the territory.

2.  Home Territories

Home territories, by contrast, feature freedom of interaction by individuals who claim the territory. Home territories are defined in part by the distinctive markers used to assure boundary maintenance. Examples include reserved chairs, personalized drinking mugs, and even the cat’s litter. Fraternities, private clubs, and gay bars constitute home territories. In each of them, distinctive territorial markers are used to limit usage by outsiders.

3.  Interactional Territories

Interactional territories are areas where individuals congregate informally. A party, a local pool hall, and an informal meeting on campus are all interactional territories. Although every territory has boundaries that are maintained, interactional territories are unique in that they have movable boundaries.

Interactional territories might also include space in a faculty meeting, the dining area at the university cafeteria, or the lobby area where you wait for a bank teller or a hotel clerk to become available.

4.  Body Territories

Body territories consist of space that is marked as reserved for use by our bodies. Goffman developed and supported the provocative thesis that “eight territories of self” exist, and their changeable boundaries are a function of variability in both individual behavior and environmental conditions. These territories of self are (a) personal space, (b) stalls, (c) use-space, (d) turns, (e) sheaths, (f) possessional territory, (g) informational preserves, and (h) conversational preserves (Goffman, 1971).

Of the eight territories of self identified by Goffman, five seem particularly relevant and important for interpersonal communication.

  1. First, the stall is space with clear-cut boundaries that individuals claim exclusively for their own use. Telephone booths, public toilets, and parking places are obvious examples of stalls. Unlike personal space, stalls have highly visible and fixed boundaries that can easily be protected from intruders. Whereas stalls identify themselves by their structure, use-space identifies itself by its function.
  2. Use-space is the space immediately surrounding us that we must have in order to perform personal functions such as lighting our cigarette or swinging at a golf ball. Have you been bowling lately in one of those university classes? All persons need use-space while bowling so that everyone has the room to properly execute a good roll while not hitting anyone else in the immediate area. Our claim to use-space is usually respected by others in close proximity to us because they realize that they would require similar space to perform similar functions.
  3. The turn represents a territorial claim based on both structure and function. Expressions such as “Take your turn” and “Get in line, Bud” suggest the nature of this type of territorial behavior. There are cultural and subcultural differences with regard to turn-taking norms. Some lines, such as at the theater or grocery store, are rarely broken, but lines at more crowded environments such as concert halls or amusement parks often have more ambiguous turn-taking guidelines. We have been socially conditioned to expect that such territorial claims will be honored.
  4. The sheath, which consists of both our skin and the clothes we wear, functions to afford us with the desired degree of privacy. Examples of the sheath may include our shirt, pants, jacket, or skirt. This territory is extremely private and is often not violated since the objects are on our person.
  5. Much like the sheath, possession territory is closely identified with the human body. Rather than skin or clothes, which cover the body, possessional territory consist of objects that we claim as our own and that we array around us wherever we are. Objects such as gloves and handbags often function as markers to delineate the boundaries of possessional territory. Only the most insensitive individual will attempt to move such territorial markers.