THE CENTRAL FOCUS of POLITICAL GEOGRAPHY is best understood from the point of view of the twin concepts of territory and territoriality. Neither of these can be understood apart from each other. In order to talk of territory, one must talk of territoriality and vice versa. The word has possible roots in the Latin terratorium meaning “earth,” and terrere, meaning “to frighten.” As such, we can think of territorium as signifying a space from which people are warned off. References to territory as an administrative term occurred in the 15th century when it was used to refer to the land of a ruler and to the political HINTERLAND of cities. By the 17th century, usage expanded to include regions with undefined boundaries. This usage continued into the American experience with the conception of nonself-governing territories under the control of a central government. What joins all of these uses is the sense of territories as spaces that are categorized, mapped, and controlled. Using this perspective as a foundation, it is possible to define territory as a general term describing areas of land or sea over which states or other political entities claim to exercise some form of control.


There are many definitions of the concept of territory. Seen from the eyes of a city planner, a territory is an area that is subject to zoning in the planning process. From a political angle, it is that extension of land that forms a political district or belongs to an institutional organization (city, parish, province, region, nation, state). In each case, the reply to the question must consider a number of geophysical factors that impose clear limits to its dimensions. Islands, peninsulas, the lack of water creating a desert area, huge rivers, tall mountains, etc., play important roles in both dividing and defining areas. In other cases, history gives a meaning to a territory without the existence of visible borders.

In other situations, institutional divisions may be critical in establishing limits to an area even if done so artificially. And in others still, economic factors (central market, single-crop economies, raw materials), social factors (a specific community organization), political factors (one capital city, location of administrative centers) and cultural factors (a different language, own customs) may have been at work individually or collectively in establishing the limits to territories. Generally speaking, it is the combination of several or all of these factors that bestows a certain personality on a territory and differentiates it from its neighbors; it becomes a place.

Although a territory can thus be defined and demarked as a place, it is important to remember that territories can and do change. First, a territory is not a fixed data point and is constantly undergoing changes, including changes that take place with its boundaries. Second, because its inhabitants use it, they give it a specific personality that evolves over time and is reflected historically. And third, although there are common features that are identifiable throughout, they generally become blurred the farther they are away from the core.

The term territorial, on the other hand, is of more recent development and implies a much stronger behavioral connection between control and space. Territorial behavior, or territoriality, requires territory to be definitively bounded and exclusive. It is this understanding of territoriality as a strategic undertaking that parallels the emphasis on exclusive and monopolistic control over territory in conventional understandings of state sovereignty. From this perspective, we can define territoriality as an attempt by an individual or group to influence or establish control over a clearly demarcated territory.


Territoriality is action based, with designs to exercise control over some territory expressed as defense, control, exclusion, and inclusion. This means that in addition to territory having associations of area and boundary, it also has ones of defense. Territories are spaces that people defend by excluding some activities and by including those that will enhance more precisely what it is in the territory they want to defend. It is activity aimed at influencing the content and value of an area and, in doing so, creating a sense of place or community that is distinct from other areas. This means that people, firms, and organizations may be very dependent on what happens in the area they happen to be located in. If values are to be maintained, let alone increase, territorial strategies have to be deployed: attempts to structure movements into the area.

Territoriality is rooted in this contradiction between movement as a natural feature of human existence and fixity as a natural feeling of belonging and permanence. In order to carry on their various activities, people seek some fixation in their lives. They settle in particular places and over time become embedded in them either by making some type of relatively permanent transformation to the immediate environment or by developing relations with other people: relations of kinship, friendship, cooperation. But there are wider movements, which either underpin or threaten these place-bound activities.

To protect the place-bound relations that they have created, therefore, people in particular areas seek to control the movements in and out of them by defending, excluding, and including; in short, by exercising their power to regulate this wider set of movements for local advantage. Rooting territoriality in the contradiction of fixity and movement helps to clearly identify what territoriality is ultimately about: maintaining a relation to the material environment that will facilitate the realization of human wants and needs, ideas whose basic foundation is institutionally defined through social, cultural, and economic activity.

Over time, many of the movements that affect our daily lives have changed in at least two senses. Because of advances in science and technology, they have tended to extend their geographic reach. That is, distance per unit of time has decreased significantly over the past 200 years. This same technological revolution has also made it possible for greater numbers of people and things to move, creating an incredible increase in magnitude. This increasing distance over which people carry out their life's functions, the increasing magnitude of geographic reach, is apparent at all geographical scales. It has also led to the current interest in globalization with a focus on the growth of worldwide trade and the movements of people in search of jobs. In terms of political geography, there has been territorial integration and there have been tendencies also toward disintegration.


On the one hand, we can point to the extension of jurisdictional boundaries, the emergence of new territorial structures at larger scales, which come into being in order to facilitate movement and the advantages it can bring, e.g., the EUROPEAN UNION (EU), the NORTH AMERICAN FREE TRADE AGREEMENT or NAFTA, and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), to name just a few.

The justification for this sort of integration has been the classic free trade argument: that it would induce increased competition, heightened specialization, and therefore increased efficiency, and lower prices, adding to greater overall prosperity. At the same time, there have been disintegrating effects. Decolonization and the breakup of the Belgian, British, Dutch, French, and Portuguese empires produced a massive increase in the number of individual states during the period from about 1950 to 1980, particularly in Africa. And since the ending of the Cold War, there has been another burst of territorial fragmentation, the most obvious of which has been the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Territorial strategies, whether part of the natural biological world of plants and animals or the social representation of the human world, are always exercises of power. The notion of power, on the other hand, is closely bound up today with that of the state. For in the contemporary world the state is quite possibly the most important regulatory agent. This is not to say that it has been a universal throughout human existence. There have been stateless societies. But there have been no societies that lacked means of regulating their activities. But what is attractive about the state as a means of regulating space relations, as a vehicle for the various exclusionary and inclusionary policies, is the territorial character of the state itself.