Territoriality Definition

Territoriality is a pattern of attitudes and behavior held by a person or group that is based on perceived, attempted, or actual control of a physical space, object, or idea, which may involve habitual occupation, defense, personalization, and marking of the territory. Marking means placing an object or substance in a space to indicate one’s territorial intentions. Cafeteria diners leave coats or books on a chair or table. Prospectors stake claims. Personalization means marking in a manner that indicates one’s identity. Many employees decorate their workspaces with pictures and mementoes. Some car owners purchase vanity license plates.

TerritorialityTerritoriality usually is associated with the possession of some physical space, but it can also involve such processes as dominance, control, conflict, security, claim staking, vigilance, and identity. If a territory is important to a person, his or her sense of identity may be closely tied to it. Although it is sometimes associated with aggression, territoriality actually is much more responsible for the smooth operation of society because most people, most of the time, respect the territories of others.

Types of Territories

Territoriality is extremely widespread. Once you recognize them, the signs of human territoriality are everywhere: books spread out on a cafeteria table to save a place, nameplates, fences, locks, no-trespassing signs, even copyright notices. There are billions of territories in the world; some are large, others small, some are nested within others (such as a person’s “own” chair within a home), and some are shared.

Primary territories are spaces owned by individuals or primary groups, controlled on a relatively permanent basis by them and central to their daily lives. Examples include your bedroom or a family’s dwelling. The psychological importance of primary territories to their owners is always high.

Secondary territories are less important to their occupiers than primary territories, but they do possess moderate significance to their occupants. A person’s desk at work, favorite restaurant, locker in the gym, and home playing field are examples. Control of these territories is less essential to the occupant and is more likely to change, rotate, or be shared with strangers.

Public territories are areas open to anyone in good standing with the community. Beaches, sidewalks, and hotel lobbies are public territories. Occasionally, because of discrimination or unacceptable behavior, public territories are closed to some individuals. Retail stores, for example, are public territories open to anyone. However, someone who causes trouble may be banned from a particular store.

The physical self may be considered as a body territory. The boundary is at one’s skin. Bodies may be entered with permission (as in surgery) or without permission (as in a knife attack). Some people mark and personalize their own bodies with makeup, jewelry, tattoos, piercings, and clothing, but they certainly defend and try to control access to their bodies by other people.

Two other types of territories exist, although they are not universally considered territories. Objects meet some of the criteria for territories—we mark, personalize, defend, and control our possessions. Ideas are also, in some ways, territories. We defend them through patents and copyrights. There are rules against plagiarism. Software authors and songwriters try to protect ownership of their programs and songs.

Territoriality Infringements

Even though territories usually work to keep society hassle-free, sometimes they are infringed upon. The most obvious form of infringement is invasion, in which an outsider physically enters someone else’s territory, usually with the intention of taking it from its current owner. One obvious example is one country trying to take the territory of another.

The second form of infringement is violation, a temporary infringement of someone’s territory. Usually, the goal is not ownership but annoyance or harm. Vandalism, hit-and-run attacks, and burglary fall into this category.

Sometimes a violation occurs out of ignorance, as when a boy who cannot yet read walks into a women’s wash-room. Other times the violation is deliberate, such as computer pranksters worming their way into others’ machines. Violation may occur without the infringer personally entering the territory. Jamming radio waves and playing loud music are some examples.

The third form of infringement is contamination, in which the infringer fouls someone else’s territory by putting something awful in the territory. Examples would be a chemical company leaving poisonous waste in the ground for later residents to deal with, a house-guest leaving the kitchen filthy, or pesticide spray drifting into your yard.

Territoriality Defenses

Just as there are a three general ways to infringe on territories, there are three different types of defense. When someone uses a coat, sign, or fence to defend a territory, it is called a prevention defense. One anticipates infringement and acts to stop it before it occurs.

Reaction defenses, on the other hand, are responses to an infringement after it happens. Examples range from slamming a door in someone’s face or physically striking the infringer to court actions for copyright violations.

The third type is the social boundary defense. Used at the edge of interactional territories, the social boundary defense consists of a ritual engaged in by hosts and visitors. For example, you need a password to enter many Web sites. Another example is the customs office at the national border. Social boundary defenses serve to separate wanted visitors from unwanted ones.

Territoriality in Everyday Life

One way territoriality has been used in everyday life involves defensible space theory, sometimes called crime prevention through environmental design. The theory proposes that certain design features, such as real or symbolic barriers to separate public territory from private territory and opportunities for territory owners to observe suspicious activity in their spaces, will increase residents’ sense of security and make criminals feel uneasy. It has been used widely to reduce crime in residences, neighborhoods, and retail stores.


  1. Edney, J. (1974). Human territoriality. Psychological Bulletin, 81, 959-975.
  2. Taylor, R. B. (1988). Human territorial functioning: An empirical, evolutionary perspective on individual and small group territorial cognitions, behaviors, and consequences. New York: Cambridge University Press.