Social Theory

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The territory as a concept

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Some discussions around it in social sciences

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The meaning and potential of the concept of “territory” has not always been in the center of the discussions in social sciences. Although we can find extensive bibliography about this matter among geographers (Ratzel was a German geographer who is considered the pioneer in human geography and responsible for the concept of territory in that science) since the end of XIX century, we can say that it was not until contemporary times that this topic became important in most of the social disciplines: sociology, economics, anthropology, political science, etc.

In this short article, my purpose is to give an introduction to the history of this concept and its potential of explanation of social processes.

The first geographers that use the concept of territory at the end of the XIX century did so in reference to the concept of state. That is to say, the territory was considered the limited portion of land over which the state has its sovereignty and to establish those limits conflict and social confrontation are unavoidable.

In the XX century, several social scientists recovered the concept of territory as a product of power struggles referring not only to the state, but to almost all social relationships: cultural, economic, political, etc.

Robert Sack is the author who rethinks the concept of territory and its importance to understand some social behaviors and relations. He proposed to analyze the territory in terms of motivations: "Territoriality does not exist unless there is an attempt by individuals or groups to affect the interactions of others" (Sack, 1986: 30). Nevertheless, Sack focuses on physical limits and the control of the area defined by those limits as the main meaning of territory; he does not consider the relational aspects of this matter.

This theoretical deficit was reformulated by the influence of Michel Foucault’s theory. His influence is very clear in books like Pour une géographie du pouvoir (For a Geography of Power) by Claude Raffestin. Raffestin is concerned about understanding how, in different social, spatial and temporal situations, relationships between society and space are produced by powers and reproduce powers.

In Latin America we can find authors like Lopes de Souza (1995), Milton Santos (2000) and several social scientists who are working on the potential of this concept to think and understand some relationships, conflicts and social interactions that help us to define identities, social movements and political aspects of our societies.


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  • Raffestin, C. (1980), Pour une géographie du pouvoir, Paris.
  • Sack, R.D. (1986), Human Territoriality: Its Theory and History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lopes de Souza, M. (1995) “O territorio: sobre espaco e poder, autonomia e desenvolvimento.” en Elias de Castro, E. Costa Gomes P. y Lobato Correa R. Geografia Conceito e temas. Ed. Bertrand. RJ. Brasil
  • Milton Santos (2000). La naturaleza del espacio (técnica y tiempo, razón y emoción), Barcelona, Ariel