Various tentative forms of crosstalk are percolating between the natural and social sciences over shared or parallel concept for analyzing animal behavior. An excellent model for how this crosstalk may be enhanced is provided in a critical review of the concept of territoriality by Ambika Kamath and Ashton Wesner. The article, “Animal territoriality, property and access: a collaborative exchange between animal behaviour and the social sciences,” presents a reflective dialogue between a behavioral ecologist (Kamath) and an interdisciplinary social theorist (Wesner). They pose a fundamental problem with the widely used concept of territoriality: it carries the baggage of notions of property rights and ownership that seem “natural” in a market economy; in turn, these are assumptions are further “naturalized” by anthropomorphically projecting them onto nonhumans. Kamath and Warner argue for reformulating territoriality via a focus on “access” instead of “property”; but their intellectual process of arriving at this conclusion is just as interesting, because they engage distinct yet parallel theoretical domains.
The problems with territoriality have been evident for some time. The authors feature John T. Emlen’s 1958 criticism that its equation with “defended area” involved misleading assumptions about bird behavior. This results in skewed observations. First, it fixates on “objects and entities”—that is, it reifies behavior, instead of attending to more fluid events, or “doings and happenings.” As a result, “Rather than focusing attention on how social interactions actually unfold in spatial ways (what is), territoriality is often operationalized in prescriptive ways (what should be) that rely on assumptions of how animals relate to and occupy a predetermined type of space.” This critique, Kamath and Wesner note, has been borne out by genetics research that revealed actual mating patterns were starkly inconsistent with the ones posited by a territorial framework. Second, the concept has led animal behaviorists “to assume rather than demonstrate the reasons for particular behaviors.” This is most pronounced in how individuals are classified in rather moralistic terms, as “intruders” or “sneakers” for instance, suggesting “transgression” and “infidelity” toward the property of a rightful “owner.” Kamath and Wesner point to research on coho salmon to illustrate how this thicket of assumptions misconstrued mating patterns, particularly with females. When female salmon were not assumed to be “objects of defensive territoriality,” their mate-selection preferences both came into view and disrupted the notion that “dominant hooknose males were females’ preferred mates.”
What’s notable in this article is not the amplification of a long-standing critique, or even paralleling it with a similar criticism of “human territoriality” by Robert Sack in the 1980s. The authors take the additional step of suggesting that animal behaviorists learn from social scientists’ effort to resolve this problem, highlighting an important distinction between the concepts of property (what should be) and access (what is): “This theoretical conversation among social scientists can illuminate, even in the study of animals, the limitations of conceiving territory as a fixed area that is defended by individual(s) and bounded by rights or rightful relations (property). New analytical possibilities emerge when animal behaviours are instead conceived of through a rubric of access to other individuals, spaces and resources.” They go on to explain how shifting from concepts of property to access resolves problems of territoriality long-evident in animal behavior literature, and they point out that “an access-based approach to animal behavior already has parallels in many conceptions of animal territoriality.” But aside from their explicit contributions to this literature, their method of drawing theoretical parallels warrants close attention.
Kamath and Wesner are thinking in parallel by reading across their respective disciplines, in the context of focused group discussions directed toward finding “shared language and ideas on the concept of territoriality.” Some of this literature is critical of the natural sciences and aims to “understand how sociocultural traditions and opinions may have shaped scientific studies of animal territoriality.” In this vein, they pointedly argue “that animal behaviorists have implicitly and explicitly incorporated aspects of property and ownership from human societies into animal territory.” They illustrate this tellingly by invoking Stamps’ “economic approach to the problem of territory function” from 1994. Kamath and Wesner could simply say the concept has naturalized a market-based mentality; indeed, social scientists approaching this subject matter would wrap up their efforts just by drawing that conclusion, implicitly or explicitly suggesting the concept was hopelessly compromised by its ideological roots and character. But Kamath and Wesner are more interested in the ongoing relevance of territoriality and how it can be reformulated. They turn to social sciences not for an ideological critique but rather to disrupt the self-perpetuating tendency of such an ingrained concept in the natural sciences.
In the article’s opening, they note that though the concept has been murky for decades, empirical work using territoriality proceeds unabated. For that matter, “periodic critiques have not yielded a shift away from the hegemonic paradigm of territoriality, possibly because these critiques live squarely within the fields of animal behaviour and behavioural ecology and are thus seen as equivalently valid alternatives to a conception of animal behaviour that centres possession and ownership.” Framing the problem in parallel terms can shatter the commonsense notion of the disciplinary culture in which past critiques reside. Furthermore, they “suggest that spatial analyses of social interactions and resource use informed by social scientists’ conceptions of access will allow us to reframe how we conceive of animal behaviour in a fuller, more nuanced and more complex way.” In the end, they are confident the conceptual shift they promote will be borne out by better, more accurate observations in the field.
Social scientists who consider their work complete at the level of ideological critique should ponder this example, especially scholars from Science & Technology Studies. Rather than conclude with critique, why not consider how contributing to improved analytical approaches? But the matter of parallel thinking opens up a bigger question: what grounds such parallels? Kamath and Wesner are concerned with the theoretical level: “We contend that comparable interdisciplinary examinations that meld the natural and social sciences should be a critical part of evaluating whether and how to develop frameworks for understanding any dimension of animal behaviour.” But if such theorizing can be applicable across disciplines it also suggests that there are fundamental grounds as well for understanding behavior across species, including humans. In passing, they reference Walter Linklater’s wide-ranging, critical review of research on Equidae, heralding the goal of “making comparisons across studies, taxa, and contexts.” I second that aim and suggest that it leads toward an understanding of sociality that does not exclude “humans” from animals by attending “to nonhuman animals only.”
Hartigan, John. “Parallel Thinking about Territoriality in Nonhumans and Humans.” August 31, 2020. Commentary to Social Theory for Nonhumans. Manifold ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming. https://doi.org/10.5749/9781452958446.