Territory, territoriality, and the ‘Thomas Cook tactic’

The geographer Robert Sack famously (well, ‘famously’ in the geography world, at least) named territoriality as acts intended to influence the content of a territory.

‘Territories’, which have boundaries and various human and non-human comings and goings, come in all shapes and sizes. Some territories are immense: think of the United States of America, say. But other territories can be quite small: think now of the home as a territory that has walls, windows, and doors and then people, pets, insects, germs leaving and entering.

Because territories come in all shapes and sizes, geographers are obliged to recognize that territorial acts are going to be diverse in nature and occuring at grand and quite fine geographic scales; that is, some territorial acts are intended to influence whole continents (think here of the European Union and its ‘Fortress Europe’ policy, which aims to limit who can move into Europe), while other acts are aimed only at a specific house (now think of the decision to install a humble burglar alarm to keep intruders out).

One result of placing territories and territoriality near the centre of geographic thinking is that geographers end up seeing (and having to point out) lots of territorial acts. Just this week, for example, there have been the cases of Australian police detaining suspected Somali ‘terrorists’ (thereby stopping them from violently influencing the content of Australian military bases); attempts by the Barack Obama administration to reform the healthcare system in the U.S.; and then of course lots of more mundane, but nevertheless clearly territorial acts, such as the splendid Meath senior football players outperforming and hence scoring more points than Limerick last week!

But perhaps the most interesting case this week is that of the Dublin-based Thomas Cook workers who, upon hearing they were going to be made redundant on Friday, decided to occupy their office and fight for a better redundancy package. The territory at issue here, of course, was the office – the legal property of Thomas Cook. Spread over three floors in the centre of Dublin, the office was the base for a successful travel agency business; it was Thomas Cook’s flagship in Ireland; a launching pad for a larger strategy of gaining a foothold in the once-lucrative Irish market. When the workers decided to occupy the office, however, it came into their control. They didn’t own it, of course, and so, as far as the Irish state was concerned, they were trespassing. But it was in their hands, if only for a few days.

Sadly, from the perspective of the workers, following legal proceedings by Thomas Cook, the workers were removed by the Garda Síochána at 5am this morning. The territory at issue here was obviously no longer under the Thomas Cook workers’ control: the courts and Garda Síochána of the Irish state, at the request of Thomas Cook, overpowered and overruled the territorial power of the workers (the workers were released in a subsequent court case).

The story of the ‘Thomas Cook tactic’ – both why it was pursued and how it ended – no doubt says a lot about contemporary Ireland (although understanding exactly what it says is not really the purpose for this blog).

But the case can also be used to understand something central about the purpose of geography and the point of studying the subject. At issue here was a mini-battle between competing powers struggling over one particular piece of space; one territory. One group prevailed for a while, but the more powerful group ultimately re-gained the territory.

One purpose of geography is to learn about and understand how and why these battles over territories arise and are resolved. Political geography, especially, asks: why do such territorial battles emerge, who wins, why, with what consequences, and with what significance for understanding other similar battles?

And so – precisely because the discipline of geography pays attention to issues such as territory and territoriality – one point of studying the subject (just one; there are many others) is that it helps to place the student in a good position to begin trying to understand how the geographies emerging around them get made: how, that is, an office can be a travel agency one day, a focal point for political action the next, and then (as the image below shows) nothing but another empty office space in an under-sold city centre.

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