Shaping new spaces: how microorganisms make territory

Authors: Gwendolin McCrea*, University of Minnesota
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Human-Environment Geography, Animal Geographies
Keywords: territory, nonhuman, political ecology, urban wildlife, assemblage
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/3/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Directors Room, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Geographers are increasingly interested in the circumstances and effects of human/nonhuman relationships. At the same time, a lively debate about the concept of territory is underway in the field. However, although spaces of encounter are central to human/nonhuman relations, very little work has addressed questions of how territory and territoriality shape and are shaped by those relations. An undercurrent in the work on territory continues to be concerned with the source of territorial behavior—is it essentially social, or is it a function of biology and instinct? This framing relies on a problematic distinction between the social and the biological, while adding little to our understanding of the spatial and temporal complexities of the formations of space (including territory) within ecologies that include both human and nonhuman elements. This paper proposes a material approach to analyzing the territorial relations that emerge from such ecologies, focusing on the practices of territory rather than the human-ness or nonhuman-ness of the actors. Drawing on empirical research conducted in an urban wildlife sanctuary park just outside of Washington D.C., it explores the territorial effects of shifting ecological relationships. As urbanization patterns, climate change, and wildlife adaptations have altered the ecologies of the park, microorganisms have emerged as “assemblage converters”— not only increasing risks to human and animal health, but also creating new patterns of territorial practices and artifacts. Ultimately, this paper explores the power of the nonhuman to fundamentally shape our shared spaces and experiences.

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