Category Archives: land ownership

First arrival and land ownership

Text #12

Verkuyten, M., Sierksma, J., & Thijs, J. (2015). First arrival and owning the land: How children reason about ownership of territory. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 41, 58–64. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2014.11.007

This is an interesting and rare article on first arrival and land ownership.

The article raises interesting questions on the role of the “first arrival” principle in disputes about land ownership. “First arrival” to a land is in a sense analogous to first possession of objects. They study this topic with children between 9 and 12 years of age and their answer is that “children believe that a person owns a particular land relatively more when that person arrived first.” Furthermore, the first arriver is considered to own the land relatively more even when she did not work the land, compared to the later arriver who did work it. In judging ownership, first arrival even outweighs the laboring of the land of the later arriver. Thus the perceived possessory right of the first arriver is not fully transferred to someone who worked the land but did not arrive first.

“Being there first seems an important consideration for deciding who owns the land and has the right to control it. This corresponds to ‘historical right’ which in political theory refers to the right to a piece of land because of first occupancy (…), and to anthropological research that has demonstrated that people use notions of autochthony as self-evident reasons to (re-)claim land and rights in territorial and other disputes (…). First-comers to a new territory have historically claimed ownership of the respective territory and the belief of ‘we were here first’ tends to trigger self-evident notions of ownership and entitlements.”

Methodologically, the paper is questionable. The researchers use self-administered questionnaires to test children about many topics during a single session. They don’t interview children; they can’t ask for justifications or dig deeper into children’s reasoning. They call their research an “experiment” and I’m not sure it can be called one. The subjects are relatively old children (9 to 12 years of age), which is convenient if one wants children to self-administer the questionnaires.

I think it would be interesting to do a similar research but targeting younger children’s ideas on land ownership and, in general their territorial ideas and behaviors (present already at 2 years of age at least).