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‘This country is ours’: Collective psychological OWNERShip and ethnic attitudes

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - OWNERS (‘This country is ours’: Collective psychological OWNERShip and ethnic attitudes )

Reporting period: 2020-04-01 to 2021-09-30

Country ownership is a recurring topic in political debates. Statements such as ‘we were here first!’ or ‘we built this country!’ are advanced by politicians when claiming ownership of the country for their own ethnic group. For instance, in Western European immigration countries, right wing parties use more and more successfully the rhetoric of the dominant group’s ownership of the country to generate opposition to immigrants. Also in settler societies, that were founded by white colonizers who deprived indigenous inhabitants of their lands, strong anti-immigrant sentiments are present. For instance, white Australians display slogans such as ‘we grew here, you flew here’ to communicate to Arab and Asian immigrants that they are not welcome. Furthermore, territorial ownership claims seem to resonate even more in countries that are home to two long established groups that both have historical reasons to demand ownership of the land. Examples are Serbs and Albanians who view Kosovo as primarily their own group’s ancestral homeland, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is, to a great extent, fought around the issue of historical territory. While the opinions of politicians are publicly voiced, we do not know how widespread ownership claims are among the general population, where these claims originate from, and how damaging they are for intergroup relations.

Previous research has studied psychological ownership – feelings of possessiveness towards a target – from the perspective of individuals (‘mine’) and shown that people can feel that objects, places and ideas belong to them even in the absence of legal recognition. However, ownership can be experienced on a group level as well. People are not only concerned about their individual characteristics and property, but they also see themselves as group members. By extension, what we think we own as a group becomes relevant to us. Almost nothing is known about these experiences of collective psychological ownership (CPO): a shared sense that something is ‘ours’. Yet, CPO seems to be particularly relevant with respect to territories and in the context of ethnic relations.

The aim of the OWNERS research program is to develop a first instrument to measure collective psychological ownership and find out (1) to what extent people perceive their group as owning the country more than the relevant ethnic outgroup, (2) what psychological needs motivate people to claim ownership of the country for their group and which categories of people are more likely to do so, and (3) what consequences ownership claims have for attitudes towards other relevant ethnic groups. We focus on multi-ethnic countries. These are the settings where collective ownership claims are prominent in the political discourse. Moreover, implications of ownership claims on a national scale could be far-reaching and unnerving, endangering social cohesion at large.

Ethnic attitudes and intergroup relations are complex and location specific, and have been studied not only by social psychology but also by many other disciplines, such as history, anthropology, law, political science, and international relations. OWNERS projects’ contribution to this extensive literature is to examine in a range of multi-ethnic national contexts the prevalence, underlying motives, and group consequences of CPO. For the robustness of the tests, the OWNERS research team will study three types of settings: (1) Western European immigration countries that have a clear dominant ethnic majority (the Netherlands, UK/England, France), (2) settler societies that also have a dominant ethnic majority, but one that has colonized the indigenous groups (Australia, New Zealand, USA), and (3) countries with ongoing territorial disputes about ownership between two long established ethnic groups (Kosovo, Cyprus, Israel). If our comparative approach shows that in these diverse contexts CPO is a mechanism that contributes to ethnic tensions, and that the underlying reasons why people claim CPO are comparable, this will open up new possibilities for improving ethnic attitudes. Interventions can be implemented to promote historical narratives that give people a sense of ownership that is not exclusively reserved for their own group.
The OWNERS research team (PI, three PhD students) has developed survey items that capture well the psychological construct of territorial ownership (CPO) and that can be used in multiple national contexts. Whereas people in Western Europe (UK, the Netherlands) on average see their own group as owning the country, there is still a lot of variation in opinions and the endorsement of CPO is moderate. In contrast, in conflict regions such as Kosovo both conflicted groups see themselves as owning the territory, and disagreement with the idea of their group owning the country is rare.

Furthermore, we have shown that ingroup CPO (‘this is our country’) is a different construct from out-group CPO (‘this is their country’) and that even in conflict regions such as Kosovo people tend to recognize that the rival ethnic group is to some extent also entitled to the territory in question. This led us to designing a new measure of “shared ownership”, using statements such as “Serbs and Albanians together own Kosovo”, and here we see much more variation in answers, with some people disagreeing with such statements and others agreeing.

We have further shown that ingroup CPO is related to more negative attitudes towards immigrants and the EU in the Netherlands and UK, as well as with a higher likelihood of having voted in favour of the Brexit referendum in the UK. In-group CPO is in furthermore in settler societies (Australia, Chile) among White inhabitants related to lower willingness to return the territory to the indigenous groups. And in conflict regions (Kosovo, Cyprus and Israel) we have shown that ingroup CPO represents an obstacle to reconciliation with the rival outgroup. However, emphasizing shared ownership makes people more willing to promote good relations with the other ethnic group.

We have also looked at historical principles based on which groups can claim ownership and we found that autochthony belief (a belief in entitlements for the first inhabitants) was in the UK is related to more welfare chauvinism (i.e. exclusion of immigrants from the welfare system), whereas in Australia and Chile autochthony belief was related to more willingness to compensate the indigenous groups (the true first comers) for the past transgression by the Whites. Thus, we have shown that first arrival is an important principle for claiming ownership of the territory for one’s group (among natives in Western Europe) and an important principle for recognizing outgroup (indigenous) ownership among the descendants of colonizers in settler societies. At the moment we are exploring the role of past investment, which is another principle on which ownership claims can be based. Our preliminary results from suggest that investment is related with more ingroup CPO and therefore more exclusion of newcomers and indigenous groups.

Up to date we have published three articles in peer-reviewed journals (two are available online, one is still being processed). We have another five articles under review and we are currently working on six additional ones. We have presented our work to academic audiences at international conferences and we gave invited talks for university students, high school students, and the general public.
Research on ethnic relations has so far ignored the role of territorial entitlement that group members might feel or perceive. With the OWNERS project we have introduced collective psychological ownership as a new construct and we have shown that it helps us understand better intergroup relations in multiethnic societies, ranging from Western European nation states, to settler societies and (post) conflict regions. By the end of the project we expect to get a complete picture of how strongly CPO is endorsed across groups and national contexts, how CPO claims influence ethnic relations, and what the profile is of people who tend to have a strong sense of CPO. Our aim is to present our findings in the form of at least 12 journal articles and three PhD dissertations that are based on these articles. Importantly, by publishing papers, going on research visits, and organizing conference symposiums that bring together our collaborators and other researchers working on related topics, we have managed to generate enthusiasm for this new construct and we see that others are picking it up and themselves starting to do research on CPO and intergroup relations.