Interview Borja Martinovic, ERC Laureate

Dr Borja Martinovic gives a lecture on cultural diversity and youth, titled: 'This country is ours! Territorial ownership claims and the exclusion of outsiders'.

"This country is ours!" Lately, politicians have been saying this more and more often to keep immigrants away. Examples include the American presidential candidate Donald Trump, as well as politician Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. 'Collective psychological ownership' is what Dr Borja Martinovich (ISS) calls this barely-researched phenomenon that refers to the feeling that something belongs to 'us'. With the prestigious ERC Starting Grant, an EU grant of 1.5 million euros, she gets the chance to take a close look at this phenomenon in nine countries. 

Of course, I can't solve the conflicts in the world, but I hope my research can contribute to it.
Borja Martinovic
Borja Martinovic


"One good example of 'collective ownership' is the Brexit", the 34-year old sociologist and Assistant Professor Martinovic explains. "There was a strong emphasis on wanting to keep control over their own borders and warding off interference from other countries." The phenomenon has already been thoroughly investigated on an individual level. "We all know how it feels when someone at work sits at your desk, or parked their car on your favourite spot. Even if we are not the formal owner of something, it can still feel like that." The feeling of 'ownership' also plays a role in neighbourhoods and cities. Though it increases solidarity within a group, it can worsen relations between groups. "In many problem neighbourhoods, the original white inhabitants are having a hard time accepting newcomers. They get the feeling that their neighbourhoods are changing and that they are losing control as a result."


Martinovic's fascination with the topic is in part because of her own experiences. She grew up in former Yugoslavia, where a battle over territory was fought all around her during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. "It's strange to be born in Yugoslavia, and be a citizen of Croatia ten years later on the same spot." Her interest in the field of migration, ethnicity and integration took her to the Netherlands, where she earned her Master of Science (cum laude) and had her PhD defence on social integration of immigrants in Western countries in 2010. Two years later, she had a post-doc survey to investigate the sense of identity that native people and immigrants have in the Netherlands and how this influences relations between groups.


Martinovic is going to research to what extent feelings of 'ownership' live among the general population by surveying 12,000 people in nine different countries. She will start with the Netherlands, France and the United Kingdom, all countries with many immigrants. Then New Zealand, Australia and the United States, all countries in which the dominant groups themselves originally consisted of immigrants. And finally Israel, Kosovo and Cyprus, all countries with fierce territorial conflicts. With the help of questionnaires, she and her research team hope to gain more insight in the degrees of 'ownership' and on which historical basis this is founded. "We ask participants to what extent they agree with statements such as 'We invested in this country' or 'We were here first'. The intention is to develop a reliable instrument that makes the concept of 'ownership' measurable. A pilot programme that Martinovich and colleagues carried out showed that the concept indeed contributed to the predictability of relations between groups.


Which psychological processes laid the foundations for these ideas has never been investigated before. This means the social scientist is exploring unexplored territory. It is likely that the need for a place of your own, for identity and for safety all play a part. "But I suspect the need for control is the most important factor that influences 'ownership'. You can see this in times of recession. When countries are doing less well, and people get the impression that their influence is decreasing, opposition to immigrants increases."


Martinovic also hopes to clarify the effects these 'ownership' ideas have on relations between groups. It may even be possible to influence the opinions of the participants by telling them stories about the historical backgrounds of their countries. "We expect that emphasizing to Australian participants that they arrived as immigrants and that the Aboriginals were the first inhabitants will weaken their sense of 'ownership' and make them more willing to accept newcomers." One of the interventions the ambitious sociologist has in mind, is to get more nuance in the way we depict history to make ideas about 'ownership' less strict and to make groups more tolerant towards each other. Laughing: "Of course I can't solve the conflicts in the world, but I hope my research will contribute to it."

Text: Esther Kooymans