Territorial borders are conventionally understood to mark the limits of nation-states’ territory and legal jurisdiction, distinguish one state from another, and demarcate domestic from international realms. For this reason, territorial borders provided a key point of departure for 20th-century studies of global political life. Yet borders have rarely been as clearly demarcated as the lines drawn on maps imply. The history of the modern state system is a history of cross-border trade, sovereign disputes, and unclear territorial jurisdictions.
In the contemporary phase of globalization, borders have become increasingly fragmented—both more and less significant for different kinds of traffic. Global trade agreements facilitate freer cross-border movements of goods, finance, and business people. At the same time, however, borders represent the site of unprecedented policing against unwanted migrants and contraband goods. The changing role of borders—their dissolution, reconstitution, and disaggregation—is central to processes of globalization that are transforming contemporary states and societies. These dynamics are addressed by scholarship within the specialized field of border studies and are of crucial significance to global studies more generally.
The territorial border finds its origins in the history of the European state system that is generally dated to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The treaty enshrined the principle of sovereignty within territorial limits, and borders were drawn to clearly distinguish the sovereign territory of one state from another. As Europeans colonized the Americas, Asia, Oceania, and Africa, new borders were drawn to divide new territories into the sovereign realms of various imperial powers. In the 20th century, anticolonial struggles established new borders again. Territorial borders generally rode roughshod over traditional systems for demarcating social, cultural, and political allegiances and only sometimes corresponded with existing geographic formations (or natural boundaries). Even today, territorial borders and centralized state authorities have only a partial grasp on the social, cultural, and political sensibilities of tribal, nomadic, and other traditional societies.
Histories of imperial conquest and modern state formation thus reveal that there is nothing essential or timeless about the borders of the past or those that we live with today. Some scholars refer to “bordering” as a process, to emphasize this point. From this perspective, borders cannot be taken for granted as self-evident dividing lines between one sovereign power and another. Rather, borders are made and remade through ongoing practices that serve, over time, to establish particular borders as matters of common sense and to frame the spatial environment through which we come to understand citizenship, governance, and other social phenomena. Approaches that emphasize this social construction of borders conceptualize borders in spatial and cultural terms. The border is interpreted as a “limit concept” in general, dictating the parameters of cultural identities as much as sovereign territories.
Understood in this way, the border is conceived as a site of political contestation. Different political actors may contest, on one hand, the position of the border in space. On the other, they may dispute the symbolic meanings invested in the border in terms of its relation to national, religious, or other social norms. Such disputes arose, for example, in the European context in the aftermath of World War I, when empires were carved into new sovereign states according to principles of national self-determination. Newly drawn borders were designed to mark the limits of distinct national homelands from which sovereign status was derived. Yet the populations within those states never corresponded to clear-cut distinctions in relation to nationality. The entire endeavor was consequently mired in disastrous tensions and violence between national majorities and minorities.
In the 1980s, the border between the United States and Mexico emerged as a focus for new theorizations of the spatial and cultural dimensions of borders. Pioneering scholars such as Gloria Anzaldúa challenged the notion of the border as a sharp line of difference in favor of the concept of “borderlands”—a zone of transgression where identities and territories are blurred. The concept was intended to capture a marginalized history of the border region—which included the annexation of traditionally Mexican territory and centuries of migration between Central and North America. Borderlands also referred to a hybrid sense of identity that could not be subsumed by prevailing cultural norms on either side of the border. In this way, what emerged as the field of border studies drew important links between the so-called hard borders of geopolitics and the soft borders of social group formation. The field critiqued the binary distinctions (us/them, inside/outside) through which borders derived their legitimacy by exposing a range of border-dwellers who could not be clearly categorized in terms of a binary schema.
In the 1990s, the question of borders again rose to prominence as part of a broader debate across the social sciences on the meaning and extent of globalization—a debate from which the field of global studies emerged. The question focused initially on a range of transnational forces and technological developments that appeared to undermine both the conceptual coherence and logistical capacities of territorial borders. Some scholars envisaged a world in which such borders were simply made redundant by the accelerated growth of a global marketplace. In this context, they contended that borders offered little protection against flows of global capital and a rapidly homogenizing global consumer culture. For some, this implied that borders and the sovereignty (and democracy) they guarded were increasingly under siege. For others, the shift toward a borderless world created much needed disincentives for interstate conflict by generating greater economic and cultural interdependence. Most scholars agreed that a range of challenges facing societies across the world (environmental destruction, nuclear technology, viruses and pandemics) could not be contained within borders and required coordinated global responses. From these perspectives, borders appeared to be rapidly fading as useful or meaningful demarcation points for global political life.
Other trends suggested that borders were reemerging in unexpected ways. Scholars began to identify reactionary responses to globalization, including the rise of a new identity politics. Right-wing forces across Europe, North America, and Australasia were reinvigorating traditional national tropes and calling, in some cases, for national economic protection. This national populism played out, in particular, around the issue of migration, with increasing calls for tighter sovereign defenses against a range of unwanted flows. In this context, strategies for border controls against irregular migrants shifted from the realm of domestic administration and into the realm of first-order global security issues. The geopolitical upheavals associated with the end of the Cold War and with global economic restructuring had produced new sources of mass displacement and population flows. Growing numbers of asylum seekers, refugees, and undocumented labor migrants attempting to find refuge and work now encountered increasingly elaborate and militarized means of securing borders against their spontaneous arrival. At the same time, however, state migration policies and corporate business models encouraged the hypermobility of highly skilled professionals, entrepreneurs, and students. Combined, these trends defied earlier predictions of a cosmopolitan, borderless world. Far from disappearing, borders had become disaggregated—increasingly restrictive for some types of people and increasingly irrelevant for others.
These trends had implications for scholarly debate. The terms of debate shifted from either/or scenarios between bordered and borderless worlds to more complex accounts of the transformation of borders. Borders, it seemed, were with us to stay, but their form and application were changing. This was evident, for many scholars, in the reshaped borders of the European Union. The practical function of internal borders had largely been removed through a series of intergovernmental negotiations. Yet the external borders of Europe were hardening into a new kind of boundary, dubbed “Fortress Europe,” that was shifting the demarcation point for freedom of movement and cultural identification. Other scholars pointed to specific examples in which borders were being manipulated in ways that introduced uncertainty to their material and symbolic function. This trend was apparent, for instance, in the practice of offshoring. Offshoring occurs when states suspend the application of certain legal and regulatory codes from a portion of their territory. That territory operates, in effect, as if it were offshore. This strategy has been used, for example, to create a specific tax environment within the City of London (that does not apply elsewhere in the United Kingdom) in order to attract global financial business. It has also been used in Australia's island territories to evade legal obligations to provide refugee protection. These kinds of examples have been interpreted as indicative of the “bordering” processes that are reconstituting the relationship between states, borders, and territory and generating new spatial arrangements for citizenship, sovereignty, mobility, and governance.
Contemporary bordering processes such as offshoring are the focus of an emerging field of critical border studies, which investigates borders in relation to changing social and spatial imaginaries. Studies in this field have emphasized that borders not only are found at the edges of territory but surface in a range of administrative and policing practices well within and beyond the map-drawn border as such. Empirical foci include new technologies of surveillance and data control (such as biometrics) through which borders are erected against certain kinds of people in increasingly virtual or ephemeral ways that defy territorial logic. Critical border studies raises not only the prospect of deterritorialized borders but also the need for new methodologies and epistemologies that can capture the realities of existing and emerging borders. Building on the insights of earlier scholars such as Anzaldúa, scholars within this field explore conceptual tools that deviate from embedded territorial logics of inside/outside and us/them. They have begun to theorize borders in terms of new spatial frames and in terms of disaggregated experiences of control. The field thus lends itself to critical engagement with diverse expressions of power in geopolitical and biopolitical forms. Importantly, critical border studies also includes an emancipatory angle. Scholars ask how reconceptualizations of the border might generate new avenues of social change for those who currently find themselves on the wrong side of border lines.
At the broadest level, therefore, the study of borders is also the study of changing perceptions and experiences of space. These perceptions and experiences are crucial to the ontologies that shape who we are, the social formations we belong to, and the terms of reference through which societies are governed. If the field of global studies reflects a shifting consciousness from national to global socio-spatial relations, then the transformation of borders is central to its concerns.
Citizenship, Deterritorialization and Reterritorialization, Globalization, Phenomenon of, Immigration and Transnationalism, Migration, Security, Sovereignty
Related Credo Articles
Boundaries and borders signify limits or discontinuities in space. While they are most often encountered today in their political meaning as...
There are more international borders in the world today than ever there were before. This is a significant fact when one considers the impact of the
The policies and practices found at international borders result from a tangled and often conflicting variety of normative and pragmatic factors. In