Towards A Research Agenda for the Study of Borders?

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Towards A Research Agenda for the Study of Borders?



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Towards A Research Agenda for the Study of Borders?

What are the main areas of border related research which deserve attention? A research agenda for border studies can be divided into two broad categories. First, there is the delineation of new concepts and ideas relating to boundaries which were not part of the traditional study of boundaries – in particular, notions of inclusion and exclusion, non-geographic boundaries, the management of boundaries as institutions and the means through which trans-boundary movement may take place. Secondly, is the use of concepts taken from the traditional study of boundaries and which, rather than be discarded, can be redefined and used as relevant concepts for the study of contemporary borders and border institutions thus providing these concepts with new meaning – such as, the historic evolution of borders, notions of borderlands and frontiers, as well as the complex processes determining the demarcation and delineation of borders.


1. Boundary demarcation:

The demarcation of boundaries continues to be an important part of the bordering process. By demarcation however, we do not only mean the cartographic plotting of lines and points of coordination, but also the rules and regulations which determine the existence of difference in the first place and, by association the borders within which such difference is enclosed. The process through which borders are demarcated and delineated is critical to our understanding of how borders are managed and the extent to which they are more or less permeable to movement. Determining just what and who is excluded or included by the creation of a boundary is an integral part of this process. The location of the points at which movement becomes more difficult or, in some cases, is prevented altogether is part of a process which is not limited to the hard fixed lines of a territorial border. As in the case of geographical boundaries, there are no “natural” borders as such – all borders are social constructions, delimited and demarcated by people. Nevertheless, there are specific benchmarks which are more convenient for the determination of cut-off points. In geographic regions, these may be mountain ridges, rivers or deserts, in municipal areas these may be major transportation arteries, rail lines, public buildings etc;, while in society, these may be certain age groups (school leaving age, pension age), specific definitions of what constitutes a religious group (born to a mother of the same faith, practicing the ritual, conversion) or economic status (unemployed for a certain period of time, homeless) and so on. We use pre-determined criteria as convenient places for locating the border and, as such, often fall into the trap of the ecological fallacy – including some who should be excluded, while excluding others who should be part of the group or the area.


A research agenda should focus on the parameters that are used for the demarcation of these boundaries. It should determine the relative costs and benefits of using pre-determined criteria rather than creating specific criteria relevant to the border in question. The convenience of using existing criteria should not be underestimated even when this is weighed against some of the inefficiencies which may arise out of the demarcation of a boundary which is not a perfect fit with the functional characteristics of the specific border in question. Few borders – be they geographic or social – are perfect fits. It is precisely around the imperfect fit that much of the borderland dynamics takes place – some trying to get out, others trying to gain entrance, with the "top-down" institutional dynamics responding very slowly – in some cases too late - to the "bottom-up" people dynamics.
2. Boundary management:

If the major focus of past research into borders was concerned with the way in which they were demarcated and delimited, it is the functional management of the border regime which is of greater importance today. The management of the border regime both reflects, and determines, the nature of trans-boundary interaction, ranging from closed and sealed borders to those which only exist on paper but which, in practical terms, are non-existent. States desire to maintain the line of the boundary because it continues to mark out the formal extent of the State control and sovereignty. But many of these same borders are open to movement of goods, people, capital, information, as well as environmental spillovers and externalities. The formalities through which borders are controlled and administered enable movement to take place, while at the informal level cooperation grows up between the residents on each side of the border line. Where States (or groups) desire to maintain closed borders, the management procedures are more rigid and barrier oriented. Borders become more permeable as the management procedures ease their restrictions, allowing for an increase in the informal nature of trans-boundary cooperation and interaction.


The same is as true of the crossing of borders between cultural and religious groups as it is the crossing from one State to another. The nature of border management procedures and the extent to which they determine the level of informal trans-boundary contact or, vice versa, the extent to which they are affected by and reflect the grass roots trans-boundary interaction, is an area of study which has been insufficiently explored to date and should figure prominently on a border research agenda. One of the most difficult borders to cross in this respect are those which encompass religious affiliations and beliefs. For the believer, the visas and points of entry are determined by a divine being, albeit interpreted and implemented by mere mortals.

3. Transition zones and borderlands:

The notion of the political frontier has traditionally been associated with the area around the border separating States from each other (House, 1980; Prescott, 1987; Martinez, 1994b). Frontier has been translated into notions of "borderland" and has come to reflect the sphere of activity which is directly affected by the existence of a border (Rumley & Minghi, 1991). In territorial terms, it means the area in closest geographic proximity to the State border within which spatial development is affected by the existence of the boundary. Policies within the frontier zone raise crucial questions concerning citizenship, identity, political loyalty and the ends of states (Anderson, 1996). Where borders are closed and rigid, this can mean two different social and economic spaces on each side of a fence or a wall, despite their physical proximity. Where borders are open there are few, if any, restrictions on movement from one side to the other, this enables the development of trans-boundary regions, many of which may reflect a form of spatial or social transition from one core area to another. Transition zones, through which access from one entity to another is eased, reflects a willingness to open oneself up to external influences while, at the same time, national or religious purists view such transition zones as threatening the continued hegemony of their own cultural domination. Border studies should focus on the nature of trans-boundary regions and transition zones and the way in which the impact of the border is gradually diminished within these zones. The crossing of State borders by European workers and even school children on a daily, unrestricted, basis is as much an indication of an integrated borderland and transition zone, as is the act of intermarriage between members of different cultural and religious groups (Schack, 2001) In every case (assuming that one side does not attempt to dominate the relationship) the crossing of the border enables differences to be reconciled as part of a more diverse and multi-cultural landscape, although it does not mean that difference is negated altogether. Rather that difference does not have to be encompassed by exclusive lines of separation and borders which are barriers.


Some would argue that trans-boundary cooperation will eventually create a common open space (Van Houtum, 2002). The notion of a "borderless" world, even in Western Europe where traditional state boundaries are relatively insignificant when compared to their role in the past, flies in the face of reality. Transition zones, through which old boundaries run but within which cooperation and interaction increases, is the closest we have come to creating borderless interactivity zones. While the notion of "borderland" assumes the existence, and impact, of a border on the human landscape, the notion of "transition zone" assumes the opening, if not removal, of the border so that it ceases to have any sort of impact. In terms of practice, the creation of trans-boundary regions goes a long way to transforming a borderland into a transition zone, replacing the barrier impact of a border with an interface where contact takes place between the different groups.
Transition zones or borderlands are spaces which always experience movement. The bordering process challenges notions of permanence. “Bordering” suggests an on-going time element – a process of perpetual adaptation to the forces of movement. Borders create opportunities for passage, for crossing over and hybridization processes which occur in what have been termed as “transitional spaces” (Heifetz-Yahav, 2002). Hybridization takes place in contact zones, where people from different groups or territories begin to cross borders and where they experience processes of mutual adaptation negotiated through daily working relations with each other.
The transition zone is not found only in the geographical area next to the boundary. Migration creates transition zones in the territorial heart of the “other” polity. The inner city areas of large cities are a form of transition zone or borderland where a great deal of hybridization takes place. Ethnic ghettos reflect the dual processes of border maintenance between groups desiring to maintain their cultural difference (exlusion) and, at the same time the mixing of cultures in tenement blocks brought together by their migration experience, their poverty and their common desire to succeed in a new ecumene (inclusion). Different types of border exist within the same space – borders separating the new migrant groups from the “home” groups who determine to what extent the new groups will be included within the existing and established ecumene, as well as borders separating each new group from the other – some of which are maintained voluntarily in an effort to retain difference in an alien world, others of which are removed as part of the common cause to undergo a process of integration into the new polity. The extent to which such borders are voluntarily maintained or removed reflects generational attitudes and the desire on the part of younger groups to cross the “inclusion – exclusion” boundary in addition to the geographic one which has already been successfully negotiated as part of the migration process. A border research agenda should focus on this hierarchical nature of these boundaries – why some groups are prepared to cross one but not another. It should also deal with the forces of hybridization in the transition zones or borderlands and how these forces are sometimes the result of internal pressures of change, or externally imposed processes of institutional exclusion.
4. Perceiving the border:

Borders may be as much perceived as they are concrete and tangible phenomena in the landscape. Borders may be perceived by people in places where no physical boundary exists. Equally, physical boundaries may be ignored in places where people perceive them as being irrelevant in their daily lives and cross them at ease with little, or no, restrictions to trans-boundary movement. The issue of imagination has opened up the study of borders to include the representations, images and narratives that people have of the lines that separate them from others (Van Houtum 2002). The narrative with which this paper opens, describing the perception of a Greek Cypriot of the other side of the border, is replicated throughout the world. The stronger the barrier function of the border, the more powerful the imagined, the more abstract the narrative of what is perceived as lying on the other side.


Perceptions of borders usually focus on what exists on the other "invisible" side of the line of separation. Borders exist in our mind by virtue of the fear we have of the unknown and which, in turn, causes us to stay on our side of the border. Where we seek to escape from our own territory or group affiliation, our perceptions of the other side are positive, believing that the grass is always greener on the other side. Just as our fears of the threats emanating from the other side of a sealed border are not always played out in reality, so too the grass does not always end up being greener or the sun brighter on the other side of the border that we wish to cross.
The physical elements of the border landscape go a long way to strengthening or reducing the perception of difference that we envisage across the border. The construction of a concrete wall does not only symbolize the barrier function of the border but it also prevents us from seeing what is taking place on the other side of the border. As such, the other side becomes invisible and unknown. A wire fence, particularly if it is electrified and patrolled, is also a barrier, but it enables a line of vision to take place, reducing the element of the unknown. The removal of the wall or the fence does not only symbolize the coming together of peoples or groups which were previously prevented from being in contact with each other, but also changes our perception of the border, or borderland, from a barrier to an interface, and from a no-mans land to a transition zone. Changes in perceptions of the "other" are generally a "bottom-up", rather than "top-down", process, brought about by increased interaction and movement by the borderlanders themselves. Perceptions which emphasize notions of difference and mutual fear and threat are, more often than not, socially constructed from the center, with walls and fences constituting the mechanism through which difference is perpetuated.
One way to have a deeper understanding of boundary perceptions is to focus on border narratives and the way in which borders are represented through a variety of images, ranging from the real life landscapes and practices, to literature, art, maps, stamps, lyrics etc; The notion of difference, of the walls that separate, figure prominently in all of these art forms. They are part of the socialization process through which the images of “us” and “them” become part of the cultural, social and political imaginations (Paasi, 1996a; 1996b; Kemp, 2000; Forsberg, 2003). Their authors and creators use them as a means of reflecting existing differences, strengthening the notion of border. A series of frontier documentaries produced by the BBC back in the 1980's demonstrates the diverse perceptions of the border experienced by people who had grown up in close proximity to the lines of separation. For some it was the physical boundary preventing them from interacting with the other side which was important – the fear of difference. For others, it was the positive interaction with what was different on the other side (such as the Spanish villagers who could cross the street into France for high quality local cuisine) which made the border such an attractive place. The perception of difference is not, by definition, a negative factor. It all depends on how the difference is played out in the daily practices of the lives of people in and around the border.
5. Boundary removal:

Border research has traditionally focused on the process through which borders are constructed, the way in which they create difference through their function as barriers. Far less attention has been paid to the way in which borders are opened or may be removed altogether. The opening of borders in Western Europe was not simply a political decision which resulted from economic union. The process was accompanied by the coming together of nations and peoples who had formerly been antagonistic towards each other. The road from perceived hatred and fear to a situation in which borderland residents commute on a daily basis to a neighbouring country, or allow their children to be educated in a different cultural milieux, was a gradual one, during which time information about, and familiarity with, the other, increased. Perceived differences are reduced and the need for borders as barriers becomes insignificant. The removal of economic tariffs is but one, relatively insignificant, element within this broader cultural dimension of boundary opening.


What happens to the residents of the borderland when the boundary is removed? The process through which boundaries are opened, visa restrictions and movement is eased, can be a traumatic event for some borderlanders, especially if they grew up to fear the unknown on the other side. Passing through the boundary for the first time in one's life, or even more traumatically for the first time after having been cut off from the other side for a period of thirty or forty years, brings the perceived boundary into line with the tangible reality. Berliners, Nicosians and Jerusalemites all experienced the brutal division of their cities by concrete walls and patrolled fences, only to see these same walls topple (Jerusalem in 1967, Berlin in 1990) or imperceptibly open (Nicosia in 2003). The narrative of the border crossing is one which is accompanied by curiosity tinged with fear and uncertainty. How has the "other" side changed since they last saw it? Where are the houses, the shops and the open spaces which they remembered from childhood, or about which their parents and grandparents continually told them? More often than not, the reality is vastly different to that which is remembered or perceived, resulting in disappointment and, in some cases, frustration that the "other" has unilaterally changed the spatial, social and human landscapes.
The recent opening of the boundary dividing the island of Cyprus led to a trans-boundary movement of almost a third of the island's population within the space of a few days to visit, search and attempt to rediscover the homes and landscapes they left behind less than thirty years previously. The narrative with which this paper opens describes the way in which the perceptions of the border and what lies on the other side is confronted with the physical and spatial realities when the border is finally opened. Cyberspace and satellite television is another form of boundary opening, through which we become acquainted with the lifestyles of the “other”, all those groups and territories which had previously been located beyond the barrier of information and knowledge. It is in this way that globalization processes have helped open, in some cases totally remove, the physical border separating territories and groups. By making the “other” appear normal, no different in their daily life patterns and concerns to those which affect the “self”, it then becomes easier to move beyond the physical borders and barriers which separate states and other spatial compartments. It is a case where familiarity does not breed contempt, but removes the constructed barriers of difference.
At the same time, we should not be naïve in thinking that the border opening process removes all barriers to movement and entry restrictions. Best (2002) argues that while the discourse of “border transgression” has become dominant in Europe, the “flows, relations and positions that are incorporated through these (transgression) practices establish a field of differentiations and segmentations”. This raises questions concerning the extent to which the practices of transgression actually challenge the existing power relations, simply moving the policies of state exclusion from a former (state) border to a new (EU) line of control (Best, 2002; Struver & Best, 2002). Van der Wusten (2002) argues that the creation of intricate control mechanisms is an outcome of two contrary tendencies – the stated desire for border opening and increased movement on the one hand, with that of a desire to rigidly control labour migration, spurred on by security controls in the post 9/11 era. Borders continue to exercise a control function despite the border opening process. In some places control is loosened, while in their new, often less visible locations, they may have the opposite effect – effectively tightening control (Newman, 2002b).
6. Borders and power relations:

The preceding comments suggest that any border research agenda should also deal with the basic question of “borders for who?”. Who benefits and who loses from enclosing, or being enclosed by, others. This raises questions of power relations. Who are the groups in society who desire borders and what are the decision making, and law enforcement, processes which enable certain groups, normally relatively small elites, to make these decisions? Who are the professional groups – planners, architects, cartographers and social workers to name but a few – who use their managerial skills to undertake the process of delimitation and border implementation? The significance of the social gatekeepers is particularly relevant with regard to the border makers – this is the process through which social and national gatekeeping is put into practice through the creation of borders which, in turn, determine the extent of the administrative and control processes.


While globalization has not rendered our world to be totally sans frontiers, it has served to change the nature of power relations and their respective interests in determining who benefits from the maintenance and institutionalization of the bordering process and, conversely, who benefits from the removal and opening of borders? Those who benefited from maintaining tight economic tariffs or immigration restrictions in the past are not necessarily the losers when these institutional procedures and barrier functions are removed. The rich and powerful do not suddenly become poor and weak as a result of the easing of restrictions. Nor do the disenfranchised and poor suddenly become powerful. Global associations of States, economic cartels and social elites simply refocus the around new centers of power. The fact that the same global inequalities exist in a globalized world as they did in a world of nation states only serves to demonstrate just how artificial the borders are in maintaining anything other than national and linguistic difference. We do not understand enough about the groups and power elites in whose interest borders are institutionalised, who determine the extent to which they will be opened or closed, through which movement and interaction will be eased or restricted. This is an important part of a borders research agenda.


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