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Society, Politics & Law

What are borders?

Updated Monday 7th August 2017

The cause of national identity, or the result of it? Created, or natural and pre-ordained? Our exploration of borders starts here.

Have you ever thought about borders and what they mean? You may have been aware of borders during your travels from one country to another, while going through passport control. You may identify yourself as belonging to a particular country (British, Irish), but how much is this defined by your sense of where in the world you live or originate? If you have travelled in Europe within the Schengen area from one country to another, you might have hardly been aware of crossing a border, yet borders are entities that even in today’s world are surprisingly important and powerful symbols of national identity.

A barbed-wire fence dividing Hungary and Serbia Creative commons image Icon "Hungary-Serbia border barrier", by Bőr Benedek, via Flickr under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license

This article series explore borders, by drawing on the historic, political, social psychological and cultural aspects that define, shape, maintain or create borders between countries and between regions within them.

So what is a border? The Oxford dictionary defines a border as “A line separating two countries, administrative divisions, or other areas”. The line defining a border is an often invisible geographical boundary that demarcates the territories of political and judicial entities, for example of states, governments, federated states, and other super-national entities. Such boundaries may coincide with particular geographical features, such as rivers, lakes, mountains, or they may appear to be almost completely arbitrarily with arbitrarily straight lines, as were many of the borders in Africa, Asia and the Middle East during the latter stages of European colonialization of Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

When looked at linguistically and culturally borders are fuzzy: nation states often contain different sub-regions that are also geographically or culturally defined by boundaries, sometimes with claims for independence from the larger nation state in which they are located (examples of this can be found in the Basque and Catalan regions in Spain and recently in relation to the Scottish referendum). Regions near a border often have very similar history and culture, with dialects that are unique to the border region. In this way borders are transitional – as they move over historic time periods they sweep up or divide communities, displace people and create migration pressures. Depending on the origin and histories involved, such transitions may create areas of tension and conflict, but also blending of cultures and languages. Borders may be permeable or closed. In the more permeable state they allow exchange of people goods and ideas. In the more closed state they prevent the flow of people, ideas and goods. How permeable borders are is the product of politics on both sides of a border and as we shall see this can have wider implications for the cultures on either side of the border. Importantly borders are about political and economic control. They are often established as a result of conflicts over resources, with the victor of a conflict gaining privileged access over such resources (which may become a source for further conflict in the future).

While borders are historically, socially and culturally fluid the idea of a national border is often represented as being synonymous with national identity. This has its origins in 20th century history, in which the idea of a national border became conflated with the idea of national identity, and in which the separation of countries by a boundary is based on the idea of shared characteristics among the people living within a border (e.g. common language, history, culture, perceived national character). A more critical perspective on borders and the idea of nationhood encompasses a view that suggests that borders are real only by a shared belief in their legitimacy.

The important point here is of course that borders are the cause of national identity rather than the result of national identity.

A social scientific and historic perspective views borders as created rather than as natural or pre-ordained. They are the result of the projections of power by hegemonic political entities, but have a ubiquitous effect on life within their reach. One of the greatest myths about borders and national identities is that they are defined and legitimised through narratives around nationhood in such a way that they construct a shared history and future.

In the next article we will look more closely at an example of a border, namely the India/Pakistan border. This is an important border for many reasons. India and Pakistan are becoming increasingly significant global economic players, and will have some of the largest populations on Earth in the 21st century. Both nations possess nuclear weapons, and have been in a state of perpetual though subdued state of conflict since 1947. The modern borders of India and Pakistan are a recent creation. 70 years ago colonial British India was divided into two nation states, Pakistan and India, following an unruly and destabilising ending of empire in South Asia. By looking more closely at the history one can see many of the dynamic forces at work that drive the creation and maintenance of bordered nations, as well as the development of national identities that follows in its wake.

More about the India-Pakistan border


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