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The Social Construction of Borders and Territory in the Age of Globalization
Conventional wisdom tells us that borders are clear lines of demarcation that neatly separate different territories and political authorities. It hardly comes as a surprise, therefore, that it traditionally has been the focus on national borders that has dominated academic discussions about the role of borders and territory. This state-centered understanding of borders and territory is closely linked with Max Weber’s famous observation that nation-states possess the monopoly on exerting “legitimate force” within a specific territory – politics, borders, territory, and nation thus merge into one category. This conceptualization is exacerbated by the fact that, within international law, the notion of “internal sovereignty” is mirrored by the postulate of “external sovereignty”, i.e. states recognise each other as legally equal entities and, at least in theory, all populated areas of the globe can on that basis then be clearly separated from each other. Seen from that perspective, borders and territories are a ‘state-affair’, and powerful mythologies of the right of each nation to govern its ‘own’ territory constantly reify such an exclusivist understanding of a clear-cut delineation of separate territories However, in practice territories and borders are neither fixed nor one-dimensional, and therefore any conceptualization of borders and territory as static categories is not only theoretically problematic but also empirically meager. Globalization constantly draws our attention towards the permeability and fragility of borders since the dynamics of globalization highlight the vulnerability of political borders vis-à-vis market forces, fashions, or ideas--and vice versa. Moreover, the understanding that borders and territories always are historically contingent was reaffirmed after the end of the Cold War through a series of more or less violent political events. The break-up of ex-Yugoslavia, domestic conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon, the contested secession of Kosovo, the less-contested independence of East-Timor, the constitutional crisis in Belgium, and many other examples underline the observation that borders and territories are never completely fixed and can always become subject to political contestation and change. In other words, borders and territories do not exist prior to political action but acquire their societal relevance only as a result of those political processes and the accompanying legitimization strategies that produce these borders. It is for this reason that social scientists maintain that borders and territories (and the communities they produce) necessarily are socially constructed, i.e. they are historically and politically contingent and are continuously remade on the basis of concrete political, cultural, and economic practices. This perspective has become part of an academic debate which no longer views borders and territories as fixed
people everywhere on the globe can witness this constant process of (re)negotiating borders and territories. thereby demarcating one territory from another? What are the legitimization strategies for regulating (i. enabling or preventing) the crossing of a specific border? Which actors advocate such border regimes? The political relevance of these questions becomes evident on a daily basis when looking at international airports and other border crossing sites. Thanks to the mass media. At closer inspection the question is thus less whether borders and territories are socially constructed but rather which factors are particularly relevant when addressing the precise ways in which this social construction operates. it stimulates a constant process of debordering. the West) bordering processes in order to assess the precise meaning of distinct spaces. It only underlines the argument that borders always produce a . however. there is also a growing awareness both in academic and policy-making circles that borders and territories do not simply represent a onedimensional space on the planet’s surface. It provokes additional questions about the larger societal consequences of these dynamics. a fuzzy picture of uneven bordering practices across various functional spheres seems to be the more widespread phenomenon. cultural. understood as the emergence of new political. be it celebrated border changes in Berlin in 1989 or more contested events such as those in Darfur and Tibet. economic. economic. Or. and cultural spaces which result from these very adaptations to an increasingly inter-connecting world. or religious practices as well as vis-à-vis movements of ideologies. Globalization then has two main consequences on borders. From a scientific perspective this undoubtedly convincing diagnosis of debordering and rebordering is. On the other hand. While in some cases political. and goods that originate from “outside” territorial entities. It always depends on whether we address political (nations). From Borders to Bordering For all these reasons social scientists increasingly use the concept of “bordering” rather than a static understanding of “border” when addressing the meaning of territory in an everglobalizing world. On the one hand. and power) but instead highlights the constantly changing character of borders and territories. For example: what are the legitimization strategies employed to justify the need to establish a specific border. not limited to academic circles.g. people. and cultural borders might broadly converge. or cultural (e. In addition.e. this re-adjustment nurtures a parallel process of rebordering. Various crucial questions about debordering and rebordering dynamics emerge. economic. which range from very liberal to highly exclusionary arrangements. This is not the place to engage in a material critique of various immigration regimes. people. which celebrates the trias of territory. more precisely: since borders always demarcate two sides from each other. the precise character of a border and the question of how border crossings are regulated become inherently political issues. not entirely sufficient.entities (as in traditional international law. however. This understanding is. understood as an increasing permeability of political borders vis-à-vis economic.
Addressing this social construction of borders and territories in more systematic terms. the ways in which borders and their demarcated territories are the result of ”placeless” communicative dynamics which generate these spaces in the first place. is whenever and wherever it is communicated. The concept of debordering. Moreover. which necessitates that they are simultaneously equipped with a specific political (or economic. they must first be equipped with a specific meaning in concrete societal discourses which are necessarily global in their reach. the practices of giving this border a distinct societal and political meaning are by definition placeless and global in character and transcend all local. the safety of the nation (separation fence/wall between Israel and Palestine). Accordingly. First. territories and borders are not concrete substances with one corresponding reality in space and time. etc. and fuzzy character. demonstrations of the anti-globalization movement in Rio or editorials of the UK Guardian newspaper. for example.. must be shifted to a constructivist understanding of borders/territory. borders and territories nevertheless always carry an inherently political meaning because of their social construction. In that sense. all borders and territories must necessarily be understood as being the result of global communicative dynamics. then. the positivist and spatial understanding of borders/territory. dynamic.) meaning. or securing regional peace (allowing UN peacekeepers to enter Lebanon). The US-Mexican border. the “location” of a specific border/territory cannot be confined to a single corresponding place or. In other words. cultural.g. This argument is independent of whether we address such diverse legitimization strategies as protecting the wealth of the nation (e. while the US-Mexican border certainly is located on a specific part of the earth’s surface.C. In order to become socially and politically relevant. highlights the permeability of territorial borders but also. which assumes that a border and a territory simply exists. border protection at the US-Mexican border or the EU border with the Southern Mediterranean). thereby underlining the aforementioned argument that-- . individual persons or groups. Notwithstanding their contingent. for that matter. more fundamentally. An important caveat is. however. the security of mankind (invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein). but equally in Senate meetings in Washington D. territories and borders need to be filled with various and often contradictory ascriptions of meaning. Following this argument. national or regional confines.distinction between one side and another and that the crossing or closing of this border necessarily becomes subject to specific political projects and legitimization strategies. debordering and rebordering always are highly political exercises since they relate to not only the “innocent” (re-)drawing of boundaries but also to often fierce confrontations over borders and territories that have alternative political meanings. in other words. The meaning of the US-Mexican border becomes in that sense continuously constructed not only in El Paso and Juárez. Translated into our discussion of borders and territory this means that. By doing this we can then shift the spotlight on the practices which legitimize a specific border – or underpin opposition and resistance to existing borders. important. two elements stand out here in particular.
or legal processes which continuously bestow territories and borders with specific. This deterritorialized understanding of borders strips territories of all primordial. Moreover. our understanding of borders and territory must be relocated from a spatial to a functional understanding. the US as the land of the free. economic. and positivist denotations and lends the spotlight on the political. the idea of a specific Asian form of democracy. etc. rather. is that only when taken together. Rather than assuming that borders/territory have a somewhat ”objective” nucleus. but rather by over-lapping and crisscrossing border demarcations within and across various functional contexts. in other words. Moreover. all these ascriptions of meaning combined constitute the multi-dimensional meaning of distinct spaces. More precisely.g. multi-dimensional. They often either problematize or idealise a specific border/territory and thus have an . Towards a Functional Understanding of Borders Second. but also economic. often contradictory meanings.) tend to create divergent borders and territories with regard to the same spatial point of reference. multi-dimensional since different functional spheres (politics. religious. the EU as a peace project. etc. religious. legal. cultural. their political relevance. Since they are subject to constant. What matters. and other functional processes which shape the character of specific spaces. communicatively generated debordering and rebordering processes. of course. since there are not only political.notwithstanding the power of specific territorial narratives (e. this understanding must address how the shape of borders and territories. economics. natural. Borders and territories are. and always highly contested categories of social life. borders and territories always are polycontextual. one-dimensional understanding of spaces as unique and static territorial entities. such ascriptions of meaning to specific spaces are. never neutral. this perspective undermines any neat. The Power of Giving Meaning to Borders and Territory The accuracy of each spatial narrative – all of which certainly describe facets of a specific space’s complexity – is immaterial. scientific. neither borders/territories nor their corresponding ascriptions of meaning are fixed – and herein lays the political significance of all bordering dynamics. and the claims and contestations between conflictive territorial narratives are permanently (re-)negotiated in different functional contexts. the heterogeneous borders generated by these manifold discourses on specific spaces in different functional contexts underline the need to develop an adequately complex understanding of borders/territory as fuzzy. religion. An adequately complex notion of borders and territory addresses the ways in which various borders and territories overlap and intersect at specific spaces. When taken together. it becomes obvious that spaces are not characterized by neat borders that clearly separate one space from another.)--there is never a single corresponding reality of borders and territories. Taking this polycontextual perspective into account. law.
It is on this level that rebordering takes place. the establishment of institutions.D. Jerusalem. This is also the reason why the designation of borders often provides the basis for practices that justify interventions. or the implementation of distinct governance projects for the sake of protecting a specific territory. His main areas of expertise are theories of international politics and globalization. That then also is the reason why the demarcation and labelling of spaces always is a “moral grammar that underwrites and reproduces power”. He has studied in Heidelberg.inherently political dimension. in order to arrive at a sufficiently sophisticated understanding of borders and territory in a world characterized by constant processes of debordering and rebordering. London and Florence and holds a Ph. Germany. (Stephan Stetter is Professor of International Politics and Conflict Studies at the Universität der Bundeswehr in München. Any proclamation of an end of history or a decreasing importance of borders in a globalizing world is tremendously simplistic. Observing borders and territories from the perspective of debordering and rebordering shows that concrete spaces cannot be seen in isolation from the specific functional contexts to which they relate. yet always operating against the background of fuzzy. We do not live in a borderless world. as Julie Peteet once noted. overlapping and crisscrossing spatial divides as well as manifold. from the Department of Government at the London School of Economics and Political Science. all one-dimensional notions of borders and territories must be left behind. Middle East politics and EU foreign affairs) . Yet. often contradictory spatial ascriptions of meaning.
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