Posted by: Borderless Borderguard | January 20, 2008

on why boundary research is so tiresome…

The study of boundaries is dangerous for the scholar, because it is thoroughly charged with political passions and entirely encumbered with after-thoughts. The people are too interested in the issue when they speak of boundaries to speak with detachment: the failing is permanent! (Siegfried, in Ancel, in Prescott, 1978: 13)

It is not only dangerous it is also extremely difficult to conduct research on boundaries, both theoretically and practically, due to methodological disadvantages and intermix and overlapping of many other concepts such as statehood, nationalism, culture, ethnicity, territory and security.

Various scholars (see for instance, Hastings and Wilson 1999, Prescott 1978, Anderson 1996, 2001) repeatedly report about lack of research on boundary studies. The boundary as a concept has not been researched profoundly. It was rarely a focus of study, but merely means to explore other issues like statehood, nationalism, etc… Furthermore, the boundary itself is very much commonsensical, taken for granted and rarely questioned. Usually scholars writing on borders, warn their readers about sensitivity of the matter. There are many new faces, and aspects of border one has to be confronted with. Anderson (1996:1) notes that examining of the issue of borders “raises crucial, often dramatic, questions concerning citizenship, identity, political loyalty, exclusion, inclusion and of the ends of the state”.

Prescott suggests that “the danger of subjectivity is greater in political geography than in any other branch of the subject” (Prescott 1978: 13). “The present century has seen how subjective studies in political geography can be perverted to serve political arguments.” Prescott is aware of these difficulties and is grateful that he wrote his book “at a time when the passions generated by the Second World War have disappeared” (Prescott 1978:13). He notes that “this advantage was denied to authors such as Holdich, Haushofer and Ancel” (Prescott, 1978:13).

The larger part of literature body on boundaries was written before, during or after the world wars, which have heavily influenced on the way borders have been perceived, represented and discussed. Even now more than often boundaries are discussed mainly when there is a conflict or a threat to security. One can come across with terms for boundary in military context more often than in any other, apart from disputes of various sorts, for instance territorial disputes, ethnic conflicts, water disputes and so forth. Borders are called to be territorial in their nature (see for instance Anderson 1996; Prescott 1978) I think borders are very much military or policed by their nature still in many parts of the world including Central Asia (especially Uzbekistan, one of the most policed state in the region).

The boundary studies do not have a long methodological or academic tradition, mainly due to the fact that academia has only recently commenced investigating the field and because the boundaries are a fairly recent phenomenon. This sphere of research was under absolute monopoly of state and the military for quite a long time, and was long seen as a security issue and was of high confidentiality.

As Anderson notes psychological implications of discussions about borders, arising patriotic feelings as well as methodological problems make it a hard task for a scholar to conduct a coherent research on boundaries. Particularly boundaries of former Soviet states are especially complex and highly policed all around the post-Soviet area, where a scholar is not welcomed at all, and information sharing can be seen as spying.

Boundary studies is the area of studies where one has to be confronted with many issues and many concepts from various disciplines. There are various concepts necessary to understand before understanding borders. One can conduct research on boundaries and territoriality and territorial dimensions of boundaries, one can look into cultural dimensions of boundaries, political, geographical, national, security and boundaries, boundaries and migration… etc. All these aspects make it difficult to grasp the multilayeredness of the boundary and border areas.

Besides, physical barriers make it sometimes impossible to approach the borderland and conduct an anthropological research. Especially borders of former Soviet Union and new Independencies are very policed, disputed and militarized.



  1. The fact that you are talking about boundareis rathers then borders contaminates a bit your article, because in fact boundary is not border and border is not boundary. Ethnology dealt from its first days with boundaries and found the most striking theory which still influences people in the “rite des passage” observation of Gellner. Other is Frederick Barth, who discovered in the Swat Valley in Pakistan a rather instrinsic practice in making of the boundary between “I” and “you” visible through ethnic markers, in fact a border is irrelevant for this discussion, but a boundary is.

    As for borders I was really surprised by the autobiography of Stefan Zweig (Die Welt von Gestern, The yesterdays universe) in which he claims that the introduction of passports after World War I. was a new phenomenon in which he first became aware, that after the introduction of passports he was crossing borders on his way to the Atlantic Coast. He travelled this way before WW I. quite often, but never was aware of borders then.

    The most striking thing is, that we consider borders as something naturally bound on nations and states, but in fact it is a quite new concept bound of the results of war (or by preventing it limes, Chinese Wall etc.)

    May be a site is interesting for you, rather new but with some posts on the border concepts in the European languages.

    All the best


  2. upps! sorry for correction, but “rite de passage” is Van Gennep not Gellner: Van Gennep, Arnold: Les rites de Passage. Etude Systématique des Rites. Paris 1909.

  3. Dear Olim Devona,

    thank you so much for your comment.
    You are absolutely right about the difference between the terms boundary and border. I am preparing another post about terminology, and research I did on how we and others name this phenomenon.

    Thank you for the link, it is very useful and very interesting. It is a great idea that you share the knowledge on German and French (speaking) works about borders and boundaries.

    coming soon, I will try to make a contribution on terminology…


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