Doris Wastl-Walter, ed. The Ashgate Research Companion to Border Studies. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2011. xxi + 705 pp. $220.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7546-7406-1.
Reviewed by Timothy Bowman (West Texas A&M)
Published on H-War (March, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
Crossing the Borders of Intellect
Borderlands history is a field driven by questions of reconceptualization; practitioners are participants in a dynamic intellectual trend orienting historical analyses away from nation-state-driven narratives and toward questions of what happens when social groups, empires, and nation-states come together and interact. Since the 1999 publication of Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron’s seminal “From Borderlands to Borders” in the American Historical Review, borderlands historians have debated the larger meanings of analyzing borders throughout world history. Now, with the publication of The Ashgate Research Companion to Border Studies, a group of enterprising social scientists has collaborated on a volume whose insights will undoubtedly push the field of borderlands history in new directions.
As editor Doris Wastl-Walter notes in her introduction, The Ashgate Research Companion to Border Studies is both global in terms of its scope as well as in the backgrounds of the various social scientists who contributed essays to the volume. Additionally, the editor notes in the introduction that “the world political map has undergone significant changes [in recent years] … [and] notions of a ‘borderless world’ and political ‘deterritorialization’ have recently been taken up by some scholars” (p. 2). Despite these larger intellectual trends, Wastl-Walter and her colleagues note that borders and their enforcement are as vibrant in the post-9/11 world as they were before. Even just a cursory glance at some of the volume’s chapters—with thirty-two chapters and at nearly seven hundred pages in length, the volume is simply too massive to engage in its entirety in a short review—will serve to highlight the many important frameworks for studying borders contained therein.
Political geographer Anssi Paasi—in the volume’s lead chapter, “A Border Theory”—sets the stage by asking if a unified theory of border studies is even realistic or attainable, given that scholars in the humanities and social sciences do make occasional pushes toward theorizing borders. Paasi argues poignantly that borders’ ability to create nationalism or narratives of national identity is not singular in nature, instead being “crucially context dependent” (p. 23). Furthermore, one can see in the recent social-science literature diverse border phenomena such as the massive diffusion of borders in modern societies; that they work in the post-9/11 world as lines of both inclusion and exclusion; that in a globalizing world processes of deterritorialization have taken hold in many traditional border settings; and, that modern territoriality as well as the attendant “othering” of certain groups of people at the margins of nation-states still means that internal conflicts are common in bounded territories. For Paasi, what all of this means is that border theories as opposed to “a border theory” need to “be tractable heuristic tools that could be used and re-conceptualized further in various empirical settings” (p. 19). Paasi’s sophisticated approach to border theorizing not only indicates that border studies are so diverse that borderlands history potentially already rivals older forms of understanding the past like nation-state-driven narratives; her essay, also, serves as a nice introduction to the diversity of useful perspectives present throughout the rest of the collection.
A diversity of subjects and border analyses follows. James Wesley Scott, in his essay on borders and the European Union (EU), argues that the EU’s genesis and continual enlargement have shifted people’s perceptions of borders both in academe and everyday life. Furthermore, the EU’s rise, he argues, highlights that borders as markers of confined territories within Europe are no longer as important as “the more general social production of borders, complexly understood as sites at and through which socio-spatial differences are communicated” (p. 124). As a result, the EU offers scholars a sort of laboratory in which to measure the subjective structuring of borders and what those structures mean for twenty-first-century Europeans. Border scholars stand to make major contributions in terms of unmasking the meaning of social borders in a postmodern world where borders as national dividing lines are, at least in this case, somewhat less important.
Other contributions deal with border enforcement in the twenty-first century as well as the problems of inclusion and exclusion in modern nation-states. Heather Nicol argues that post-9/11 US border securitization has become “the fundamental discourse for North American relations,” which has given rise to an American state that incorporates its neighbors through hegemonic border security practices as opposed to the more traditional diplomatic forms of foreign policy or international treaties (p. 265). Modern North American borderlands history, then, clearly underwent a massive and unforeseen shift after the 9/11 terror attacks. On the other side of the world, the Mongolian Kazakhs created a group identity based on their former diasporic existence after their reunification with the so-called post-Soviet Kazakh homeland during the 1990s. Alexander Diener shows that notions of “homeland” and belonging are far more complicated than a simple reunion of diasporic peoples with their country of origin. Given the widespread migration of various peoples all throughout the world during the modern era, historians now have a valuable framework for developing notions that nation-states have of where their people fit in society, and how migratory people can actually negotiate a sense of “homeland” at home, and, conversely, abroad.
People who migrate internationally still face massive borders that must be crossed in our twenty-first-century “borderless” world. Roos Pipjers notes the existence of “global nomads” whose migration in search of work now faces the added challenge, at least in Europe, of competition from European migrants who can now move about more easily internally to the EU than had been possible prior to the genesis of such a “neoliberal collaborative” project (p. 423). Eunyoung Christina Choi narrates the China-North Korea Border and displays that its existence as an unnatural boundary between two allied neighbor states causes locals to negotiate “bordering” experiences as well as national identities, sometimes on a daily basis. Finally, Sanette L. A. Ferreira chronicles the existence of “transfrontier conservation areas” that not only provide opportunities for regional development in southern Africa but also point toward a future world system of protected natural landscapes. Borders thus clearly still matter, but crossing them can have benefits for people on multiple levels.
The Ashgate Research Companion to Border Studies is a fine compendium of the latest word in borderlands scholarship from social scientists. As this brief review of only a handful of the volume’s many chapters shows, borderlands historians can push the study of borders throughout world history in exciting new directions if they are willing to adopt some of the frameworks provided by the contributors to this volume. Borderlands historians thus can and should cross the intellectual borderlands between the social sciences and the humanities fruitfully while borderlands history continues to mature as a field. The future of borderlands history is, at the risk of sounding clichéd, boundless.
. Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron, “From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States, and the Peoples in Between in North American History,” American Historical Review 104, no. 3 (June 1999): 814-841.
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Timothy Bowman. Review of Wastl-Walter, Doris, ed., The Ashgate Research Companion to Border Studies.
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