What are Borders? (2/2)

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As we started to explore in the first part of this article, limits between territories are not the exclusivity of human beings, as most animals do have territorial behaviours. However, political frontiers are what makes us different. Political borders reflect the evolution of populations, identities, cultures and political forces over time. They are artificial lines socially and politically built that move along eras, ideologies and dominant powers. They are not just about keeping competitors away or making sure to have enough hunting and fishing resources to survive (which is what an animal territory is about). Political borders are also symbolic constructions people rely on to build their identity as a group (today we’d say, as a nation).

[Read The First Part of this Article: What are Borders (1/2)]

Let’s dig deeper in what borders really are by investigating the relationship between political borders and identities:

1. Borders are intercultural zones where cultures hybridize
2. … but can also be where tensions between opposite beliefs focus
3. Borders are the outlines of national identities
4. Could we live in a world without borders?

1. Borders are intercultural zones where identities hybridize

Residents of Naco, Arizona join residents of Naco, Mexico for a volleyball match during the fourth “Fiesta Bi-Nacional” at the fence that separates the U.S. (left) and Mexico (right), on April 14, 2007. (Reuters/Jeff Topping)

Borders are limits. Per definition, they are the extreme fringe of a “centre” (usually a capital city where the very core of the nation-state stands). By being distant from that core, they are less under the influence of it than suburbs & other cities in central regions. Political trends and cultural standards from the capital city are usually less followed by border regions inhabitants, as their daily life has sometimes more to do with regional dynamics (with the neighbour country) than with the nation-state they belong to.

If we look at borders as a specific type of region (“border zone”),  they have the same cultural & political properties as any other region:  a specific identity, stakes and political issues, as well as specific flows and territorial dynamics due to its physical site & location. Therefore they tend to bring together people who share the same concerns & way of life, around the border. The “borderish” way of life becomes a unique identity mixing together cultural influences from both sides: hybridized border identities.

2…. but can also be where tensions between opposite beliefs focus


Picture taken by Curtis  Prendergast, reporting for the Sonoran Chronicle about a rally happening next to the border fence in Cochise County on Sunday to promote increased border security in southern Arizona.

Borders are never fully sealed. If they were, there won’t be so many walls and military presence around some of them to prevent unwanted crossing. That’s because borders are artificial constructions that are very hard to keep “real”, not only on the map, but on the very field too. Human nature is about fluid circulation and cultural mix, not arbitrary limits preventing exchanges between people and forcing a “between us only” way of life.

When the two neighbours feel like they belong to the same cultural and political group, then borders have more chances to become intercultural zones as described above. When the two neighbours have opposite cultures, religions, or when the wealth gap between them is too wide, borders tend to become battlefronts. Identities, instead of mixing together, will harden and become stronger on both side, as to brand the difference between the two countries and the need for proving “we” are not being “anything like” those neighbours.

3. Borders are the outlines of national identities

Just as we need walls around ourselves to build a home and a sense of belonging & security, a collective identity can’t emerge without boundaries. Territorial identities are made possible by the very existence of a territory, which implies to be delimited from “other’s” ones. Borders are what make the very existence of home-land possible, by distinguishing a geographical & political entity from its surroundings.

Borders draw the shape of what we’ll consider our national self. They help putting a “face” on the nation, allowing citizen to attach a very specific piece of land  to their feelings for an ideology, a way of life, some cultural customs. Many wars were motivated by the very idea of “defending borders”, because people could not stand the idea of seeing their home borders moving back. Because a border is not just a line on the map, but carries heavy cultural meanings deeply embedded in all of us. 

They draw the line between what we’ll define as the “us” (the group we feel we belong to) and what we’ll call the “them” (the group in relation to which we define the “us” – generally the immediate neighbours). 

4. Could we live in a world without borders?

As modern political borders are the projection on land of the nation-state political system (states are the main political & territorial unit that divides the world), asking if we could live without border means questioning the usefulness of nation-states. Could we afford to live with a world government to maintain a wide federation of cultural regions not unified under any national authorities?


Well, for sure nation-states are very restricting. We need visas to travel and live in other countries. People are dying everyday for having a chance to leave their country and settle in another one. Every state is using protectionism to guarantee its inhabitants the best revenues and prevent harsh competition, and has the legitimate right to do it as long as we’ll be in a nation-state system.

Other scientists point out that nation-states are not the proper legal and political format anymore to reflect today’s realities. Our world has become a global system lead by capitalism laws, global culture and dominated by western values. International metropolis are forming together a powerful network of capital concentration that do not depend on states anymore to exist and govern.


As global concerns requiring global measures (such as Global Warming) are growing , its very likely that the nation-state model will need to adapt to fit with current stakes. On the other hand, we are far from finding an other efficient political system that will be a significant improvement for peoples of the world. Nation-States are more likely to evolve drastically than to just disappear from one day to the other in the close future.

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[Read the first part of this article What are Borders 1/2]

More insights into World’s countries & borders in this interesting and fun video from CGP Grey about How Many Countries There Are