What are borders?

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

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The Hungary-Serbia border, photo taken by Bőr Benedek, under Creative Commons BY 4.0 licence.

An invisible boundary

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.

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.

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.

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A close-up shot of a globe by MichaelGaida under Creative Commons 0 licence.

Sharing cultures across a border

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.

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

Projections of power

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.

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