Let's build bridges, not walls

July 30, 2004

Border disputes in the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans and elsewhere continue to take lives and unsettle the world. David Newman surveys the burgeoning field of boundary studies

The study of borders has undergone a renaissance in the past decade. A research area that was once confined to geography has expanded into sociology, politics, history, anthropology and law. And what was once a descriptive study of the imposition and demarcation of international boundaries has been transformed into an analysis of the different borders we confront daily.

Border research institutes have flourished during the past decade, among them the International Boundaries Research Unit at Durham University, the US-based Association for Borderland Studies as well as the Border Regions in Transition international network of scholars. And journals such as Political Geography , Geopolitics and the Journal of Borderland Studies analyse the changing nature of boundaries.

The study of borders encompasses diverse social, cultural and geographic boundaries that share some common functions. They all define the outer limits of the national territory or group affiliation. They all determine the points of entry into the social and cultural groups to which we belong.

They all include some, while excluding many. In this sense, the boundary of a country is no different from the border defining the outer limits of a religious group. Events such as 9/11 have made some national borders harder to cross, and globalisation has shifted some borders, from states to other forms of boundary - but borders, constructed as they are by man and by governments, still exist.

In addition to physical frontiers, there are those that exist in the mind but are just as restricting. Geographies of fear create the mental maps that mark the limits of where we move about. The landmarks of urban spaces determine where we are prepared to shop, to jog at night, to send our children to school or to buy a house, just as the borders between states determine our citizenship, our civil rights and obligations and - for many - help define our national identity.

It did not need the present Israeli Government to erect its own 21st-century Berlin Wall separating Israel and the West Bank for Israelis to suddenly notice how we are cut off from our Palestinian neighbours. We live, work and shop in separate communities, we speak different languages and we practise different religions. We have always instinctively known where the boundaries are, where each of us feels unsafe to cross into the territory or social space of the "other". By making the border so visible, so impassable, the fence serves only to exacerbate conflict as recent events have shown.

The contemporary debate about borders is not simply about redrawing lines in the sand. It is as much about how these lines function and are managed.

Borders do not necessarily have to constitute barriers. They can be bridges, places where contact, interaction and cooperation take place between two "others". They should be the interface for transboundary projects such as joint commercial centres or cooperative environmental control schemes.

Managing the border as a bridge can help improve understanding of the "other" and can help reduce fear of the unknown. In post-conflict situations, future reconciliation between peoples can initially be attempted in these borderlands. Take Western Europe's transboundary regions. They demonstrate what can take place when political leaders and peace negotiators are prepared to open rather than close, the gates.

Forget ideas of a borderless world. Borders will always be with us, and to an extent they provide us with order, but those we create can be much more flexible and open to movement than they have been in the past.

David Newman is professor of political geography at Ben Gurion University, Israel and editor of the journal Geopolitics . For information on the Brit VII conference in January 2005, contact geopol@bgu.ac.il

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