Crossing Borders Focus Front Page Global Affairs Politics

From Borders to Frontiers: Possibilities of Crossing Over

The change in concept of Border and what it means in today's world

Written by Shataakshi Verma

The concepts around borders and boundaries have undergone a tremendous change in their school of thought over the last decade. The study of borders was once considered to be a space of exploration for only geographers as the nature of borders was limited to its spatiality and linearity. It signified territories and lines and the order that it created with its existence. However, in the recent years, we have seen many other disciplines jumping in to explore the different aspects of borders and their existence. We are witnessing the emergence of complementary forms of border that depart from the norms of territorial linearity by becoming embedded into flows that can travel and be monitored continuously across space(1). Many scholars have begun to explore the fluid and traversing nature of borders and boundaries in our everyday lives. There seems to have been a shift in thinking about borders from a rigid to a more Heraclitus ontological point of thinking that has also given birth to an exploration of the possibilities of crossing these borders. Borders do not simply exist anymore, but are ceaselessly both contested and maintained by diverse processes and practices not only by the state but also as a result of everyday forms of trans-nationalism, border-crossing, border-negotiating, and networking (ibid). By exploring the complexity and interplay of these diverse, often antagonistic, processes, we arrive at a somewhat multifarious understanding of borders as something very concrete and fixed, yet also at the same time abstract and fluid(2)

Historical Borders

Historically, creating borders in their spatial context was a process of territorializing that space to create one’s own order and control. In the era of colonialism across the world, we saw the imperialists creating and marking their territories to gain spatial control. Many scholars in the field of ethnography and sociology have created works on the process of colonization and its after-effects. It has been widely stated that due to colonialism, the idea of territory and border and control became an integral process of building a nation in the postcolonial phase. We see it in the case of Africa, then even Asia that most of the countries that shaped themselves in the postcolonial phase brought in a new idea of safeguarding themselves from any future control by creating an identity through forming a nation state, forging a spirit of so-called nationalism. The spirit however has deepened the process of othering where, there is ‘us’ and ‘them’. The result of such borders in the post colonial phase are showing us its implications today. In the case of India in South Asia and its relation with its border countries especially Pakistan, stands testament to the creation of a false sense of nationalism and identity that has only led to a stronger division between the two sides. It is also controversial as the notion of nationalism was to create a homogeneous identity among the population of one nation state; however, in the case of India, which is a state of heterogeneous and diverse identities, the hybridity has only created more forms of othering in terms of religion, clans, caste etc. This also makes us question, who is creating these borders and for whom? Who controls them? What we might call postborderism argues that boundaries are mere artificial constructs, methods of marginalization designed by those in power, mostly to stigmatize and oppress the ‘other’ — usually the poorer and less Western — who arbitrarily ended up on the wrong side of the divide(3)

For political scientists, borders reflect the nature of power relations and the ability of one group to determine, superimpose and perpetuate lines of separation, or to remove them, contingent upon the political environment at any given time(4). Therefore, the idea of statehood, nation state and identities have been controlled and introduced to us from the political standpoint of Western and European mindset. European (and, later, American) cultural hegemony has thus ‘written the script’ for the growth and consolidation of a global nation-state system. The model of statehood has had as its central geographical moment the imposition of sharp borders between one state unit (imagined as a nation-state, however implausible that usually may be) and its neighbors. Previously in world history, a wide range of types of polity co-existed without any one empire, city-state, nomadic network, dynastic state, or religious polity serving as the singular model of ‘best political practice’. It is only with the rise of Europe to global predominance that an idealized European territorial state became the global archetype(5). Part of the political tragedy of the contemporary Middle East and Africa, for example, lies in the attempted reconciliation of the Euro-American style territorial state of sharp borders with ethnic and religious identities distributed geographically in ways that do not lend themselves to it (ibid).

Photo by Zheng Lingxiao

Understanding Border in a Borderless World

Many social scientists have over the times studied borders and boundaries in relation to the emergence of capitalism and a globalized world. Most economists and scholars of globalization profess that the new globalized world has given birth to a world without borders, borderless and deterritorialized. They argue that borders no more are defined by their rigid and linear existence but a more transnational nature of bordering where there is less control. For some, the notion of a ‘borderless’ and ‘deterritorialized’ world has become a buzzword for globalization(6), but it is not possible to imagine a world which is borderless or deterritorialized(7). It is believed that the idea of the free world and globalization has led to construction of new borders and barriers that has brought control in the hands of the few powerful and the elite, creating an illusionary effect of a world without borders. As Sofia Näsström (2003)(8) puts the problem succinctly: ‘it is one thing to argue that globalization has opened the door to a problem within modern political thought, quite another to argue that globalization is the origin of this problem.’ Until political community is redefined in some way as not being coextensive with nation-state, we will be stuck with much of business as usual. 

The creation of a Borderless world however seems to have on the contrary created a more problematic aspect of borders where other forms of borders have come into the forefront. Alain Badiou(9) makes the overall point eloquently as follows: The fall of the Berlin wall was supposed to signal the advent of the single world of freedom and democracy. Twenty years later, it is clear that the world’s wall has simply shifted: instead of separating East and West it now divides the rich capitalist North from the poor and devastated South. New walls are being constructed all over the world: between Palestinians and Israelis, between Mexico and the United States, between Africa and the Spanish enclaves, between the pleasures of wealth and the desires of the poor, whether they be peasants in villages or urban dwellers in favelas, banlieues, estates, hostels, squats and shantytowns. The price of the supposedly unified world of capital is the brutal division of human existence into regions separated by police dogs, bureaucratic controls, naval patrols, barbed wire and expulsions. 

There is no promise that the borderless and the deterritorialized world will not fall back into the definitions and linearity of territories and spatial borders. Deleuze and Guattari (1987)(10) caution that there are always forces of stratification attempting to capture the borders in order to re-organize and reabsorb (reterritorialize) it into a serial order of like bodies. These are ‘mechanisms of capture and containment […that] induct the outside into a system of interiority. That system consists in a grid of identities abstracted from actually existing bodies and transposed onto another dimension: from the here and now into the great beyond’(11). Deterritorialized bodies are therefore always at a risk of falling back under the influence of organization, falling from the continual present, actualized through continuous becomings, into an elsewhere of transcendent identity structures (ibid). However, Deleuze and Guattari (1987)(ibid) also look upon the other aspect of a borderless and deterritorialized world, which is the process of bordering, the idea of fluidity across borders and as a result bring to us the concept that borders can be crossed and bridged. 

The Process of Bordering 

As geographers, we have traditionally understood borders (or boundaries) as constituting the physical and highly visible lines of separation between political, social and economic spaces. Only more recently have we begun to understand that it is the bordering process, rather than the border per se, which affects our lives on a daily basis, from the global to the national and, most significantly, at the local and micro scales of socio spatial activity(12). The study of borders and its contemporary significance has moved beyond the, often too rigid, borders separating the traditional academic disciplines, drawing together geographers, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, economists, international lawyers, philosophers and political scientists(13)

Borders are not given, but are made, remade, and unmade. As such they are products, but also processes, ceaselessly practised, performed, produced, and reproduced through various bordering practices. This understanding allows us to transform the border from something that merely exists in an objective, unmediated way into a site of investigation, and to move the analytical frame from the state to the border itself(14). They seek to provide evidence that borders are multiple, different to different people and different activities, and in doing so, they challenge the idealistic linkage between concepts of state, territory, citizenship, and identity that has for too long been inherently unquestioned. Foucault suggests that we ‘look closely, a bit beneath history, at what cleaves it and stirs it, and keep watch, a bit behind politics, over what must unconditionally limit it(15). It means paying attention to struggles that are discordant to the codes and the language of state’s politics as well as to the norms of citizenship that disrupt the ‘hold’ borders have over people’s lives and open up new political spaces of subjectivation(ibid). 

According to Foucault (1978), by understanding the process of bordering one can disrupt the hold borders have over people’s lives and successfully transcend those boundaries. As Michel Warschawski(16)., in his work ‘On the Border’ suggests that the ‘border is not merely a place of separation where differences are asserted; it can also be a place of exchange and enrichment where pluralist identities can flourish. One can have encounters there that cannot take place elsewhere.’ The reality of the border therefore permits itself to be reformed or transformed, a process in which the borderland can serve as a vehicle for new interpretations. Transcending conventional borders – both of the map and of the mind – also forces us to challenge our own understanding of the often unquestioned unity between the concepts of state, territory, citizenship, and identity(17).

Photo by Zheng Lingxiao

Borders as Space of Possibilities 

Borders are now commonly understood as multifaceted social institutions rather than solely as formal political markers of sovereignty. Borders are in flux, but rather than from one form to another, they are becoming increasingly multiple. They must be understood as complex and multidimensional, yet dynamic, entities that have different symbolic and material forms, functions, and locations. Borders have migrated from being mere nation state lines and have become much more diffused throughout society(18). Borders mean different things to different people. They are not substantive but structural entities, and as such they can generate different effects in different circumstances; borders can enclose as well as relate, facilitate, and divide, and function equally well in encouraging and hindering movement(19). The discussion concerning the nature of borders as bridges and points of interaction (as contrasted to their traditional role of barriers) is of relevance in the sense that borders can become transformed into the frontiers (in the most positive sense of the term where people or groups who have traditionally kept themselves distant from each other, make the first attempts at contact and interaction, creating a mixture of cultures and hybridity of(20) identities(21). At the most micro of scales, anthropologists remind us of the personal, often invisible to the eye, borders, which determine our daily life practices to a much greater extent than do national boundaries – across which the majority of, the global population do not even cross once in their lifetime(22). In the Indian context, the everyday borders that are being bridged give us narratives from the invisible, aspatial context of borders that exist in the form of caste or class or even gender. Every day we hear stories of people transitioning from one gender, or rather battles of people who have transitioned from one gender to the other or from one caste to the other, same for class and religion. These invisible forms of border reemphasize the fact that in a spatial context, borders are a social construct.

David Newman(23) in his lecture in 2006, on ‘the lines that continue to separate us: borders in our “borderless” world speaks of a narrative that concerns a tension-filled border of India and Pakistan. He talks about the gate-opening ceremony that takes place every week where the soldiers from both the sides of the country perform a well-coordinated march which is part of ritual with perfect simultaneity as they outstare each other with their vicious gazes. Upon asking how this ritual is made possible every week, he find out that twice a week, the area is closed off to outside visitors, the border gates are opened and the two groups of soldiers undergo joint training in order to perfect their technique. The absurdity of the border, as displayed in this narrative, is summarized in a short Belgium film, entitled Le Mur (The Wall), produced in 1998. Located in bilingual Brussels, a French speaker spends the night of millennium with his Flemish-speaking girlfriend, only to wake up to the bright new world of a new era and to find that a concrete wall has been constructed between the two parts of the city. He is unable to cross back to the French side and, together with all other aliens, is hunted down by the Flemish police/militia. Only when he is reminded (in a conversation with his dead father) that many borders are no more than social constructions and that they are often more imagined than real does he escape through the wall, while his pursuers, lacking this deeper understanding of borders, crash into the hard-concrete wall and are killed. 

This fluid nature of borders presents to us various possibilities and potential to constitute bridges and points of contact as much as they traditionally constituted barriers to movement and communication. Therefore, this article attempts to understand and present a conceptual context to the creation of borders and ways of creating the burden of borders into possibilities by creating a non-linear fluid space making it possible for people to cross. 


1. Laine, J. P. (2016). The multiscalar production of borders.

2. Laine, J. P., & Casaglia, A. (2017). Challenging borders: a critical perspective on the relationship between state, territory, citizenship and identity: introduction. Europa Regional, 24(1/2), 3-8.

3. Hanson, V. D. (2016, July 31). Why borders matter — and a borderless world is a fantasy. Los Angeles Times

4. McDonald, D. A., Zinyama, L., Gay, J., de Vletter, F., Mattes, R., Ganster, P., & Lorey, D. E. (2005). Migration from Lesotho, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe to South Africa. Borders and Border Politics in a Globalizing World, 5, 73.

5. Agnew, J. (2008). Borders on the mind: re-framing border thinking. Ethics & Global Politics, 1(4), 175-191.

6. Kuper, A. 2004. Democracy beyond borders: justice and representation in global institutions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

7. Caney, S. 2005: Justice beyond borders: a global political theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press

8. Näsström, S. (2003). What globalization overshadows. Political theory, 31(6), 808-834.

9. Alain Badiou (2008) The communist hypothesis, New Left Review, 49, 38.

10. Deleuze & Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia [University of Minnesota Press, 1987]

11. Massumi, B. (1992), A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA

12. Newman, D., & Paasi, A. (1998). Fences and neighbours in the postmodern world: boundary narratives in political geography. Progress in human geography, 22(2), 186-207.

13. Newman, David. (2006). The lines that continue to separate us: Borders in our ‘borderless’ world. Progress in Human Geography. 30. 143-161.

14. Rumford, C. (2012). Towards a multiperspectival study of borders. Geopolitics, 17(4), 887-902.

15. Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population. Lectures at the College de France 1977-1978. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 449

16. Michel Warschawski (2005) On the border. Cambridge, MA, South End Press, xviii

17. Newman, David. (2006). The lines that continue to separate us: Borders in our ‘borderless’ world. Progress in Human Geography. 30. 143-161

18. Etienne Balibar (2002) Politics and the other scene. London, Verso, 76

19. Piliavsky, Anastasia. (2013). Borders without Borderlands. 10.1215

20. O’Dowd, L. and Corrigan, J. 1995: Buffer zone or bridge: local responses to cross-border economic co-operation in the Irish Border region. Administration 42, 335–51.

21. Newman, David (2003b): “Boundary Geopolitics: Towards a Theory of Territorial Lines?”, in: Berg/van Houtum (eds.), Routing borders between territories, discourses and practices, pp. 277-291

22. Alvarez Jr, R. R. (1995). The Mexican-US border: the making of an anthropology of borderlands. Annual Review of Anthropology, 24(1), 447-470.

23. Newman, David. (2006). The lines that continue to separate us: Borders in our ‘borderless’ world. Progress in Human Geography. 30. 143-161.

About the Author

Shataakshi Verma believes in creating spaces of dialogue and questioning the ‘normal’ through her art as well as her grass roots work. Her work with the tribal communities in Jharkhand has been her beginning to the path she is on and has since then worked with different communities and different social problems around the country (India). Her interest in documenting the marginalized and creating a dialogue with her medium is what drives her to make films, write and create work that she then shares with relevant platforms to create attention towards the issue and mobilize the community in the process as well.

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