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“Borderland(s)“ is a concept used in various lines of research, where different meanings are applied. Among the scholars interested in borders and borderlands are anthropologists, biologists, economists, geographers, historians, international lawyers, philosophers, political scientists, sociologists, but also those interested in cultural, environmental and many other kinds of studies

Due to the large number of approaches across several academic disciplines which use heterogeneous methods and methodologies to deal with the topic, it is not possible to give a clear cut definition of the term “borderland(s)”. Any attempt for a clear cut definition is also complicated by the fact that a number of similar, and often overlapping, terms exist (frontier, edgelands, middle ground, transborder community/region, border landscape, or border region/zone). Furthermore, border research is almost by definition a multi-lingual endeavor, yet key vocabulary is often difficult to translate with exactly the same connotations, which sometimes adds to the confusion. While, for example, the French “frontière” means a border region or land, the term “frontier” relates most generally to a moving zone of settlement due to the influence of Frederick Turner’s famous The Frontier in American History (Brunet-Jailly 2010: 1f).

These difficulties are also one of the reasons why some researchers prefer to use the pluralized term, “borderlands” or “borderland(s).” In his pioneering research effort “Borderlands Sourcebook”, editor Ellwyn R. Stoddard explains the pluralized use as

“a reminder that the multidisciplinary approaches contain slightly varied designations of what constitutes the region or its people. By avoiding the monistic terms "a border" and "the borderland" (singular) except when a single discipline or framework is being employed, the term "Borderlands" reflects a collection of unique overlays - with some similarities and some differences being manifest in each” (Stoddard 1983a: 5).

Against this backdrop, this article discusses a small selection of approaches (chosen for their variety) to the term borderland(s) to further illustrate some of the terms difficulties. To this end this text will first start with a short summary of the history of borderland research since it started to be the object of systematic research close to the beginning of the 20th century and will then continue with a synopsis of different approaches to define the term borderland(s).

The History of borderland research

For the most part of the 20th century, border research was mostly a matter for the disciplines of political geography, law and international relations, and to a lesser degree of economic theory. Against this backdrop, Friedrich Ratzel’s Politische Geographie (Ratzel 1903[1897]) is regarded as being the earliest systematic attempt to approach border and borderlands from a theoretical point of view (Newman and Paasi 1998: 189). Ratzel considered the state as an organic entity and borders as a peripheral (but important) organ of the state. Therefore, borderland was considered a place of interstate struggle and conflict. Even though there were some exceptions (see Minghi 1963: 408), who stressed the connective character of border, the notion of a borderland, as a space of conflict, remained influential. In the Americas this kind of thinking was among others prominently adapted and further developed by Ellen Churchill Semple (Semple 1911). After the Second World War, however, the research interest on borders declined. Until the 1970s, the lack of interest was due to the association of the topic with classical geopolitics, which was considered tainted due to its association with imperial warmongering in general and National Socialism in particular.

Furthermore, borders were perceived as being “physical and static outcomes of the political decision making process, to be described rather than analyzed.” (Newman 2006: 145). The 1980s, however, saw a number of publications which vitalized the topic of borderlands and took it beyond the disciplines that were interested in borders by tradition. One of the earliest landmarks of this development was the Borderlands Sourcebook (1983), whose main editor, the sociologist Ellwyn R. Stoddard, also helped to establish the Journal of Borderland Studies. Along with Journals like Estudios Fronterizos (first issue in 1983) and Frontera Norte (first issue in 1989), this provided an important institutionalized resource for border studies. Stoddard also published the pioneering study Maquila on the Mexican border industry in 1987. In the same year Gloria Anzaldúa’s book Borderlands – La Frontera: The New Mestizia was published. This very influential semi-autobiographical and partially poetic work contributed greatly to the opening of the borderland research for cultural studies and brought it together with an agenda for anti-racism, feminism and LGBT rights. Building on such foundations, border studies experienced a massive boost in the 1990s. This boost was not limited to an increased number of publications. It also included numerous institutionalizations in border studies like the International Boundary Research Unit (IBRU) in Durham, the Association of Borderlands Scholars in New Mexico, and the Geopolitics Research Center at the University of London (Newman/Paasi 1998: 187).

While the reasons for this boost were numerous, arguably three stood out. Firstly, a number of events, processes, and changes on a global level came together and highlighted the potential in border studies: The end of the East-West conflict lead to the establishment of a number of new states (and thus borders). Meanwhile, progress in European integration, free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the acceleration of ‘globalization’ in general highlighted changes in the understanding of borders (and in consequence borderlands). In regard to the latter, many scholars embraced border studies to challenge the powerful narrative of a globalized “borderless” world.

Secondly, the rise of post-modern, post-structural, feminist, and cultural studies changed the perspective on borders and borderlands; the topic of borderlands found a fertile ground for its approaches. Numerous political geographers and other scholars started to argue that all boundaries are socially constructed. The attention should be paid to boundary-producing practices and questions of identity and power relations (Newman/Paasi 1998).

Thirdly, before the backdrop of these developments, one specific case of a borderland sparked so much research interest, that it developed into some kind of locomotive, which pulled all borderland research with it: The research on the U.S.-Mexican border became so important for the entire field of research, that in the mid 1990s Robert R. Alvarez, Jr. argued that the U.S.-Mexican “border has become the icon and model for research into other borders as well as for the elaboration and refinement of the boundaries of several salient concepts and their referents” (Alvarez 1995: 449). This picture remains generally true in the new millennium. As of 2009 for example, 56.2% of all articles published in the Journal of Borderland Studies since its inception had dealt with the U.S.-Mexican border (Brunet-Jailly 2010: 13). However, despite of its undeniable prominence, even during the pioneering phase it was not the only border in the Americas that sparked academic interest. One example is the Araucanía region on the Chilean and Argentinean border, which is inhabited by the indigene Mapuche, and was already subject to some noteworthy academic interest in the early 1980s (e.g. Villalobos 1982; Villalobos 1985). But, in extend and impact the research on the U.S.-Mexican border certainly surpassed research on other regions in the Americas until today.

The reasons why the U.S.-Mexican border could attract that much research interest were numerous and included reasons founded in strictly academic and also in public interest. Among the academic reasons, the most important one was probably that the U.S.-Mexican border was (and is) not only perceived as an especially strong inequality in power, economics, and human conditions (Alvarez 1995: 451), but also of the place of numerous academically interesting interactions between both sides of the border. Among the not purely academic reasons was that questions strongly related to the U.S.-Mexican border (Latin American Immigration, NAFTA and free trade related economic concerns, and the Chicana movement) rose in prominence for the U.S.-American public, which undoubtedly helped gather resources for related studies. Furthermore, in the 1980s and 1990s, the borderland became the topic of a wave of Chicano and Chicana literature, poetry, and art (Alvarez 1995: 461).

Interest in different kinds of borderlands continued in the new millennium. Among other things, the changes in security policies after 9/11 became an important topic in borderland studies (Paasi 2011: 213). Especially for Canadian border studies, security policies had a strong impact, since the United States literally started, from one day to the other, to reinforce a border, which had a very high degree of permeability before. For many Canadians, the border suddenly became a central factor in everyday life, which resulted in a lot of research interest. Until today (2016), each year numerous new publications provide proof for the ongoing importance of the topic.

Approaches to define borderland(s)

When in 1994 Oscar Martinez wrote “a borderland is a region that lies abject to a border” (Martinez 1994: 5) he did not only write a definition, but did probably pin down what most people, not directly involved with borderland studies, would describe as a borderland. This definition also goes well together with most classical borderland research, as it does with many post-modern approaches that often (but not always) assume an implicit social-spatial relationship to an international border. However, the influence of post-modern and post-structuralist thinking in the revival of borderland studies in the 1980s and 1990s meant that the naturalized understanding of borders and borderland was challenged. But even with a more abstract, relational, and constructivist understanding of space, for many borderland scholars the different kinds of international borders and, to a lesser degree, borders within states (between provinces, municipalities etc.) remained relevant. This is also true for the notion that borderlands in one way or another describe a region. McKinsey and Konrad (1989), for example, defined borderlands as a “region jointly shared by two nations that houses people with common social characteristics in spite of the political boundary between them.” Despite approaching borderlands from an anthropologist perspective, the afore mentioned Robert R. Alvarez, refers to regional and international borders as well: “I designate the ’borderlands’ as a region and set of practices defined and determined by this [the U.S.-Mexican but probably international borders in general] border that are characterized by conflict and contradiction, material and ideational (Alvarez 1995: 448).” Even the recent attempt to analyze borders as “mobile” by Amihat-Szary and Girault (2015: 5) pays reference to the fact that, for all the impact of technology, border has not yet disappeared from our landscapes.

However, to define a borderland by its connection to a border includes several follow up questions, most prominently: Where are the borders/limits of the borderland, i.e. how deep does a borderland reach into each of the bordering states? Categories that are employed for statistical or legal purposes often define the borderland as a territory including all counties (or other administrative units) directly connected to the border or use a certain distance from the border. While unsatisfying from an analytical point of view, the potential relevance of such definition for both the life of the border people and for research regarding them should be taken into account. For example, since the Mexican government grants U.S.-tourists VISA-free access for three days to a borderzone (defined as an area between 20 to 30 kilometers of the US-border, depending on the location) such regulations have a real impact on the economy and, thus, the lives of the people, despite being somewhat arbitrary.

A more analytical definition to determine the limits of a borderland has been offered by the already mentioned Martínez (1994: 5), who argues that these limits depend “on the geographical reach of the interaction with the ‘other side’." Therefore, “some borderlands are physically small because foreign influences are confined to the immediate border area; others are large because such influences penetrate far beyond the border zone.” Another suggestion to deal with the problems of the limits of borderlands is offered by Michiel Baud and Willem van Schendel (1997), who identify three essential regional units of analysis for border studies: the border heartland, the intermediate borderlands, and the outer borderland. Their measuring instrument is the influential strength of the border felt in an area. Thus, in a time of a border crisis an entire country might be at least shortly embraced by the (outer) borderland. This basic notion, that a borderland can grow to encompass much larger spaces, can also be found in different argumentative contexts (e.g. Balibar 2004: 219).

There is also the possibility to disentangle the notion of borderland from borders as state made territorial demarcations. This view was prominently taken by Gloria Anzaldúa. While she did not completely abandon the geographical notion, she moved the definition of “borderlands” to another level in the preface of her already mentioned book “Borderlands – La Frontera: The New Mestizia”:

“The actual physical borderland that I'm dealing with in this book is the Texas-U.S. Southwest/Mexican border. The psychological borderlands, the sexual borderlands and the spiritual borderlands are not particular to the Southwest. In fact, the Borderlands are physical present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle, and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy.” (Anzaldúa 2007[1987]: 19)

This means borderland can also be used as a metaphor in many heterogeneous ways, further adding to the complexity of the term

Critical Acclaim

This article shows that not only an attempt to find an interdisciplinary definition is a very challenging endeavor but also that there are certain pitfalls within the singular disciplines. As only one example for the many difficulties relating to the concept, this article discussed the question where the “borders of the borderland” can be found (and thus how borderland(s) are related to space). This very question implies of course that certain universal features of a borderland(s) can be found. Such an assumption might seem to be questionable at times, even though it is often assumed in borderland research (and certainly adds to the appeal of the concept). But while borderland researchers must be careful in approaching the term, borderland research remains a highly relevant topic. Not only are borderlands firmly linked to many core issues of modern societies (immigration, supranational integration and disintegration, security, etc.), but they are also constantly changing both on a macro and a micro level.

Paul-Matthias Tyrell

Please cite as:
Tyrell, Paul-Matthias. 2016. “Borderlands.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives.


Amihat-Szary, A.-L, and Frédéric Girault. 2015. “Borderities: The Politics of Contemporary Mobile Border.” Borderities and the politics of contemporary mobile borders. Ed. Anne-Laure Amilhat-Szary and Frédéric Girault. Basingstoke, GB: Palgrave Macmillan. 1–19.

Alvarez, Robert R., Jr. "The Mexican-Us Border: «The Making of an Anthropology of Borderlands.»" Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1995): 447-470.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. 2007. Borderlands: La frontera: the new mestiza. 3rd ed. San Francisco: Aunt Lute.

Balibar, Étienne. 2004 We, the people of Europe? Reflections in Transnational Citizenship. Princeton, N.J,: Princeton University Press.

Baud, Michiel and Willem van Schendel. 1997. „Toward a Comparative History of Borderlands”. Journal of World History 8.2: 211-242.

Brunet-Jailly, Emmanuel. 2010. “The State of Borders and Borderlands Studies in 2009: A Historical View and a View from the Journal of Borderlands Studies”. Eurasian Border Review 1.1 (2010): 1-17.

Newman, David. “The lines that continue to separate us: borders in our `borderless' world”. Progress in Human Geography 30.2 (2006): 143–161.

Newman, David and Anssi Paasi. 1998. “Fences and neighbors in the postmodern world: boundary narratives in political geography”. Progress in Human Geography 22.2 (1998): 186–207.

Martínez, Oscar J. 1994. Border people: Life and society in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

McKinsey, Lauren, and Victor Konrad. 1989. Borderlands Reflections. The United States and Canada. Orono, ME: University of Maine Press.

Minghi, Julian V. 1963. “Boundary Studies in Political Geography,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 53:3 (1963): 407-428.

Paasi, Anssi. “Borders.” The Ashgate research companion to border studies. Ed. Wastl-Walter, Doris. Farnham, Surry: Ashgate 2011, 213–229.

Ratzel, Friedrich. 1903. Politische Geographie oder die Geographie der Staaten, des Verkehres und des Krieges. 2nd rev ed. München: Oldenbourg.

Segura, Denise A., and Patricia Zavella, eds. 2007. Women and Migration in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. Durham: Duke University Press.

Semple, Ellen C. Influences of geographic environment, on the basis of Ratzel's system of anthropo-geography. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911.

Stoddard, Ellwyn R. Maquila. 1988. Assembly Plants in Northern Mexico. 2nd ed. El Paso, Texas: Texas Western Press.

Stoddard, Ellwyn R., Richard L. Nostrand, and Jonathan P. West, eds. 1983. Borderlands Sourcebook: A Guide to the Literature on Northern Mexico and the American Southwest. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Stoddard, Ellwyn R. 1983. “Overview.” Borderlands Sourcebook: A Guide to the Literature on Northern Mexico and the American Southwest. Ed. Ellwyn R. Stoddard, Richard L. Nostrand, and Jonathan P. West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 3–5.

Villalobos, Sergio, et al., eds. 1989. Araucanaia: Temas de Historia Fronteriza. Temuco: Imprenta Universidad de La Frontera.

Villalobos, Sergio; Carlos Aldunate, Horacio Zapater; Luz María Méndez y Carlos Bascuñán. 1982. Relaciones fronterizas en la Araucanía. Santiago, Ediciones Universidad Católica de Chile.

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