Geography Borders and Boundaries
Joshua Hagen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0056


Borders and boundaries, commonly defined as the lines dividing distinct political, social, or legal territories, are arguably the most ubiquitous features within the field of political geography. Indeed, borders have become prominent topics of research for a range of scholars from across the social sciences and humanities. This burgeoning, interdisciplinary field of border studies covers a broad range of concerns, including state sovereignty, globalization, territorial disputes, trade, migration, and resource management, among other topics. As a distinct field of academic inquiry, border studies drew its initial impetus from geopolitical rivalries among European powers coinciding with rapid colonial expansion and devastating world wars during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As such, early border scholars generally focused on advancing the strategic interests of their home states pertaining to territorial claims and border demarcation. After 1945, however, scholars worked to disassociate their field from the narrow, prejudiced interests of their respective governments. As a result, border research tended to be rather descriptive, focusing on terminology and classification. This began to change around 1980—ironically, as some scholars, mostly from business and technology backgrounds, began predicting an imminent “borderless” world. In response, geographers and other social scientists developed new methodological and theoretical approaches for border studies. By the turn of the 20th century, border studies could justifiably claim to be experiencing a renaissance. Despite its breadth and interdisciplinary nature, there are some general themes that run through early-21st-century border research. Most prominent is the understanding of borders as a process; that is, borders result from processes of bordering that differentiate among places, peoples, and jurisdictions. This emphasis on process highlights borders as active forces and resources in international and domestic political, social, and economic relations. It also highlights the contingency and variability in bordering practices both across space and time. Moving forward, this makes plain that borders and bordering practices are undergoing substantive changes, both symbolically and materially, amid globalization. But it is equally important to emphasize that the changing nature of borders does not suggest that they are evolving in a uniform direction, much less simply vanishing. Instead, borders are likely to exhibit greater variability and contingency in the future, making their study even more important for understanding an expanding range of issues.

General Overviews

A number of excellent overviews of the field of border studies have been published in the early 21st century. Diener and Hagen 2012 offers a quick introduction to the breadth and depth of border studies, written to be understandable for those approaching the topic for the first time, especially beginning students. De Blij 2008 provides an empirical refutation of the thesis of borderless worlds, intended for general readers and ideal for students without prior exposure to border studies. Popescu 2012 is well suited for readers prepared for more-rigorous engagement with theoretical concerns. Readers desiring exposure to the broadest possible range of scholarly perspectives would do well to consult the competing Wastl-Walter 2011 and Wilson and Donnan 2012, both of which are anthologies. These works also offer extensive bibliographies to guide further reading. Stein 2008 is an entertaining book and an easy primer for later readings on border theory. Those interested in broader theoretical developments are encouraged to start with Agnew 2009 and Gilles, et al. 2013.

  • Agnew, John. Globalization and Sovereignty. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

    Although the focus is not on borders specifically, this book provides useful, broader context for thinking about how varying regimes of globalization, sovereignty, and state control manifest though divergent bordering policies and practices. It is a very readable and accessible work that helps bridge the theoretical and methodological approaches of political geography and international relations.

  • de Blij, Harm. The Power of Place: Geography, Destiny, and Globalization’s Rough Landscape. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    Eminently readable; de Blij provides a powerful counterpoint to declarations of a borderless world by demonstrating the power that international borders continue to exert over shaping differences in cultural identity, standards of living, opportunities for mobility, and political participation. This offers a good launching point for classroom discussions.

  • Diener, Alexander C., and Joshua Hagen. Borders: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780199731503.001.0001

    This book provides a concise introduction to borders. After tracing the historical development of borders from Antiquity through the emergence of the modern nation-state system, the book outlines the contours of modern border studies in terms of theoretical perspectives and topical coverage. Its attention to historical and modern bordering practices is distinctive because most works focus either on one or the other.

  • Gilles, Peter, Harlan Koff, Carmen Maganda, and Christian Schulz, eds. Theorizing Borders through Analyses of Power Relationships. Regional Integration and Social Cohesion 9. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2013.

    This collection includes contributions from some of the leading border scholars, drawn from a variety of disciplines. Overall, the volume emphasizes that many theoretical perspectives can be fruitfully employed to understanding bordering practices in varied contexts. Despite the diversity of approaches, the contributions argue that examinations of power relationships constitute a common core of border studies and theory.

  • Popescu, Gabriel. Bordering and Ordering the Twenty-First Century: Understanding Borders. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012.

    This is a very readable account of modern theoretical approaches in border studies across a range of disciplines. It emphasizes how borders are and will remain central factors in 21st-century international affairs and will directly affect our daily lives. The bibliography is also a valuable tool for further reading.

  • Stein, Mark. How the States Got Their Shapes. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

    A very entertaining book explaining the formation of the fifty US states. It is mostly a descriptive history of each state’s borders. It is not really intended as an academic work, but it nonetheless highlights the contingent and constructed nature both of international and domestic borders.

  • Wastl-Walter, Doris, ed. The Ashgate Research Companion to Border Studies. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011.

    This excellent anthology includes contributions from more than thirty scholars, including many of the most prominent writers in the field. It illustrates the breadth of modern border studies in terms of theory, methodology, and topic. Ideally suited for graduate-level seminars or simply for professional scholars seeking exposure to a broad spectrum of thought in a convenient single package.

  • Wilson, Thomas M., and Hastings Donnan, eds. A Companion to Border Studies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118255223

    This is another excellent anthology comparable to Wastl-Walter 2011, and indeed they are direct competitors. Despite that and the fact that they have (almost) completely different casts of contributing authors, anybody who reads both anthologies will likely be struck by the consistencies between the two works. In that sense, both represent what could broadly be termed canonical collections within the modern border studies community.

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