On borders and boundaries

Thos who focus on differences often tend to look more closely at boundaries than at the core of the phenomenon, whether it is social, biological or conceptual. So I was pleased to read this comment by Will Thomas regarding boundaries in social and historical contexts:

However, I want to finish with the provocative suggestion that, despite their porousness, boundaries are not, in general, very interesting places, mainly because they are intellectually impoverished. They are filled with superficial and often cliched polemics and items of exchange that only gain meaning when understood in the context of the more complex ideas lurking deep within particular territories. Until the main contours of these various territories are better mapped, these deeper meanings will remain opaque. Studies of life at the boundaries are more apt to rehearse what we know about the chaos and contingency of boundaries, and what we imagine we already know about life within the surrounding territories, than they are to reveal something genuinely new.

In biology, attempts to define the edges of taxa, ecosystems, organisms and historical groups of other kinds usually fails, because biological systems are not discrete, they are permeable and dynamic. What is called “essentialism”, which tries to identify such systems in terms of their innate and necessary properties, fails to do so for that reason. I have suggested before that it is better to focus on the mode or centre of these systems, and let the demarcation fall where it may. Thomas’ gives me a justification for this, in sociocultural history as well as biological history. Borders are impoverished. Sing it loud.

10 thoughts on “On borders and boundaries

  1. I like to focus on imaginary creatures who are placed in the margins. As they are always manufactured at a considerable distance from such locations.

    It’s the high costs of construction and maintainance of such zones I find most fascinating.

    They do require a considerable amount of effort to keep in place.


  2. Yet in many ways borders are very important. In the socio-historical context, borders are where trade of goods and ideas happened (at least to a larger extent than other areas). Borders were (are) where empires and kingdoms came up against each other. They were where wars started and where linguistic-cultural influences were first felt. Borders define immigration. Borders are often more violent and hence often get more attention from governments and experts. This makes borders testing grounds for new ideas and policies. What happens at the borders can (permanently) change what happens in the interior(s).

    I would think a clever biologist could make similar leaps with the above observations in the world of species (varities, ecosystem) boundaries.


    1. I do agree, but such boundaries are fluid, dynamic and permeable. The borders of classical essentialism are none of these things, or if they are, they are a distraction from the main essence.


  3. Thanks for the encouragement, John. I don’t think the idea is worked out well enough to go from notion to slogan just yet, but I do think it’s a notion worth entertaining. In entertaining a notion, it’s important not to caricature the position. The “However” at the beginning of your excerpt should alert readers to the nice things I say about border studies immediately before it, including the possibility of productive exchange.

    Both the comments here point to the difficulties and costs of maintaining boundaries, which, of course, are real, but I feel these costs are being measured against the zero-cost one might expect to find if the surrounding territories were truly defined by a transcendental essence. For the sake of amplifying the historical importance of these costs, historians will be tempted to portray historical actors as naive to the possibility that there would be any cost at all. I would argue that the “work” that is constantly touted as necessary for the maintenance of boundaries pales in comparison to the work necessary to develop the territories behind them (do not exclude non-state work). One should not discount border work, of course, but one should attempt to put it in a proper perspective, which, as I note in my post, may well turn out to be significant.

    I would further argue that, except in times of outright conflict, borders may actually tend to be very low-maintenance places. Inhabitants of border regions have a stake in maintaining peace among diverse inhabitants, and may, therefore, be less likely to discuss objects except in terms of their most superficial characteristics — what the parties see in the items of the exchange is their own business.

    To understand the meaning of border encounters (productive or violent), it is necessary to know what goes on behind borders. Provided we do know, we can often make good sense of those encounters, and they become essential to a full understanding of history. The post, however, was written against the idea that studying the phenomena at borders is a good way to understand the territories behind them, which I don’t think is true. Sometimes (and this probably won’t make sense unless I expand elsewhere) border polemics can even fool us into thinking there is a border, where in fact there are well-developed traditions and institutions. This was one of the best points Shapin made in The Scientific Life re: the conflict between science and industry — what conflict?


    1. I learn much about history and especially the Shapinesque project from your posts, and read them with as much comprehension as I cam capable of employing. So permit me to thank you for this series.

      As to the costs of maintaining borders, there are a couple of ways this might play out, if you’ll permit me to think in the energetic terms of biological systems.

      A system may have boundaries simply because that’s where the internal energy budget is dissipated. The boundaries fall out of the physics. It’s not that they cost to maintain them, so much as they are where you no longer expend much energy. There have to be boundaries, because the thresholds must be reached where the systematic behaviour can no longer be supported, but they are not special, just a byproduct.

      The other way I can conceive is that a boundary is maintained from the dual necessity of maintaining homeostasis by acquiring the external resources needed to support metabolism (or its analog in social systems), while excluding potential pathogens that might exploit the system’s resources and destabilise it. In short, an immune distinction between self and non-self is needed if the system is to persist.

      In biological cases this occurs because the system has been iteratively refined by selection over many generations. This cannot be true for entire social systems, which have a much lower generation count (literal generations do not apply, because it is the reproduction of the system, not the actors within it, upon which selection can act), and so have less selective refinement. So a teleofunctional account for societal systems is less relevant, at least at the scale of entire societies.

      Hence, boundaries are more likely to refer to the dissipative kind in sociocultural evolution, and I refer you to the underappreciated book by Charles Dyke:

      Dyke, C. 1988. The evolutionary dynamics of complex systems: a study in biosocial complexity, Monographs on the history and philosophy of biology. New York: Oxford University Press.

      Keep at this, because I see it as a very fruitful line of work.


  4. “borders may actually tend to be very low-maintenance places.”

    They can be or can become so over time.

    But the last point you made about border polemics applies here as the inhabitants may not be originaly diverse but in origin members of the same cultural group.

    “what the parties see in the items of the exchange is their own business.”

    These exchanges are at times going to involve objects that have to be disguised to make a diffrence and may often be the result of outright theft. So discussion is going to be guarded and the claims of the other party carefully monitored.

    What one side see’s is going to be partly dictated by the claims of the other as a diffrence has to be maintianed and managed.

    It looks like an idea thats standing up on it’s feet and running about with ease to me.


  5. John

    What you are suggesting seems to work rather well for the encroachment of the Anglo Saxons into Britian.

    The number of people involved is small it’s basically a takeover at the top leaving a majority British population in place with a limitation of how much territory can be held due to numbers. The internal energy budget is certainly dissipated.

    Its a gradual proccesses. Need to ensure internal stability before making further land grabs.

    Their is certainly an immune response. A legal change is made. Anglo Saxon law will apply to both Briton and Saxon but the honour price of a Briton is half that of an Anglo- Saxon. Over time this has a devestating economic effect on the British population as they are no longer economicaly competative and move down the social ladder.

    The British are not going to be given the chance to self identify, They may adopt the language and Anglo Saxon dress but “a Briton is still a Briton even if he wears a gold hilted sword”

    “this occurs because the system has been iteratively refined by selection over many generations.”

    If I am reading this correctly it may indeed work for social systems.

    Seems to fit perfect;y. The British are effectivly ground down through the generations.

    The same legal methods seem to have been used by the Scots in taking over Pictish and British territory in Scotland.

    Theirs also an outside chance it may be an older method and more wide spread. Research has not been extensive.

    The reasons for wide spread cultural change has proved a bit of a headache for a long time.

    British and Pictish populations don’t disappear but the culture and language does.


  6. A very reserved ‘yes, but’. Sometimes it’s precisely the problems of categorization that emerge at the borders that trigger a really fruitful re-appraisal of what [are/had been] taken as the core concepts. I think this happened for species; & in the philosophy of science, with the theory/observation, analytic/synthetic, conventional/factual distinctions etc. Don’t you think so?


    1. Actually, I don’t think it happened for species. I have this book on the topic…

      A slightly less wordy version is this. Species are as they always were, phenomenally circumscribed epistemic objects. What has changed is the attempt to give theoretical essences, sorry, explanations for them. And as it happens I species were exactly what I had in mind with the claim that the centre is more important than the boundaries.

      On the other notions, I think that abstractions, being largely but not always defined into existence, have a boundary problem because they lack an independent modal reality (I mean here, modal in the statistical sense). There is no independent sense of “theory” than the way we theorise, and so it means precisely what we want it to mean (unless you are a strong programme proponent).

      Things that are more, as the continentals say, “embodied”, including body/organisms, species, ecosystems, regions and the like are “defined” not in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions but of the central type, exemplars or property clusters that gave rise to them. To quote Leibniz, “Languages were established before sciences, and things were put into species by ignorant and illiterate people.” But he then went on to say “the people who study a subject-matter correct popular notions. Assayers have found precise methods for identifying and separating metals, botanists have marvelously extended our knowledge of plants, and experiments have been made on insects that have given us new routes into the knowledge of animals. However, we are still far short of halfway along our journey”.

      So terms like “species” were at first developed by observation, and refined as science itself developed. However, the phenomena that gave rise to them were apparent before anyone tried to find borders. I can tolerably tell the difference between one organism and another, even if the boundaries are sometimes vague (paraphrasing Edmund Burke, here).


  7. The fact that boundaries are somewhat vague and often if not always fictive presents certian problems.

    As they need to be fixed and clear to avoid dispute.

    One low cost option used in Scotland was to take young children to boundry markers and then beat the shit out of them as an aid to memory.

    But these places are also heavily populated with folk-narratives, which also serve to mark them in memory.

    Wills idea is not unfamiliar when it comes to the construction of narrative used in these activities. The notion that the economy of this type of activity is low cost is.


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