Borders and Belonging: Subjects of Current and Historical Significance

Borders and belonging are of immense importance as borders are being (re)defined, strengthened, or weakened all around the globe. Brexit, the proposed wall between the USA and Mexico, the India–Pakistan border—the drawing of social and spatial boundaries is at the heart of many current debates, as is the question of what it means to ‘belong’ somewhere. The featured image illustrates how important the relationship between borders and belonging is and, from the point of view of those involved, how relevant to security considerations. A NASA image taken on board the International Space Station in September 2015, it shows the India-Pakistan border at night. The view is in a northerly direction across the valley of the Indus River. Illuminated by the light of security installations, it represents one of the few cases where an international border can be seen from space, at least at night.

Historical Approaches to Borders

Borders are based on political, social, and economic developments and the historical experiences of individuals, and so the drawing and negotiating of borders has become a topic of historical research. Our edited volume Belonging across Borders: Transnational Practices in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, published with Oxford University Press in the series Studies of the German Historical Institute London, argues that processes which occurred before and beyond the nation state also influenced inclusion and exclusion.1 Using case studies of border history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the contributions re-evaluate historical sources by asking new questions and drawing on new perspectives to propose a rewriting of the history of the state and of borders. And focusing on discourses, practices, and historical subjects, the essays investigate how inclusion and exclusion were the result not only of physical, but also of social borders.

The contributors examine the different spatial levels of border practices and their socio-political consequences, and intentionally incorporate research on various case studies in order to make historical continuities and specificities apparent. Borders and belonging on the local, regional, and national levels are explored through case studies from the Métis region of Canada and from Belgium, France, and the German lands in the nineteenth century by Ursula Lehmkuhl, Michael Rowe, Ellen Debackere and Anne Winter, Levke Harders, and Sarah Frenking. The imperial and post-imperial levels come into view through the essays by Amanda Behm on border practices around 1900 in California, by Cindy McCreery on a British royal tour of the globe, and Falko Schnicke on British Cold War diplomacy in India and Pakistan in the 1960s. The construction of national borders in Western nation states in the second half of the twentieth century is illustrated through studies of nationality law, citizenship and contested belongings in Britain by Almuth Ebke, Philip Murphy, and Floya Anthias respectively. Going beyond the existing research to look at the interplay between different reference points (empire, nation, and region) and at individuals and their relationship with borders, the essays explore borders as both territorial and social boundaries. This approach is in line with recent calls to expand border studies by adding a historical perspective and using new methodologies and theories.2

Geographers and anthropologists have been studying this topic for decades and have produced a range of inspiring research. Historians, too, have been looking into borders and their construction and transformation, especially for the early modern period.3 Our volume combines and expands these perspectives into more of a cultural‐history approach: first, to emphasize the existence of different types of borders, bordering, and border actors by providing historical case studies; second, to underscore the historical specificity of border practices; and third, to highlight their dependence on historical contexts.

Cover of Belonging across Borders: Transnational Practices in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, ed. by Levke Harders and Falko Schnicke (Oxford, 2022).

The book’s launch event ‘Practicing Borders. Belonging to Empires, Nations, and Regions in the Nineteenth and Twentienth Century’ will take place on 14 November 2022 at 5.15pm at the University of Innsbruck, Austria (Lecture Hall 6). Falko Schnicke and Levke Harders will be chaired by Patrick Kupper (Department of History and European Ethnology, University of Innsbruck).

Our volume breaks new ground by applying the concept of belonging to historical studies on borders, empires, nations, and regions. It also links borders and belonging to individual historical actors, not just to institutions or social groups, by using two historical perspectives: first, borders and belonging can be seen as constantly being made, redefined, contested, and deconstructed under changing conditions; and second, it is necessary to shift the focus to historical subjects and their practices of doing borders. The volume thus defines borders and belonging as central categories for historical analysis and tests their interrelatedness. While physical and national borders structure space and places, social and symbolic borders divide or unite people. Using belonging as an analytical tool enables historians to study these aspects in combination.

Practicing Borders: Interdependencies of Borders and Belonging

Regional, national, and imperial politics have influenced everyday life, but historical subjects have also shaped these categories. Historical research can explore this interconnectedness by focusing on a wide range of historical actors along with their practices of creating inclusion or exclusion, of forming political belonging, and of constructing borders, which is exactly what our volume aims to achieve. All the essays presented discuss how borders were constructed, implemented, and perceived, and how historical actors reacted to, created, or subverted them.

Combining research on borders and borderlands with the concept of belonging adds at least three new perspectives. First, belonging sheds light on the specific historical contexts in which borders and border practices became relevant. Second, the combination of these concepts allows for a more precise analysis of the politicization of borders. If, for example, the politics of non-belonging are considered as active, intentional strategies (as we have already suggested above), the influence of borders can be determined much more specifically and the actions of border actors can be analysed in a much more differentiated way. And third, the concept addresses the consequences of drawing borders and other border practices. It thus adds another component to border studies and embeds borders in broader socio-historical contexts.4 The combination of several dimensions of the social (actors, practices, social structures, norms, perceptions) and different scales (global, national, regional, local, as well as their interrelations) offers a complex approach to historical processes of boundary-drawing and belonging.5 Border practices can be broadly defined as actions with and at borders. No catalogue of border practices can ever be comprehensive because the creation of practices within societies is never complete. New practices are invented all the time, like the current creation of ‘shifting’, ‘diffuse’, and ‘overflowing’ borders6 by Europe’s first reception facilities, called ‘hotspots’, and the reconstitution of airports as new borderlands.7

Instead, it might be meaningful to focus on a set of six key operational clusters, each encompassing the reflection, implementation, and handling of borders in response to very different challenges. They can be listed in non-hierarchical order as: (1) knowing, conceptualizing, and studying borders; (2) defining, drawing, and establishing borders; (3) managing, controlling, and safeguarding borders; (4) performing, representing, and celebrating borders; (5) crossing, subverting, and undermining borders (distinguished from the two previous points by adopting a reverse perspective towards borders); and (6) communicating, narrating, and mapping borders.

Border Actors: Who and Where?

This set of clusters defines border practices in a broad sense and includes practices as distinct as fortress-building, demarcation processes, the symbolic neglect of international borders, migration and mobility in borderlands, border officers’ daily routines, the negotiation of boundaries of race and technology in the context of royal and diplomatic travel, and legislation on citizenship to regulate border-crossing rights and formalize the politics of belonging. All these topics are addressed by the contributors to our volume.

The six clusters of border practices listed above are therefore deliberately expressed in general terms so that they can function as heuristic concepts enabling us to recognize exactly what happens at borders—and what does not. Most of the operations listed also include their opposite, since lack of, refusal of, or resistance to action, as mentioned above, are considered to be dimensions of acting. Not to cross a border, not to control borders, or not to map them can be as revealing as crossings, controls, and maps.

These clusters of practices involve a number of actors with different relations to borders and belonging, who can be classified in several ways. They can first be described in terms of frequency: some actors (such as local authorities, immigration officers, commuters, and smugglers) deal with borders regularly, while others, such as tourists, do so only occasionally. Second, they can be classified by social difference: borders and belonging shape, and are shaped by, social inequalities like race, class, gender, and religion, as different actors have different access and opportunities for action.8 Third, they can be characterized by proximity: some border actors are close to borders, which is true of all the examples mentioned so far, while others, such as politicians and bureaucrats, are distant. This emphasizes that border actors are far more diverse than just ‘agents on the ground’,9 and include those who theorize and manage borders from a distance. While it is, of course, necessary to investigate actors at regional, national, and imperial borders, actors ‘at the centre’ must not be neglected.10 It is crucial to study ‘how actors conceive their roles, how they go about their daily routines, how they incorporate . . . practices and perform their identities, how they justify their actions’.11 Not to include policies made at the centre that affect historical subjects at the borders, however, would cut off the essential contexts in which they act. Only by including all facets it is possible to arrive at a conclusion about how centre and periphery are connected, or, rather, how actors on the supranational, national, regional, and local levels interact.

The featured image shows the India–Pakistan border at night, captured from the International Space Station. Image courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center; NASA photo ID ISS045-E-27869, available at [].

Cite this article as: Levke Harders & Falko Schnicke, "Borders and Belonging: Subjects of Current and Historical Significance," in German Historical Institute London Blog, 28/09/2022,
  1. Exclusion has long been researched in relation to the development of nation states and citizenship. See e.g. Rogers Brubaker, Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany (Cambridge, Mass., 1992) and Andreas Fahrmeir, Citizenship: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Concept (New Haven, 2007). For an intersectional perspective see e.g. Floya Anthias and Nira Yuval-Davis, Racialized Boundaries: Race, Nation, Gender, Colour and Class and the Anti-Racist Struggle (Abingdon, 2005). []
  2. Suzanne Conklin Akbari, Tamar Herzog, Daniel Jütte, Carl Nightingale, William Rankin, and Keren Weitzberg, ‘AHR Conversation: Walls, Borders, and Boundaries in World History’, American Historical Review, 122/5 (2017), 1501–53. []
  3. See e.g. Pekka Hämäläinen and Samuel Truett, ‘On Borderlands’, Journal of American History, 98/2 (2011), 338–61; Ulrike Jureit, Das Ordnen von Räumen: Territorium und Lebensraum im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Hamburg, 2012); Andrea Komlosy, Grenzen: Räumliche und soziale Trennlinien im Zeitenlauf (Vienna, 2018); Jussi P. Laine, ‘The Multiscalar Production of Borders’, Geopolitics, 21/3 (2016), 465–82; Charles S. Maier, Once within Borders: Territories of Power, Wealth, and Belonging since 1500 (Cambridge, Mass., 2016); Daniel Power and Naomi Standen (eds.), Frontiers in Question: Eurasian Borderlands, 700–1700 (New York, 1999); Bernhard Struck, ‘Border Regions’, in European History Online (EGO), 14 Jan. 2013, at [], accessed 30 May 2021; Doris Wastl-Walter (ed.), The Ashgate Research Companion to Border Studies (Farnham, 2011); Thomas M. Wilson and Hastings Donnan (eds.), A Companion to Border Studies (Chichester, 2016). []
  4. Cf. also Margit Fauser, Anne Friedrichs, and Levke Harders (eds.), Migrations and Border Processes: Practices and Politics of Belonging and Exclusion in Europe from the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First Century (Abingdon, 2021). []
  5. The concept of borderities, too, is used to study practices, and is combined with Michel Foucault’s governmentality approach in order to research (recent) border politics. See Anne-Laure Amilhat-Szary and Frédéric Giraut, ‘Borderities: The Politics of Contemporary Mobile Borders’, in ead. (eds.), Borderities and the Politics of Contemporary Mobile Borders (Basingstoke, 2015), 1–19. []
  6. Karine Côté-Boucher, ‘The Diffuse Border: Intelligence-Sharing, Control and Confinement along Canada’s Smart Border’, Surveillance and Society, 5/2 (2008), 142–65; Harrison Smith, ‘Overflowing Borders: Smart Surveillance and the Border as a Market Device’, in Martin Geiger and Antoine Pécoud (eds.), Disciplining the Transnational Mobility of People (Basingstoke, 2013), 83–102; Ayelet Shachar, The Shifting Border: Legal Cartographies of Migration and Mobility: Ayelet Shachar in Dialogue (Manchester, 2020). []
  7. Huub Dijstelbloem and Albert Meijer (eds.), Migration and the New Technological Borders of Europe (Basingstoke, 2011); Dorte Jagetić Andersen, Martin Klatt, and Marie Sandberg (eds.), The Border Multiple: The Practicing of Borders between Public Policy and Everyday Life in a Re-Scaling Europe (Farnham, 2012); Nick Vaughan-Williams, Europe’s Border Crisis: Biopolitical Security and Beyond (Oxford, 2015). []
  8. See e.g. Katherine Benton-Cohen, Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands (Cambridge, Mass., 2009); Katrin Lehnert, Die Un-Ordnung der Grenze: Mobiler Alltag zwischen Sachsen und Böhmen und die Produktion von Migration im 19. Jahrhundert (Leipzig, 2017). []
  9. Mark B. Salter, ‘The Practice Turn: Introduction’, in id. and Can E. Mutlu (eds.), Research Methods in Critical Security Studies: An Introduction (New York, 2013), 85–92, at 90. []
  10. In contrast to the statement by Karine Côté-Boucher, Federica Infantino, and Mark B. Salter, ‘Border Security as Practice: An Agenda for Research’, Security Dialogue, 45/3 (2014), 195–208, at 200. []
  11. Ibid. []

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Levke Harders & Falko Schnicke

Levke Harders is Professor of Gender History at Innsbruck University; Falko Schnicke is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at Linz University.

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