Transforming Border Geographies in a Mobile Age

Transforming Border Geographies in a Mobile Age



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Borders constitute a prism through which to examine how contemporary social, cultural, economic, and political processes impact our lives. Far from being the remote limits of the state, borders play central roles in peoples’ lives irrespective of their geographical location in the national territory. They reach deep into the very fabric of societies, structuring and regulating daily routines as well as long-term aspirations.


Our lives are structured to a significant extent by the way we organize space. The modern political-territorial organization of the world has been built on a Cartesian view that sees space in absolute terms, as a finite and rigid object that can be broken into neatly quantifiable pieces and rationally explained (Lefebvre 1991; Elden 2007). In practice, this had meant that we have divided the globe in mutually exclusive territorial units based on linear borders. Furthermore, we have organized daily life in a nested hierarchy of bounded territories – neighborhood, city, region, state and more recently supra state. One of the most consequential outcomes of this ubiquitous mode of organization of social life is that we have become so accustomed to relating to space in “either/or” and “here/there” terms that we have become mentally trapped inside this binary border-based model, making it difficult to imagine alternative geographies of territorial organization (Agnew 1994).


Nonetheless, as historical circumstances change with globalization, this model comes under significant pressure to fulfill the needs and aspirations of the world’s citizens. Increasingly, the territorial scope of economic, political, social, and cultural processes does not overlap the borders of the state. These processes are developing their own sets of borders that transcend the borders of the state. In other words, these processes are each bounded in different ways. To this end, current approaches conceptualize border spaces from a polyvalent perspective that acknowledges their multiplicity, relationality, and context-dependent nature (Axford 2006, Balibar 2004). Such perspective is more in tune with a notion of topological space defined by flows, nodes, and connections that is qualitatively different from the modern notion of topographical space defined by territorial proximity and distance decay. Accordingly, it is essential to understand how the production of new border spaces, heavily reliant on new developments in digital technology, has the power to re-shape democratic practice into the future and impact human wellbeing across societies.


Contemporary efforts to preserve the nation-state system under globalization have led to a paradoxical situation in which state borders are expected to allow uninhibited cross-border flows while at the same time retaining effective territorial protection capabilities. Despite unprecedented opening up to globalization flows, interstate borders are far from fading away (Newman 2006, Paasi 2009). Instead, new borders keep emerging on the world’s political map and old ones are reinforced with walls and fences (Foucher 2007, Jones 2012). The way in which this apparent contradiction between the spatial logics of mobility and territorial security is addressed will have a major impact on the way people and societies relate to space in the future.


At present, it appears that a solution has been found by infusing borders with various degrees of selective permeability to people, goods and ideas. In other words, borders are set to perform like computer firewalls (Walters 2002). To implement this idea in practice, state borders are currently undertaking both a qualitative and a quantitative transformation, by changing their nature and multiplying. They are becoming less territorially fixed and more mobile (Balibar 2004). Borders are losing some of their linear aspects, while acquiring regional and network-like characteristics. They can be encountered not only at the margins of a state’s territory, but also inside, in places such as consulates and embassies where visas are granted, in airports, bus and train stations, in the middle of a city neighborhood or highway in the form of an immigration raid, as well as in the computer software that protects international copyrights. These developments have generated a multi-layered border geography that takes at least three territorial shapes: lines, networks, and areas. Moreover, border control has been unsettled as well, as more and more authority is transferred from public to private and quasi-public institutions. The outcome is that people have to negotiate more borders, in more places and of more kinds than at any time before. Evidence shows that this situation increases the power of borders to order people’s lives precisely at a time when these lives become more spatially mobile due to globalization.


At the same time, bordering practices are increasingly reliant on electronic technology and are becoming connected to our own bodies through the use of digital technologies such as biometrics and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) (Amoore 2009). The goal is to embed borders into all kinds of flows (Sassen 2006) so that the border can travel with the flow and be ready to be performed whenever circumstances require. This is seen by many as the breakthrough that settles globalization’s mobility versus security bordering dilemma; mobile risks can be estimated from mobile bodies and efficiently eliminated along the way so that traffic flows are not disrupted at the border. This bordering logic has adopted a view predominant in natural sciences that sees the body as a material object that can be rendered digitally knowable with the help of technology. To this end, people’s bodies are routinely screened or pre-screened before they even reach the state border, and vast amounts of data about their daily lives are surreptitiously collected by border enforcement agencies and stored in databases people cannot control. Then, these bodily data are used to classify people in terms of good versus bad mobility in order to produce categories that are amenable to risk contingency calculus through algorithmic equations. In this way, following Michel Foucault’s well-established nexus, knowledge of the body results in power over the body. This is, at the same time, power over the most intimate and mobile of spaces. The outcome is that today’s border-making practices are reaching deeper in the society, to the level of everyday life, affecting people and places unequally. To put this issue into perspective is to ask: Can an algorithmic equation really make societies secure? Has the algorithm become a mode of governing interaction in space? Who, and on what grounds, writes the rules by which the algorithm defines good or bad mobility? Are the benefits of techno-governing populations worth their costs? These bordering practices raise essential questions about the changing nature of power relationships in society as well as about the prospects of democratic life in the twenty-first century.


Much work remains to be done to tackle the fuzzy geographies of borders in globalization. One such avenue of inquiry can follow the connections between the human body and identity to investigate the spatial issues technologically embodied borders raise (van der Ploeg 1999, Epstein 2007). Recent scholarship, following the work of Giorgio Agamben, discusses the political meanings that are inscribed on the body when it is conceived of as a border space, showing how the body that emerges from these power practices is less the bearer of rights and duties and more the living organism to be kept alive to be governed. In this context, it is important to uncover just what kind of border spaces the body makes? How is the body as a living organism territorialized in the current bordering practices, and what impact do the emerging embodied forms of border territoriality bear on possible avenues for progressive political action?


Another area in need of deeper academic examination is the logic behind the incorporation of technology into border making practices. Much of the problem concerning how technology is conceptualized at the border resides in the assumptions that enter into the adoption of border technologies. In the circumstances in which technology is generally seen as a panacea for border efficiency, what is missing is an informed analysis of the limits and the benefits of border technologies for society as well as a serious discussion of the role economic considerations play in technology adoption at the border.


The relationship between mobility and borders continues to demand sustained attention. The main issue here concerns the kind of space mobile borders produce (Axford 2006, Rumford 2006). Recent scholarship in social theory and human geography refers to networks and the connections they necessitate in terms of “topological space”, and conceptualizes topologies in opposition to territories. Is this binary warranted? Are mobile networks doing away with territories altogether or are they constructing different kinds of territories? In either case, it is key to understand how is democratic participation to be spatially reorganized to assure border governance remains in the public domain.


Issues concerning security and borders also demand further scrutiny to make sense of the transition from national to human security (Larrinaga & Doucet 2008, Beck 1998). Current developments appear to suggest that governments are restructuring their security priorities from controlling territories to controlling mobility. Important questions to be addressed on this topic are how effective are borders as tools to secure mobile risks? Also, how are the spatial characteristics of mobility influencing the selection of risks to human security?


Last but not least, border making in the twenty-first century cannot be effectively understood without tackling the continuous relevance of territorial lines and the production of border fences (Jones 2012), as well as the geographical implications of active resistance to all forms of bordering mentioned above.

Assembling all of these research threads to speak to each other requires sustained interdisciplinary engagement over a long period of time. No single disciplinary insight can be broad or deep enough to allow the integration of such diverse areas of knowledge. Mapping such endeavor suggests that the study of borders in heading into a very exciting intellectual terrain in the years to come.



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Gabriel Popescu (Ph.D. Florida State University 2006) is associate professor of political geography at Indiana University South Bend. His scholarship is located at the intersection of power, territory, and mobility, and focuses on the changes taking place in the spatial organization of social life under globalization. His work has appeared in journals such as Geopolitics and Political Geography, as well as in several edited volumes. He is also the author of Bordering and Ordering the Twenty-First Century: Understanding Borders (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011) that has received the 2013 Gold Book Award from the Association for Borderlands Studies.


16/09/2013 - 14/02/2014