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Borderlands Borders and Global Frontiers

Complications Of A Seemingly Simple Concept

The first complication is semantic. In many European languages, including British English, the term frontier is a synonym for border. In the Americas, and especially in the United States, border means boundary, between countries, between the states of the United States, or between provinces in Mexico or Canada. Frontier, typically but not exclusively, refers to a historical boundary between expanding European settlements and indigenous settlements. Thus in English usage in the United States, frontiers and borders are very different concepts and refer to quite distinct social markers. This usage has often been generalized to any sort of border zone or borderland between different sets of peoples coming into contact. It is frequently extended metaphorically to refer to any boundary between known and unknown, an extension discussed further at the end of this entry.

The second complication is historical. Since the founding of the first states in human history in Mesopotamia some five thousand years ago, boundaries or borders have generally been vague, imprecise zones in which political—and to a lesser extent economic, social, and cultural—control fades away. That is, borders, boundaries, borderlands, and frontiers are zones or regions with some dimension, where there is a shift, more or less gradual, from control by one state to another or to an absence of state control. An important corollary of this complication is that the lack of precision is not necessarily a problem in semantics or conceptualization. Rather, it is often an accurate reflection of an actual fuzziness of boundary zones.

A third complication is that at different times and in different places these concepts have had different meanings, and they have been implemented in different ways. Often a word translated as border from one language to another had behind it a different meaning, a different concept of markers, and even different ethical and political implications of what that "border" entailed.

A fourth complication is that the meanings of these terms and how they have been implemented have changed over many millennia. Throughout these changes there have often been disconnects or divergences between their social reality and what various actors (individuals or states) thought they should be.

Finally, there is a problem of scale. Almost any border or boundary zone, when viewed from a sufficient distance, appears as a sharp line. When viewed up close, however, it becomes a zone having some width and often having blurry edges. So from a central capital, a border or frontier may seem precise. Yet from the perspectives of those living on or near the boundary or frontier, or even from the perspectives of those charged with administering or controlling it, it can be quite vague and often contentious.

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