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Borderlands Borders and Global Frontiers

Defining Borders, Borderlands, And Frontiers

In order to discuss these issues it is useful to present somewhat general definitions of these terms. The following definitions carry two caveats or cautions. First, as with any generalized concepts, they will not be precise for all uses. Second, these terms shift meaning over time and through space. Still, the following are useful for further discussion:

boundary—a demarcation indicating some division in spatial terms

border—an international boundary line; when a border is seen as a zone it is often called a borderland or the borderlands

frontier—a zone of contact with or without a specified boundary line

The term borderlands straddles the distinction between frontier and border and is often used as a synonym for frontier as a zone.

The contemporary concept of a border as a sharp, precise line stems from two sources. First is the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which established the modern nation-state system under which a state had full sovereign control of the lands and peoples within its borders. The second source is the development of private property as a concept, in which one individual, or state, had exclusive rights to land or territory. While in the early twenty-first century these conditions are taken as "normal" or "natural," they are neither. Rather, the idea of a border as a precise line grew out of the needs of states to define boundaries. The idea of exclusive control of land developed from the transformation of control of land from a matter of use rights to a concept of land as an economic commodity, that is, something that can be bought and sold. In other words, these contemporary conceptualizations, which are often seen as a part of the process of modernization, were themselves socially constructed under very specific historical, political, and economic conditions.

In premodern times, that is, approximately before the sixteenth century C.E., land was most often thought of as a resource to which individuals, or more typically groups, had rights to use. In many nonstate societies, if the individual or group did not use the land—usually for a considerable time—then they lost their use rights. This is almost always distinctly different, however, from the European concept of terra nullius, which means "empty or unused land." For those groups who foraged for a livelihood or who practiced shifting agriculture, "use" of land often included long fallow periods. To groups that practiced intensive agriculture—from classic civilizations to modern states—such fallow land appeared empty, hence unclaimed and available for settlement. These differences in how rights to land are conceptualized have been the source of much conflict over many millennia between agricultural states and nonstate peoples. For example, such conflicting viewpoints are at the root of the myth that the island of Manhattan was "purchased." Dutch occupiers presumed that they were buying a commodity with exclusive rights. Indigenous peoples thought that in consideration for a gift marking friendship they were granting rights to joint use of common lands.

At least two caveats are in order in regard to such conflicts. First, nonstate peoples could and did come into conflict over use of land. Indeed, one of the major mechanisms of the spread of humans derives from such conflicts. Although they were sometimes resolved through fighting, such conflicts were more often resolved by one group moving deeper into unoccupied land, which over time led to the spread of humans over most of the earth. Second, many claims by civilizations or states that land was unused, or was terra nullius, were in fact veiled rationalizations for seizing land from peoples who had less complex social or political organization and who did not use the land as intensively.

From the development of the first states some five thousand years ago until the early twenty-first century, though abating somewhat since the Peace of Westphalia (1648), land could be, and often was, seized by conquest. To be ethical, such seizures often needed some sort of justification, such as a "just war," reparation for previous harm done, or evidence of illegitimate use by those from whom the land was seized. Obviously, such claims could, and often were, readily invented and rationalized. Still, states did develop a territorial sense and became concerned with boundaries, borders, borderlands, and frontiers. A primary concern, however, was control, mainly political and economic but sometimes also social and cultural. Even constructed barriers, such as the Great Wall of China or Hadrian's Wall in northern Scotland that marked the edge of the Roman Empire, barriers that did constitute explicit boundaries, were primarily used to control movements of peoples and goods. They were seldom intended as absolute barriers.

Such walls and other barriers were often constructed with military and control functions in mind. They served to regulate interactions between the state or empire and the surrounding groups, whether those were other empires, states, or nonstate peoples. They were constructed to keep members within the state or empire, to keep others out, and to regulate which individuals, groups, or objects could cross the barrier as well as why, when, and under what circumstances such crossings could take place. Such barriers often marked a shift from direct control to indirect control, wherein local leaders controlled the area, but via assorted agreements with the state or empire. In essence, such barriers were not sharp or precise lines but rather the visible centerlines of zones of transition. Some people tried to avoid these controls. Such avoidance is typically defined as "criminal." Thus borders give rise to smuggling and smugglers.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Boolean algebra to Calcium PropionateBorderlands Borders and Global Frontiers - Complications Of A Seemingly Simple Concept, Defining Borders, Borderlands, And Frontiers, Frontier As Membrane