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Borderlands Borders and Global Frontiers

Borders, Borderlands, And Frontiers As Sites Of Social Change

Because of the various complex interactions that occur along borders, in borderlands, and on frontiers, such places are very fertile areas for studying how social, political, economic, and cultural changes occur and how individuals and groups both shape and are shaped by those changes. They are zones where the local and the global interact very intensely and hence exhibit processes that are rarely, if ever, seen in more central areas. This is another reason why the study of borderlands and frontiers is often so fascinating to scholars.

Frontiers are often seen as sources of change, as in the famous frontier thesis of the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861–1932): that the frontier zones of the United States shaped the country's national character. Turner has often been criticized for having the causality backwards: It was the central areas that shaped the frontier. The literature of these debates is enormous, even leading some U.S. historians to question the utility of the concept of "the frontier." A major problem here is in the definite article: "the frontier" was in reality many, highly fluid, and changeable frontiers.

One very positive result of these debates has been the development of a growing body of writings on comparative frontiers. By comparing different frontiers, scholars have begun to uncover both common, underlying factors and their various unique constellations. Such studies have done much to further blur the distinctions between history and sociology, anthropology, and geography. A conventional, if caricatured, view of these disciplines is that history is idiographic, concerned with painting detailed pictures, whereas sociology, anthropology, and geography are nomothetic or seeking lawlike regular patterns. This conventional view is flawed in at least two ways. First, it sees the two approaches as opposites or as in conflict rather than complementary. Second, it fails to recognize that there is a vast array of possibilities of combining both types of explanations and descriptions. Studies of frontiers or borderlands, especially comparative studies, must combine both approaches in ways that often render disciplinary distinctions unrecognizable. Phrased alternatively, comparative studies of frontiers are inherently multi-and interdisciplinary. Thus the comparative study of frontiers itself forms a kind of intellectual borderland.

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