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Borderlands Borders and Global Frontiers

Borderlands And Frontiers As Metaphors

No discussion of borders, borderlands, and frontiers would be complete without some attention to the metaphorical use of these terms. Most readers of English are familiar with such phrases as "the frontiers of medicine," "the frontiers of science," and "space, the final frontier." Behind these metaphors is a state-centered view of borders, borderlands, and frontiers in which such areas mark a zone of transition from well-known territory under control of the state to little-known territory not under control of the state. This metaphor breaks down, however, if pushed too far. Spatial frontiers most often had residents on the other side who were obviously not unknown to themselves. Indeed, at first contact, from each side (and there often are or were borders or frontiers with more than two sides) the other side(s) seemed unknown and were seen as strange or mysterious by the other side(s).

The unknown quality of the "other side of the border or frontier" simultaneously generates curiosity, promise, threat, and fear. It is this combination of reactions brought on by approaching unknown and often uncontrolled territory, peoples, or ideas that is the key difference between frontiers and borderlands on the one hand and a border or boundary in the conventional sense on the other. Presumably with a conventional border, what is on the other side is known but is held separate and distinct by the border. The combination of mystery and danger accompanied by promise and curiosity seems to be at the root of the popularity of the use of frontier (and less frequently borderlands) as a metaphor. In that sense, of course, it is singularly apt for describing or labeling a transition from the known to the unknown.

Thus concepts of borders, borderlands, and frontiers seem at first glance straightforward, simple, and clear. Yet when examined more closely, they are mysterious, complex, and murky. This is why they are often regions of such fascination to scholars and thinkers in many disciplines. Also because of their transitional qualities, they are often excellent sites to study a wide variety of social, cultural, political, and economic change.


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Thomas D. Hall

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