POLITICAL BOUNDARIES are frequently defined as borders constructed and imposed on or around a geographic territory in order to distinguish between areas of governance or types (strategies) of political control. They function both as a tool for managing a group of peoples and as a way of minimizing conflict and organizing efficient political units. Political boundaries can divide not only territory but cultures, languages, ethnicities, and natural resources. In doing so, they can provide people with a sense of security and belonging or, alternatively, with a sense of exclusion.
Political boundaries appear in multiple, differing forms and operate on a variety of scales. The most commonly pictured political boundary is one that takes the form of a man-made physical structure, for example, a barbed-wire fence or a checkpoint. Major international political boundaries frequently take this particular form, particularly political boundaries between uneasy, unstable political neighbors. These political boundaries can often become particularly militarized, as evidenced by the border between the UNITED STATES and MEXICO, although certain international borders lack any means of physical monitoring (certain sections of the border between the United States and CANADA, for example).
Other political boundaries may follow natural, physical boundaries. The edge of a lake or the path of a riverbed can provide a naturally occurring political boundary. Finally, political boundaries can also be visible only on a map and not at all evident to the naked eye. This type of particular border can be found between counties within individual states in the United States, for example. This does not make the border less effective in dividing a particular region or area into political units, but instead suggests that there is no risk to the state in allowing individuals to freely travel between such political units.
Political boundaries occur at a variety of different scales, from global (boundaries between nation-states) to local (boundaries between towns, voting districts, and other municipally based divisions). Such boundaries can also occur at an international level, “above” the nation-state. International boundaries are becoming increasingly important as international human rights takes on an increasingly visible role in the international arena. Such boundaries can include those between organizations providing certain measures of security and countries that are not a part of such a group and not protected by their resources. At all levels, however, political boundaries not only demarcate political control, but determine distribution of resources, from international protection to other, more local benefits, demarcate areas of military control, divide economic markets, and create areas of legal rule.
As a general rule, political boundaries are never static but rather are constantly subject to shifts and changes. Traditionally, boundaries between countries have received the most attention, and been the subject of the most intense disputes. Such disputes over political boundaries arise over questions involving how to determine where boundaries are located, how such boundaries are to be interpreted, and who should control areas within the boundaries at issue. Efforts to change international political boundaries between nations require consent of the relevant nations; however such borders are more often the site of attempts to forcibly change (or ignore) political boundaries. When such consent is not forthcoming, political boundaries frequently become the site of conflict.
Where political boundaries divide (or combine) ethnic groups, such boundaries can feed ethnic conflict, as a group of peoples is forced apart or merged together. Political boundaries also raise significant issues surrounding immigrant and refugee flows, as regulations and restrictions over admitting or excluding individuals from a particular nation place a country’s political boundary at the center of the debate.
Within the United States, disputes over political boundaries frequently involve issues of race and class, as reflected in the numerous legal disputes over election districts and accusations of gerrymandering. The recent 2003 case of Georgia v. Ashcroft dealt with the issue of redistricting, overruling a lower court decision that had determined that the redrawing of election districts in Georgia following the 2000 election was improper in its attempts to spread the black voting population among a greater number of districts in an effort to elect more Democrats into office. The Supreme Court held that lower courts reviewing redistricting cases should consider all relevant factors and not concentrate solely on the issue of whether or not minorities within existing districts are able to elect a minority candidate.
Current postmodern debates over political boundaries suggest that rather than bordered nation-states, we are heading toward a more borderless world, with fluid borders and more interdependence among nationstates. Nation-states in the modern world have suffered increasingly not only from external attacks on their political boundaries, but from internal attacks by self-defined political groups. Part of this transition into postmodernism is a shift in our understanding of political boundaries. Traditionally understood as defining the geographic territory of a sovereign, postmodern studies of boundaries speak of areas of jurisdiction, many of which are no longer place-bound. These theories try to reconcile changing conceptions of political boundaries and nation-states with the idea that for many people, citizenship and identity remains very place-bound and nation-specific.
Contemporary debates also acknowledge the realization that the effects of communities bounded by political boundaries necessarily impact others on the other side of the political boundaries, fueling the debate over the utility and danger of political boundaries. Countries are increasingly conscious of the impact that policy decisions made within their political boundaries will have on those located outside of a country’s political boundaries.
Beyond impacting purely theoretical debates, changes in the concepts of political boundaries will increase the organization, use, and influence of structures and organizations, particularly at the global level. The increasing transparency or blurring of political boundaries has led to increased importance being placed on international organizations. This is particularly true with respect to work being done in the areas of human rights and environmental policy, where transnational organizations are one of the key forces leading both global movements.
Other research into issues of the blurring of political boundaries has focused on the impact of political boundaries on the tourism industry. Political boundaries necessarily present an impediment to tourism in certain respects, imposing passport and visa requirements, and in some instances preventing entry for tourists altogether. Countries have in some instances, however, worked together to lessen the administrative costs of maintaining a border and processing tourists, sharing the infrastructure costs of borders.
The increase in immigrant communities is changing the concept of the nation and decreasing the significance of political boundaries. As immigrants form communities, social ties, and networks within new countries, and as they develop resources (economic, political, and social), they are increasingly developing organizations and institutions that operate above political boundaries. Further, in dealing with immigration issues, individual nation-states are reaching across political boundaries, making policy decisions and taking actions that violate the traditional political boundary of the individual nation-state. This can happen, for example, by countries enacting policies that allow for immigration of certain individuals who might be criminalized under their home country’s laws. Political scientists and others are just beginning to study the possible impacts of this new trend of what is being referred to as immigrant-based transnationalism.
Political boundaries have become a source of debate with respect to new technologies and modes of communication as well, particularly issues involving cyberspace jurisdiction and control. As Dan L. Burk notes, “The primary challenge posed by international information exchange is essentially political and caused by the erosion of political boundaries. This increasing porosity of national boundaries has made it difficult for nations to exercise traditional aspects of sovereignty.”
Cyberspace communities are forming that do not take the form of traditional communities, possess no political boundaries, and have no traditional forms of political control. Many unanswered questions remain surrounding how such communities should define their boundaries, and how they are to operate within and with respect to such boundaries.