Borderlands are spaces where normative systems meet. This can mean that the border is a barrier, hindering and controlling cross border activities and contacts, which has a clear impact on the adjacent borderlands. Borders can also function as bridges with the implication for the residents in the borderlands that they can benefit from the differences in the neighboring states and develop specific economic, social, and cultural cross border activities. A special setting for such opportunities exists when there is an ethnic minority that speaks the language and is familiar with the culture of the other side.
Borderlands are also functional spaces, where the asymmetries and differences between the neighboring states can be used for the benefit of at least one of the areas.
Borderlands with permeable borders are used by the local population as an integrated region for their everyday activities where they choose freely between the two nations for specific purposes. In this way, they develop an identity as border people, which can be stronger and more persistent than national identities.
Borders can function as barriers or bridges, and their function and meaning change over time. However, empirical research has demonstrated that even a change in the legal definition or function does not bring about an immediate change in people's minds: In the collective memory of a population, the meanings of a border persist to such an extent that the population's activities, especially interactions and perceptions of others, change very slowly.
Over the years, the field of border studies has also undergone major changes, which are outlined briefly in the following section. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period marked by imperialism and World Wars I and II, the primary motivation of the first generation of border scholars was to delimit, allocate, and classify state borders according to their morphology, their natural features, origin, and history. In the 1960s, borders were still seen as lines of (natural) differentiation containing (natural) entities. This period was primarily influenced by Ladis Kristof 's 'The nature of frontiers and boundaries' in Annals of American Geographers (1959), as well as by Julian Minghi's classic review of boundaries studies in political geography, published in 1963 and by V. Prescott's work on the geography of frontiers and boundaries, published in 1965. In the 1970s, the paradigm changed and border scholars discarded the conceptualization of borders as a given, natural phenomenon, replacing it with a conceptualization of borders as 'artificial', social and political constructs. This shift can be understood in the context of the politicization of 'natural' or 'organic' characteristics of borders influenced by Friedrich Ratzel during the first half of the twentieth century.
Since the 1980s, border studies have taken on an increasingly interdisciplinary character and have started to focus more on the postmodern 'how' perspective. The new multidisciplinary generation of border scholars has turned away from the rather stringent analysis and typology of the functions of boundary lines toward the study of both how borders influence the perceptions, relations, and (inter)actions of groups living in borderlands and how borders affect the evolution of territorial identities.
International relations also affect borders, whose function is both defined by international treaties and dependent on central governments' treaties with neighboring countries. However, most central governments are not situated in the borderlands, and this has a number of consequences. For example, most issues affecting people and their lives in borderlands such as cross border relations, their local and regional economies, and borderland security are – even in highly federalized states – matters of foreign policy. Thus decisive matters are determined outside the borderland without considering the residents' specific situation and needs thereby reducing the population's influence. Borderland populations must adjust to (changing) border regimes and relations. These shifts impact inhabitants as they organize their spaces of (inter)action both on their own side of the border and across it.
Most borderlands are considered peripheries within their states, characterized by geographical marginality, the limited presence of state institutions, large proportions of indigenous populations or ethnic minorities, and a weak socioeconomic structure. If they are also economically and politically oriented toward their state centers, it is referred to as a 'back to back' relation between the borderlands. In contrast, some borders that are open and easy to cross can function as bridges. Cross border networks develop, and complementarity characterizes the relations. In such cases, people on both sides of the border share a mutual interest in working together – be it because of cultural ties or for economic reasons – which is termed a 'face to face' relation between borderlands.
Worldwide, borderlands are usually asymmetrical and therefore complementary. This is the case in contexts where the development stage of two neighboring states and borderlands is quite similar, for example, between European Union (EU) member states. In other cases, however, when the asymmetries of wealth and living standards are pronounced, the results are often tight security measures, particularly to control and regulate migration. This occurs, for example, when the North meets the South, along the US–Mexican border, or around the Mediterranean, where Europe meets Africa. Nevertheless, even when borderlands differ with respect to economic or social standards, their standards tend to merge toward those of the more highly developed side, which means that the less developed borderland usually develops rapidly, causing an eventual increase in disparities within the respective nation.