Institut für Migrationsforschung und Interkulturelle Studien

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Towards a Global Intellectual History of "Border"

Frank Wolff, PD. Dr. habil. (IMIS, Osnabrück University)

Borders are often perceived as natural effects of social and cultural historical developments and necessary conditions to protect modern societies. This project challenges both assumptions. Based on an analysis of texts and debates from the early modern period until today it traces the development of state borders as ideas, intellectual frames and identity markers.

This book project approaches borders not as a given fact but as a varying, modern idea which 'has been made' by intellectuals, scientists, journalists, and politicians in support of different (and often conflicting) political agendas or visions. While these visions now mostly are obsolete, state borders remain and grow in relevance as societies face new challenges. If we approach state borders as political ideas instead of social manifestations, the alleged eternity of "border" as a concept of political orders dissolves and the altering set of bordering functions comes into question. 

This new book projects thus asks how modern societies learned to think within and based on borders. It traces how border as a figure and symbol emerged from a (literally) marginal topic to the center of political debates and campaigns, how it changed its character from an idea to a legal frame, a military protection belt, and finally to an element of modern migration and identity politics. In different forms but in close dependency, the emergence and transformation of modern statehood, belonging and capitalism rest on an ambiguos concept of borders as simultaneously transcended and manifested expressions of order. Those functions and changes are tied to varying concepts of the relation between territory, belonging, and (human) rights.

To better understand borders in an age of simultaneous global de-borderization and border fortification, this project aims for a longue durée of the changing condition of border mentality. It follows the intellectual history of border as an emerging concept from early modern statehood and Utopian visions to the development of property politics towards territorial nationalization during the enlightenment, traces how colonialism, 19th century anthropomorphisations of nations and social hygiena debates defined the concept of borders, details how global 20th century conflicts assigned new functions and expectations to the border, and uncovers how trajectories of colonialism and aged military ideals continue to influence modern migration debates in the form of border politics. Bringing together the fields of global intellectual history, social history, law, and migrations studies, this projects finally emphasizes the examines the effects of this border mentality on the application of universal human rights and, in the end, on the structuration of globality and democracy in our modern age of mass migration.