Changing Paradigms of Territory and Boundary Studies in Political Geography

AuthorSayak Dutta
Published date01 July 2022
Date01 July 2022
Subject MatterReview Article
International Studies
59(3) 252 –272, 2022
© 2022 Jawaharlal Nehru University
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DOI: 10.1177/00208817221118786
Review Article
Changing Paradigms of
Territory and Boundary
Studies in Political
Sayak Dutta1
Boundary studies as a sub-discipline of political geography has undergone several
momentous transformations during its evolution. The classical period was
predominantly concerned with demarcating the ideal boundary for achieving a
stable geopolitical order. This changed during the latter part of the 20th century
when scholars began contemplating the role of boundary as a social force.
Postmodern understanding of boundaries concerned itself with questions of
identity and the narratives of boundary. The focus on territory and territoriality
marks another departure from contractual boundary between states to a more
cultural notion. In stark contrast to the spatial perception of boundary and
territory stands the stream of literature exploring social boundaries investigating
the symbolic boundaries that facilitate the social differentiation between various
groups of people. The present study comprehensively reviews the three
intertwined branches and indicates the need to fuse these traditions and offer
suggestions on how to do so. The article also contemplates necessary adaptations
to the field going forward.
Boundary, boundary studies, cognitive boundary, social boundary, territory
Boundaries are the gatekeepers of global political order, and as such, they are
intricately intertwined with the nature of state. Pre-modern states were
characterized by a core–periphery structure; other than military installations,
bureaucratic influence gradually waned into a frontier (Smith, 2005; 2007).
1 Center for the Study of Regional Development, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru
University, New Delhi, Delhi, India
Corresponding author:
Sayak Dutta, Center for the Study of Regional Development, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal
Nehru University, New Mehrauli Road, New Delhi, Delhi 110067, India.
Dutta 253
Imperialist states often co-opted local elites at the periphery than maintaining
strict boundaries (Agnew, 2005). On the contrary, classical modern states
meticulously delineated and maintained boundaries. Limits to spatial sovereignty
formed a fundamental building block of nation states (Biggs, 1999). Boundaries
were transformed from a negotiated zone to a jurisdictional entity (Held, 2002,
p. 3). More recently, neoliberal states experienced an apparent relaxation of their
territorial control once distinct boundaries between states became increasingly
fuzzy and developed into a zone of transition (Kearney, 1991; Varsnayi & Nevins,
2007). Academic enquiry into states also started looking into social categories and
identities at the level of individuals and groups (Sibley, 1995). Into the third
decade of the 21st century, global political orders appear to move away from
liberal and neoliberal regimes to what Crane and Grove (2018) termed as
‘illiberalism’. Boundary studies would also undoubtedly adapt itself to the
changing nature of state, but the direction political geography will traverse in the
coming years is anybody’s guess.
However, despite burgeoning literature looking beyond the macro-picture,
boundary studies remain disproportionately focused on international boundaries
(Ramutsindela, 2019). In a way, future direction and theorization of the
discipline continue to be envisioned around nation states and geopolitics
(Jones, 2012; Rumford, 2006). Even when the discussion devolves into identity
and ‘ethnicization’, it is usually analysed at the level of states and fails to
escape the hegemony of formally defined bounded spaces: ‘…borders can be
theorized reasonably only as part of wider production and reproduction of
territoriality/territory, state power, and agency’ (Johnson et al., 2011, p. 62;
Yuval-Davis, 2004).
Scholarship within the domain of political geography, quite unsurprisingly,
focused on boundaries as delimiters of space, sometimes spilling over into its
cultural consequences. Semantic understanding of boundaries is not restricted to
physical spaces, and academic enquiries are often carried over into the cognitive
realm of categorizing the real world, conceptualizing, conserving and contesting
social differences. The boundaries of cognitive realm are as dynamic as their
physical counterpart; constantly in a flux being constructed, eroded and reinvented
both organically from within and imposed from outside (Hall, 1996; Jenkins,
2014). Social isolation and a clearly demarcated boundary between in-group and
out-group regarding customs, norms and moral values are key criteria in
delineating a social group and understanding social identities. As such, they are
among the most widely studied themes in disciplines such as sociology,
anthropology and psychology. Despite the interwoven nature of the cognitive and
physical boundaries at all levels, political geography rarely focuses on this
dialectic beyond national identity and international boundaries.
At this juncture, this article is a look back at different theoretical traditions in
boundary studies to assess their evolving trajectory and ascertain key areas where
a synthesis between different strands would be possible. We try to conceptualize
boundary studies in the mould of Lefebvre’s (1991) conceived, perceived and
lived spaces. The article starts with the contractual boundaries, the most apparent
physical manifestation of the concept. The section is organized in a temporal

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