Why and how people politically border territories: a semantic perspective


This text tries to explain why people politically border territories, and how this process is carried out. The first part tries to show that the border process is not only a human process but can also be found in other species. The difference is when it is applied to certain human characteristics, thus transforming the border into a political and abstract separation. The second part focus on how this process can take place, using the example of the map. 

Why do people politically border territories?

To answer this question, it is important to first break down the question and its elements, analyze them individually, and then through their recomposition, it is possible to find the answer. To begin: what is a border? According to Nail (2018), the border is a process of social division, there are several types of borders (wall, fence, frontier, the limit, checkpoints, etc.), but what all these borders share in common is that they introduce a division or bifurcation of some sort into the world. Having clarified what a border is, the attention is now moved to the second element of the question: people. 

By people, it is meant a human individual as the object of his or her social relations and functions. What is required, is to de-construct the human being and his social systems, and to search for his fundamental properties within the biological world. To understand why people border, the answer must be searched outside the so-called ‘human/artificial’ context. If the historical-political route is followed to answer why humans create borders, the result would be an anthology of the history of borders with a clear correlation of cause and effect. These correlations would help shed light on the cultural narratives that each people brings with it. Nevertheless, there would not be the root cause of why people create borders, and therefore this story would not have the foundation for one. By what has been said, it is meant that too often human society forgets its origins and idealizes itself as being outside the animal world. This is a curious fact in itself, as it is an implicit confirmation of the thesis: the millennia-old narratives of believing ourselves to be superior and different from other animals by not identifying with them, is in itself evidence of how the need to create boundaries is part of our fundamental structures. As is well known through the theory of evolution, man is a social animal the result of a process of evolution. This is important for the research because it gives the activity of bordering a very general character.

The creation of territorial boundaries between communities of the same species is not an activity that belongs exclusively to human societies but concerns many species of social animals. As is well known, even in the animal world the creation of territorial borders between communities of the same species can be observed. An example is predator species (Gittleman, 2013). This fact, suggests that the creation of territorial borders serves to create certain community advantages in terms of resources so that the community can survive. With the above, it is possible to see that the phenomenon of creating borders is a very general one, within which a certain natural order is enclosed. But as Gat (2000) points out, when psychological and cultural reasons apparent in the human sphere are applied to this phenomenon, the picture becomes more complicated. According to Gat (2000), the phenomenon of bordering within human communities can be traced back to the first settlements. When a human community settles in a certain territory it then comes to identify with it. This identification (which occurs through the creation of community histories) creates not only boundaries in territorial terms for the use of resources, but through the temporal process, also a series of more subtle boundaries between different human communities in terms of cultural identifications. These three elements, territory, identity, and time, when united, create, as Van Houtum & Van Naerseen (2001) point out, a social practice of spatial differentiation. According to the two authors, bordering processes do not begin or stop at demarcation lines in space. Borders are symbols in which a certain community identifies itself. It should not be made the mistake of believing that these symbols are static. Indeed, semantically, the word “border” unfairly assumes that places are fixed within space and time, when in fact it indicates an ongoing strategic process to make a difference in space among the interactions of people and different communities of people (Van Houtum & Van Naerseen, 2001). 

From what has been said so far, the relationship between people and borders emerges. The border phenomenon is a general, non-static activity that creates a division between social communities. This division is aimed at creating certain community advantages often related to the resources that a certain territory can offer. The relationship between a certain human community and its territory, mediated through psychological and cultural activities, leads to a process of identification with its territory, thus leading to the distinction between us (belonging to this community and this territory) and them (not belonging to this community and to this territory). 

It is precisely this process of identification, created and mediated through processes and correlations that can be traced back to human social systems, that leads to the inclusion of the political component within the question of the research. Previously was sad that man is a social animal. Following Aristotle (Politics, Book III), we can specify more clearly and say that man is by nature a political animal. Starting from an etymological analysis of the term (politike: the art of the city), the Greek philosopher defines politics as the art of governing the city for the good of all. Paraphrasing this means the social organization of a given human community, and implicitly this indicates a separation between the various human communities. This separation between the different human communities and societies leads to the creation of borders. As it has been mentioned above, it is possible to notice the creation of borders also in the ancient world, the most famous being Hadrian’s Wall by the Roman civilization and the Great Wall of China by the Qin dynasty. 

Looking at the modern age, however, the creation of political borders between human communities can be traced back to the creation of the nation-state and the concept of imagined communities elaborated by Anderson (1996). And more specifically, as Brunet-Jailly points out in one of his seminars, this creation is evidenced by the Peace of Westphalia (1648) in which for the first time in Europe the various national sovereignties present at the time recognized each other as sovereign and independent authorities. 

By relating the concept of imagined communities developed by Anderson and the event of the Peace of Westphalia, it is possible to deduce the political component within the reason people border. 

The concept of imagined communities is central to this political theorizing because according to Anderson this led to the creation of the nation-state. Anderson argues that any political community large enough cannot rely on the perception of belonging to the same group based on face-to-face interaction between its members. In such cases, the sense of belonging to a common identity, and the internal cohesion of the community, must necessarily be based on the imagination of the people that allows them to perceive themselves as members of that group. For the author, the triggering event for the creation of these imagined communities is the invention of printing (thus a system of narratives). By superimposing the Peace of Westphalia (which can also be interpreted as empirical confirmation of Anderson’s thesis) with the concept of imagined communities, we have as a result the creation of vast communities that identify with their members because they share cultural and linguistic narrative systems. These vast communities hold territorial sovereignty, and this sovereignty is recognized by the other national communities. 

From the above analysis, the reason why people politically border emerges. 

How do people politically border territories? 

The practice of borders in human society can be of various types. This context will focus on one practice, in particular, that of maps and how the iconographic process, visual language, and semiotics create at an abstract level the idea of borders within different human communities. 

It was decided to take maps as an example because they represent the symbolic link between the individual and the territorial sovereignty of his state. It is through the spatial representation of the territory in the form of a map that we can make identification between us (those who inhabit this territory) and them (those who are outside it), thus giving rise to those political boundaries that can be observed on any planisphere and that dictate modern state organization. In support of this, Anderson’s (1996) example in his book, Imagined Communities, is illustrative when he dwells on the importance of the Thai map in the creation of the national allowance at the time of the kingdom’s foundation. Anderson explains in detail how the dissemination of the iconic symbol of the Asian neo-state was fundamental in succeeding in creating a national identity and feeling in a state divided internally into various groups. It is because of this identifying power that maps have in themselves that it was decided to examine them. 

According to Harley (1989), the process of mapping is charged with power, this is because there is a process of knowledge creation contained within it. The process of power within maps makes them linked to their historical context. Maps are closely linked to the temporal dimension, and it is this temporal dimension that makes them relative in universal terms, but also gives them those semiotic properties that make them relevant. With this perspective, we can relate to what Van Houtum & Van Naerseen (2001) said in the previous section. For Pickles (2004) cartography is part of the connection between the external world and us, it is a description of the world. That is why the author argues that it is not a representation of the world but an inscription. Kitchin & Dodge (2007) on the other hand argue that mapping is a process of constant reterritorialization. Maps are part of the moment brought into being through practice (social, technical, embodied), always remade every time they are engaged with. 

What has been said underlines the importance of maps in our representation of the world, and how they are strongly linked to the political creation of territorial borders. But maps do not only feed into our political representation and separation of the world, they also reinforce the larger narrative systems that are created at a socio-cultural level. 

From this perspective, it is interesting to cite the case analyzed by van Houtum & Bueno Lacy (2020) on migration maps and the narratives that these maps support. In fact, through an iconographic analysis in which they examine the visual composition (arrows, color, orientation, borders, legend, etc.), and the subject of the map itself (undocumented migration to the EU), it’s demonstrated that the story represented by this map and disseminated through the main channels of mass communication, tells a different story when compared to the data. That represented is a story of “invasion” but by comparing and contextualizing the data, the volumes of migrants are significantly relativized. As we have seen, maps provide our representation of the world, and the stories they tell can feed certain narratives to the detriment of others. An example of this can be found in Mudde (2004) when he analyses the phenomenon of populism. This testifies to the centrality of maps and what effects they have on the social system. A map is only an object, but when this object is mediated by people, it creates an abstract representation. The representation must be placed in narrative systems, creating the conditions for the realization of political boundaries.


This text has analyzed why people politically border and how this is done. It was seen, in the first part of the text, that the creation of borders is not only a human characteristic but can also be found in other species. The difference lies when factors are added to these natural phenomena that, for evolutionary reasons, are more present and developed in human beings, such as psychological, linguistic, and cultural factors. The second part, focused on one particular practice of political border creation, analyzing maps. In general, however, it can be said that all the various methodologies of boundary creation occur when the factors analyzed in the first part (psychological, linguistic, cultural) are applied to the systems of grand narratives, leading to a difference in identity between various groups of people. The power component and territorial sovereignty play an important role in the process. 

Political borders are abstract and artificial, they occur in our minds, and perhaps it is in the mind that they exist. Nevertheless, how they affect our lives makes them very real, and they are certainly an important element in understanding the world today. 


  • Anderson, n., & D’Eramo, r. (1996). Comunità immaginate. Manifestolibri.
  • Aristotle, Robinson, R., Aristotle., & Aristotle. (1962). Politics (1st ed.).
  • Brunette-Jailly, E. (2021). Seminar 3: The History of Borders | Borders in Globalization. Biglobalization.org. Retrieved 11 October 2021, from https://biglobalization.org/seminar-3-history-borders.
  • Gat, A. (2000).’The Human Motivational Complex: Evolutionary Theory and the causes of Hunter-Gatherer Fighting, Part I. Primary Somatic and Reproductive Causes’, Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 73, No. 1.
  • Gittleman, J. (2013). Carnivore Behavior, Ecology, and Evolution.
  • HARLEY, J. (1989). DECONSTRUCTING THE MAP. Cartographica: The International Journal For Geographic Information And Geovisualization, 26(2), 1-20. https://doi.org/10.3138/e635-7827-1757-9t53.
  • Henk van Houtum & Rodrigo Bueno Lacy (2020) The migration map trap. On the invasion arrows in the cartography of migration, Mobilities, 15:2, 196-219, DOI: 10.1080/17450101.2019.1676031. 
  • Kitchin, R., & Dodge, M. (2007). Rethinking maps. Progress In Human Geography31(3), 331-344. https://doi.org/10.1177/0309132507077082.
  • Mudde, C. (2004). The Populist Zeitgeist. Government And Opposition39(4), 541-563. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1477-7053.2004.00135.x.
  • Nail, T. (2018). Theory of the border. Oxford University Press.
  • persóna in Vocabolario – Treccani. Treccani.it. (2021). Retrieved 11 October 2021, from https://www.treccani.it/vocabolario/persona/.
  • Pickels J. (2004). A history of spaces: cartographic reason, mapping and the geo-coded world. London: Routledge. 
  • Van Houtum, H., & Van Naerssen, T. (2001). Bordering, Ordering and Othering. Tijdschrift Voor Economische En Sociale Geografie93(2), 125-136. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9663.00189.

2 thoughts on “Why and how people politically border territories: a semantic perspective

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s