Why boundaries matter in an age of globalisation

If boundaries no longer matter in age of globalisation, then why are so many people concerned about immigration? In this extract from a recent book chapter, Michael Skey, suggests why this might be.

In the contemporary era, the link between a settled sense of place and identity has been called into question as human populations, cultural representations and artefacts become increasingly mobile. There is increasing evidence that these new forms of mobility have enabled growing numbers to create and maintain ‘transnational connections’ (Hannerz, 1996) and/or critically reflect on dominant narratives of belonging and identity (Dolby, 2007). Many of these approaches have also been theoretically stimulating, challenging us to rethink established concepts such as society, community and identity (Urry, 2000).

Michael Skey, University of East Anglia
Michael Skey, University of East Anglia

However, in setting the ‘study of mobilities as … the definitive context and experience of human life’ (Jenkins, 2002: 29), these studies tend to underplay the extent to which everyday practices and social activities continue to be influenced by and organised in relation to boundaries, not to mention wider attachments to particular places. In privileging the experiences of more mobile groups, the views of, what Skrbis and his colleagues, label, ‘the sedentary underclasses and … sedentary glocals’ (2004: 121) are sometimes overlooked. These are the substantial numbers of people who are increasingly able (and willing) to engage with other cultural forms, through forms of consumption and travel, but still remain relatively rooted, in terms of their everyday habits and social relations.

Moreover, where mobility is viewed as a progressive force, undermining more parochial or local allegiances, more sedentary groups may be seen as an obstacle to normative goals or principles. As a result, there has sometimes been a tendency to ignore the reasons why established socio-spatial relations might be valued. For instance, in putting forward his ‘cosmopolitan vision’, the sociologist Ulrich Beck has dismissed the ‘experiential frame of national societies [as a] … scam’ (Beck, 2002: 29). The trouble with such a view is that it offers little in the way of explanatory power when trying to make sense of those activities that continue to draw on, and reference, such a ‘frame’ (debates around immigration and economic protectionism being the most obvious examples). To do this, requires actively investigating the processes by which particular places become (or cease to be) meaningful to certain groups and how their management is used to establish or maintain relations of power, often by drawing distinctions between those who do and do not belong.

Of particular interest, here, are the attitudes and activities of people whose claims to belong are rarely questioned, in this case members of the Anglo-white majority in England. To borrow from Wallman’s social-boundary matrix, these are the people who are firmly located inside the national boundary forming part of the ‘us’, that ‘use the boundary for our purposes, according to our needs’ (quoted in Donnan & Wilson, 1999: 23). While this group is far from homogeneous, undercut by intersections of class, gender, age, region and so on, it is interesting to note how, in talking about their own lives and, in particular, their relations with ‘others’, they position themselves as people who belong ‘without question’ to the nation (Skey, 2011, 2013).

Debates around immigration in Western countries stand as perhaps the key indicator of the continuing significance of national boundaries to people’s understanding of the world around them and, accordingly, their own sense of self. After all, migration is not an issue, unless one places some value on maintaining boundaries and controlling access to a particular territory. In discussing immigration as a threat to national culture and territory, members of the ethnic majority in England position themselves as members of the in-group who have the right to comment on how the country is managed. The question of migrant numbers, which have grown substantially in the past half-century, is one key aspect of this process and has generally been analysed in terms of ‘who’ has been excluded, focusing on racist attitudes and practices. At the same time, these processes should also be viewed as forms of spatial management that are predicated on the existence of a secure and bounded territory, in which ‘out-groups’ (however defined) can first be identified and then managed. In the latter case, issues around agency and control are at the heart of these debates around ‘other’ people’s mobility, with many expressing concerns about threats to allocative (jobs, homes, welfare) and symbolic resources.

A second feature of these wider debates around boundaries and belonging that has received much less attention concerns the ways in which members of dominant groups discuss their own mobility. In this case, while increasing numbers are becoming much more mobile, and welcome the opportunity to travel and engage with ‘other’ cultures, there is no necessary link between these processes and the undermining of national forms of identification and organisation. Rather, in outlining their experiences of overseas travel, people make comparisons between ‘here’ and ‘there’, usually discussed in national terms, often stating how much they enjoyed coming back to what was familiar, comfortable and secure. As a result, we require a much more nuanced approach to studying these movements. This means actively acknowledges the extent to which travelling ‘abroad’ may reinforce pre-existing affiliations, as people are reminded of the everyday habits and features (language, symbolic systems, food and drink, social structures) that they both take-for-granted and value.

One final point should, perhaps, be made at this juncture, which refers to the specificities of the British case. One might reasonably argue that Britain’s island status singles it out as a rather peculiar case when studying the significance of boundaries and boundary-work. The short expanse of water separating Britain from continental Europe has become, over a period of centuries, a powerful feature within wider narratives of nationhood, both in relation to warfare and, more recently, political integration (Wellings, 2012). Indeed, in the latter case, the removal of many of the institutional boundaries within Europe stands as an indicator of the ways in which bounded territories may be becoming less relevant in the contemporary era. At the same time, issues such as immigration, citizenship and national belonging are still being debated with some fervour in countries such as Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Italy and Spain. This, once again, warns us against adopting a linear model in relation to particular processes (increasingly mobile populations) and social features (national boundaries). The general trend over the next century may be towards the undermining of boundaries, as some now claim, but this is and should be an empirical question, not one that can simply be asserted.

Furthermore, our understanding of how different groups respond to such processes cannot be assumed, either. While, the ‘transcendence of boundaries’ is often viewed as a progressive feature of the contemporary era, not least by academics, we must also take seriously the views and experiences of those who sense of self, place and community continues to be defined in relation to nations and, therefore, bounded territorial spaces. Simply, dismissing or denigrating those who advocate for the continuing importance of managed boundaries is problematic, even if we do not agree with the exclusionary practices they underpin. First, it fails to address the ways in which these, sometimes marginalized, groups are also attempting to make their own lives meaningful and manageable, in a changing world. Second, it offers relatively little in terms of building workable policies that can invigorate rather than antagonise what have become increasingly disenfranchised and divided populations. For instance, a feature of the political landscape in Europe and the US has been the rise of populist, anti-immigrant parties, which have been able to mobilise up to a third of the electorate in some cases. In the main, the response to these parties has been two-fold. First, it has caused mainstream political parties to introduce, or, at least, advocate for, punitive measures aimed at immigrants or minority groups, for fear of losing further support. Second, populist parties, and their supporters, have been derided as backward, uncivilised and an ‘anachronism’, unable, or unwilling, to drag themselves into the modern era. Acceding to populist concerns by attacking some of the most vulnerable groups in society is abhorrent and should be vigorously opposed. At the same time dismissing these wider concerns gets us nowhere in trying to build more progressive political projects. Indeed, if we want to overcome exclusionary practices, we need, as Les Back argues in the case of racism, to understand why they ‘appeal to people and what they need [them] for’ (2007: 157). Understanding isn’t the same thing as condoning, but instead puts us in a better position to explore why particular practices, categories and identity formations are valued, and, as a result, how the inequities they generate can be more effectively addressed.

Dr. Michael Skey is a Lecturer in Media and Culture at the University of East Anglia.

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