Juliet Fall: Boundaries – Processes, practices and typologies

Introducing Juliet Fall

Juliet FallDr Juliet Fall is Associate Professor at the University of Geneva. She has done a BA and PhD with the same university, and an MSc at the University of Oxford.

Her research interests include, next to boundary studies, Francophone and Anglophone political geography, biodiversity, natural resources and research methodologies.

In this interview, dr Fall explains the difference between popular boundary typologies and why she would rather not use them in her own work. What’s the difference between boundary allocation, delimitation and demarcation? What does the reification, naturalisation and fetishisation of boundaries mean? And do the ideas of Lord Curzon still enjoy wide currency?


Boundaries as a process

How would you define the allocation, delimitation and demarcation of boundaries?

There are many debates about the terms, and in isolating the different steps taken in the making of boundaries. While this is useful in understanding the negotiations and processes that lead to their establishment, the exact terms (definition vs. allocation, for instance) are relatively unimportant. It is also rarely quite so linear as such terms imply.

But what it basically means is that parties agree on roughly where, then work out what that means, and try to make this visible and material. And the devil, and the conflicts and wars, are in the details.

What are the reification, naturalisation and fetishisation of boundaries?

In my work, I try to take boundaries seriously as geographical objects that are made through discourse, practices and materiality.

The reification of boundaries involves assuming that such constructs are real not only in where they are located and in their effects, but also ontologically.

Building on this, the naturalisation of boundaries is the process through which such constructs come to be assumed to be natural, given, and therefore unavoidable. Their location, for instance, is justified on pseudo-natural (or rational) grounds, such as in the long-standing debate around the ‘natural boundaries’ of states.

Lastly, the fetishisation of boundaries is the process through which boundaries are taken to be inevitable, obvious, sacred and worth defending per se. In other words, these three processes together make boundaries inevitable, normal, desirable, and make us unimagine any other possible territorial scenarios.

Natural boundaries

What did Lord Curzon mean by natural and artificial boundaries?

At the time, the idea that some political boundaries were more appropriate often rested on whether they could be justified by some specific natural feature. Islands, rivers, mountain ranges were thus considered ‘good’ boundaries, while negotiated ones were seen to be artificial – not that that meant they couldn’t be appropriate limits to states.

To a large extent, as I argue in my recent paper in Political Geography, this idea continues to have great success on an international level, despite being repeatedly critiqued by a number of geographers.

What role do geographical imaginations play in the concept of natural boundaries?

If we accept the idea that all boundaries are constructs, then these inevitably rely on a series of dispositifs — discourses, practices and material infrastructures — to make them apparent.

Thus all such geographical objects rely, amongst other things, on something we might call a geographical imagination – of division, of unity, of linearity or whatever. But I don’t really use this term in my own work.

Other boundary typologies

What do you think of S.W. Boggs’ idea of good and bad boundaries?

Although clearly a product of its time, what is interesting to me is that this idea still has huge traction politically now, something which I find very worrying. Boundary changes are seen to be a key tool for conflict resolution, with assimilated ideas of ethnic cleansing and homogeneity seen to be an unquestioned basis for political stability.

This is not to say that some boundaries really aren’t unworkable in practical terms, but rather my point is that the idea that a ‘good’ boundary solves territorial disputes is questionable.

Generally speaking, does it make sense to use boundary typologies?

As a tool for thinking about particular phenomena or material objects, typologies can be useful. I personally don’t develop this kind of approach, as I am sceptical of being able to produce something that really helps us to think through the complexity of boundaries as political, geographical and material things.

Sometimes fitting things into tight boxes simplifies everything, and makes it rather too neat for my liking.

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