Notes on 3d Text for Aboriginal Studies Reading List: Donnan and Wilson

Hastings Donnan, and Thomas M. Wilson, Borders: Frontiers of Identity Nation and State (New York: Berg, 1999). l[Google Books preview:]

Donnan and Wilson outline the history of the anthropological study of boundaries, the turn to recognizing geographical borders as a site of interest, and the emergence of borderlands as an abstract concept. Along with an extended introduction, they include studies of cultures at state borders from the U.S. and Mexico, Northern Ireland, Israel and Palestine, Spain and Morocco, and various parts of Southeast Asia and Africa. Border studies are shown to allow the inclusion of the relation of nation and state in anthropological examination, thus illustrating how people experience the nation and state in their everyday lives. To quote a few exemplary statements:

  • “Borders are places where wars start, as Primo Levi once wrote. But they are also bridges – that is, sites for ongoing cultural exchange.”[1]
  • “There has always been a tension between the fixed, durable and inflexible requirements of national boundaries and the unstable, transient and flexible requirements of people. If the principal fiction of the nation-state is ethnic, racial, linguistic and cultural homogeneity, then borders always give the lie to this construct.”[2]
  • “Anyone studying how nations and states maintain distinct identities while adapting to new ideas and experiences knows that borders provide particularly revealing windows for the analysis of ‘self’ and ‘other.’ … Without borders, whether physical or symbolic, nationalism could not exist, nor could borders exist without nationalism. …” [3]

In Donnan and Wilson’s analysis of past anthropological directions they opine that “Differences may have been stressed at the expense of similarities, edges emphasized rather than overlap.”[4] A stated hope is that “our book might be read as a modest attempt to integrate divergent trends in the anthropological study of power and culture, trends which sometimes seem to be at loggerheads.”[5] It is worthy of note that they do not propose a synthesis. Nor is one provided. Rather, the text supplies description — a respectably thick one that, for the most part, I found satisfying.

The text is especially valuable for its overview of how the construction of identity and culture has been understood, as well as of how problematic the nature of academic construction has proven to be, given the difficulty that language, in particular, poses. For example, though terms such as ‘boundary’ and ‘border’ are common to multiple texts, they are accorded meanings by individual authors that are in fact different enough that commensurability must be questioned.[6]


Donnan and Wilson are critical of too loose an application of trendy words as substitutes for any actual theory that might anchor anthropological description:

“The recent interest in theorizing the borderlands of identity, in urban and rural centres and peripheries everywhere, may seem on the surface to be especially relevant to the politico-territorial borderlands, but it does not take us very far unless we also examine how state power is situated in place, space and time. Although images of frontiers and international borders may further the intellectual pursuit of other metaphorical borderlands of self and group identity, they may indicate a superficial and exploitative use of these borders as metonyms, as plot devices necessary for the furtherance of the narratives of identity elsewhere, in an anthropological equivalent to Hitchcock’s ‘McGuffin’ (the thing, event, or moment in a story which gets the plot started, but which is irrelevant to the narrative once it gets going.”[7]

They tackle the McGuffin muddle by historicizing its development. They do not seek to get rid of the notion that studying boundaries is informative, but to make clear that if one is to engage in this kind of work, one must be aware of what one is doing — where analysing the schism between the construction of nation and the lived realities of people is the goal, one ought to be conscious of the schism between construct and subject that academic writing necessarily embodies.


It is important, for example, to be aware of conceptual overlap when it comes to describing nations, states, and nation-states.[8]

Nations obviously matter, in that subject people become the object of anthropologists’ studies, but, Donnan and Wilson aver, people under the sway of nationhood cannot be isolated from consideration of the state, because “try as they might, political anthropologists cannot escape the particular polity of the nation-state.”[9] The state, they note, has “distinct properties of its own.” They cite Carole Nagengast to explain:

“the state is not just a set of institutions staffed by bureaucrats who serve public interest. It also incorporates cultural and political forms, representations, discourse, practices, and activities, and specific technologies and organizations of power that, taken together, help to define the public interest, establish meaning, and define and naturalize available social identities.”[10]

The nation-state, they, point out, “is an artificial construct.” Further, they describe the construct as:

“dependant on the historical experience of only two states, Britain and France (Wallace 1994: 61). While the origins and evolution of the nation-state are hotly debated, there can be little doubt that the twin concepts of nation and state sit uneasily with each other. This is due in large part to the appeal each concept has for its members. In fact, the crisis of the state may be due as much to shifts in people’s perceptions of the importance and efficiency of the state as it is due to the state’s loss of real control and power.”[11]

It is, therefore, important to be cognizant of the underlying — and outlying — dynamics affecting the “competing world systems” vying to harness international capital.[12] While territorial integrity and monopoly of force are “hallmarks of the nation-state,” Donnan and Wilson observe the institution’s ‘crisis’ reflects its “experiencing … twin threats” — the internal and external pressures of “supranationalism from above, and ethnonationalism from below,” both of which might “impede its provision of the national and international order necessary for the working of its politics and economics.” [13]

Perception, then, is no small matter.


About anthropological analysis, Donnan and Wilson state:

“We must be careful … not to let the images and metaphors of frontiers and borders blur our view of the politics of both anthropology and the borderlands themselves. As [Josiah McC.] Heyman cautions, in regard to the US-Mexico border, ‘It is … when the border is condensed as an image, and when this image symbolizes wide-ranging political or theoretical stances, [that] understanding of the border becomes relative and delocalized‘[14]

Anthropology is political, therefore, as well as constructive. Donnan and Wilson examine different approaches taken to the concepts of boundaries and borders by anthropologists. They note that while sometimes careful distinctions are drawn among social, cultural, and geopolitical or territorial borders/boundaries [places and/or spaces of divide], at other times they are conflated, adding: “Of course, these three elements … are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They may distinguish different types of boundary but they need not; they may, in fact be aspects of a single boundary.”

The three anthropological approaches that Donnan and Wilson discuss — 1. Social and Symbolic Boundaries 2. Geopolitical and state Boundaries 3. Cultural and Postmodern Borderlands — they regard as the “dominant patterns of usage or emphasis in recent anthropological research … marked  … by an associated body of literature.”[15] They caution that the three approaches are ‘valuable’ “only as long as we keep in sight of the ways in which they differ” and they are critical “of how some minimise the role of the state and the nation, and even the geopolitical border, in their effort to be fashionable or persuasive.”


Beginning with ‘1. Social and Symbolic Boundaries,’ Donnan and Wilson note that in early anthropological works, boundaries:

“were of interest only in so far as they enabled ‘closure’ of the research population [which could in some sense be regarded as socially and culturally discrete]: what was of real interest was not the boundary itself or relations across it, but the practices, beliefs and institutions of those it encompassed.” Hence, the practice of “bounding” one’s study.[16]

They credit the publication of Fredrik Barth’s 1969 text, Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Difference [see entry for Barth], with shifting the anthropological focus onto the boundary itself.[17] In 1983, Judith Okely’s work on traveller-gypsies and giorgios confirmed the importance of “viewing any boundary from both sides, from both within and without.”[18] They discuss at some length Sandra Wallman’s theorizing, which apparently she began publishing c.1978, on the consistency of boundaries: she argued that they did not divide sides like walls, but were more akin to a teabag in permeability. In evoking that ‘prosaic’ analogy, Wallman’s point, Donnan and Wilson say, “is that we must never forget that a boundary occurs only as a reaction of one system to another, and is thus necessarily oppositional, having two sides.” The divided systems are social [I would say socio-political] and may be systems of activity, of organization, or of meaning. The interface between them “following Douglas (1970), is liable to be characterized by ambiguity and danger.” They set out Wallman’s visualization [approximately] thus:

identitymmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm interface

inside (us) We identify ‘us’  mmmmmmmm the border around

in opposition to ‘them’mmmmmmmmmmm the familiar, the

mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm normal, the un-problematic

We use the boundary for our purposes

according to our needs(s) at this time/

in this context


outside (them) they identify themselvesmm the beginning of

by contrast to the rest of us.mmmmmmmm another system.

They use the boundary formmmmmmmm

their purposes. mmmmmmmmmmmmmm Performance, appearance,

m activity, social or symbolic

m structure is different.[19]

The questions Wallman raised included: “What kind of resource is this boundary? What is it used for? In which (and how many) contexts is it relevant? What is its status in situational time? For whom is it an asset, for whom a liability? With what other differences is it congruent or associated? What meaning does it have on the other (outer) side?” [emphasis in the original].[20]

Anthony Cohen is discussed as another influential author (Donnan and Wilson cite a series of books published during the 80s). Cohen, dissatisfied “with the analytical inadequacies of classical sociological and anthropological notions of ‘community’ which stressed structure or morphology as its defining feature,” turned to boundaries to argue that “A community exists … only by virtue of its opposition to another community. The notion is thus relational, implying both similarity and difference.”[21]

Cohen maintained that boundaries between communities:

“are constructed by people in their interactions with others from whom they wish to distinguish themselves but, unlike the markers of national boundaries, we cannot objectively determine in advance what the distinguishing features of these symbolic boundaries will be, nor exactly where the boundaries will be drawn. Moreover, they may mean different things to different individuals, both to those on opposite sides of the boundary as well as those within it.”

He warned that such boundaries may be invisible to those who were outsiders to the communities and not involved in their boundary making, so that the “task of the researcher … is to uncover these boundaries and the meanings they are given.” To Donnan and Wilson, this suggests that Cohen was “principally concerned with what Wallman earlier called the ‘identity element’ of a boundary.”[22]

In Cohen’s view, the symbolic marking of boundaries increased as local diversity [based on ties of locality, kinship and class] decreased in the face of “technological advances in communication” that promoted cultural homogeneity. As the local becomes more firmly enmeshed with the “wider political and administrative structures of the state,” structural distinctiveness no longer sets apart locality and community, one from the other. Nevertheless, Cohen observes, “their sense of difference and distinctiveness” [reads identity in next sentence] remains.[23]

Donnan and Wilson do not mean to imply that to Cohen structure is unimportant. They point out that he argues “any local collectivity must be viewed in context of the wider societal relationships and entities of which it forms a part.” This, they take to be an expression of Cohen’s interest in showing how experiencing a collectivity at one scale can mediate the meaning of collectivity at another scale: “how wider political and economic forces impinge upon locality and vice versa.”

A criticism that Donnan and Wilson note Cohen has been subjected to (in light of Talal Asad’s work on post-colonialism for example), is that his theorizing seems to lead to an emphasis on focusing on the ‘inside’ — a complaint that has been levelled at Barth as well. There is a need to include analyses of the ‘outside,’ if only to signal that external constraints exist, but better, to know something about them.[24]


It seems Donnan and Wilson are most concerned about promoting interest in borders.  They decry a tendency in academic literature to invoke borders only to relegate them to the background, while lines of inquiry and discussion range elsewhere. They are dissatisfied with anthropological studies that adopt borders as “no more than an analytically distant presence with a vague influence on whatever the topic in hand: at worst, they are merely part of the obligatory ‘scene setting’, their study relinquished to political scientists and geographers.”[25]

Donnan and Wilson trace the history of borders in anthropological work to Abner Cohen’s middle eastern studies of the mid-1960s in which he presented an analysis of ‘The Border Situation’ — “a constellation of economic and political conditions.” Cohen found 4 main occurrences/components particular to the situation”:

“(i) some families cut off from land and kin

(ii) villages were cut off from political centers/national organizations

(iii) villagers were increasingly incorporated within framework of ‘outsider’ society from which they derived economic advantage

(iv) the [geographic] area suddenly became of strategic importance.”

Cohen went on to argue that this situation evoked an interesting reaction: “the revival of an old, indigenous political form.”[26]

The work of American anthropologists John Cole and Eric Wolf, is credited with moving border studies forward in the mid-1970s. With The Hidden Frontier, a study of ‘ecology and ethnicity’ in the Italian Tyrol, Wolf pursued issues such as: “why ethnic and nationalist loyalties so often seemed to transcend class loyalties and ties of formal citizenship.” Though Donnan and Wilson note that Abner Cohen had previously raised questions similar to those of Wolf and Cole, the latter authors concentrated interest on “the transformations of local … political alignments in relation to the promptings of market and nation-building” and assigned urgency to these transformations, in locating them “at the politically sensitive margins of the state; and (again in both studies) among ethnic minorities incompletely incorporated into the national body or resistant to it.”[27]

Donnan and Wilson see Cole and Wolf reiterating Barth’s observation “that ethnic boundaries may be maintained despite relations across them,” but it was “in showing how we must move beyond purely local influences to understand and explain this process” that their contribution had significance. Their work supplied:

“an example of where ethnic boundaries arise as a result of, and are sensitive to, the rise and demise of state boundaries. One can only be understood with reference to the other… In this respect Cole and Wolf could be said to represent the coming together of a symbolic boundary focus with a political economic perspective which attempts to situate local boundary making within wider historical and political processes.” [28]

Wolf and Cole’s “new anthropological interest in how local developments can have an impact on national centres of power and hegemony” owed some of its inspiration to historians, such as Sahlins, who looked at “localities and the construction of national identities.” Not surprisingly, then, is Wolf and Cole’s injunction that the anthropology of borders needed to be ‘historical’ anthropology. From Wolf and Cole’s work, Donnan and Wilson interpret borders to be “spatial and temporal records of relationships between local communities and between states. … a perspective in which the dialectical relations between border areas and their nations and states take precedence over local culture viewed with the state as a backdrop.[29] They attribute to Cole and Wolf’s influence, an increasing number of studies into “the historical and contemporary intersections of state and symbolic boundaries in, for instance, the creation of a proletarianised and disenfranchised labour force.”[30]


Donnan and Wilson are of the opinion that, as a genre, borderlands studies evince “the potential overlap between different [conceptualizations of] ‘borders’ sometimes being used as a stylistic device to imply resonances and connections not always demonstrated or warranted.”[31]

They illustrate their point by discussing “the work of those who suggest that ‘border’ be metaphorically extended to all situations characterised by contradiction and contest in the light of critics who challenge this metaphorical approach for distracting attention from the ‘real’ problems of state borders and from issues of power.” While they allow that “In a sense, of course, borders are always metaphors, since they are arbitrary constructions based on cultural convention,” they quote Avtar Brah’s observation that “far from being mere abstractions of a concrete reality, metaphors are part of the discursive materiality of power relations” and therefore “can serve as powerful inscriptions of the effects of political borders.”[32]

[Note: ‘culture’ and ‘power’ have a similar track record: everything they stand for is ‘found’ everywhere, descriptions can go on ad infinitum and yet nothing actually gets said as far as explanation goes — the problem being that cultures colliding in borderlands where power is the operational dynamic is meaningless if culture is everything and borderlands are everywhere and power emanates all over the place. All that really gets said is that interaction is very common among people and they have to negotiate with each other on a constant basis. It would be helpful if with a study of ‘identity’ one was able to ask why negotiations include grouping together with other individuals under a common appellation.]


Donnan and Wilson define ‘Cultural and Postmodern Borderlands’ as a “line of inquiry which recruits the ‘border’ as an image for what happens when two or more cultures meet.”[33] They reference the writings of Renato Rosaldo to explain:

“The borders concerned exist at many different levels, and may be cultural, social, territorial, political, sexual, racial or psychological, while the notion of ‘border crossings’ is similarly varied and is just as likely to be used to refer to cross-dressing or the synthesising of cinematic genres as it is to traversing state lines.”

The enthusiasm for borders as a metonym apparently arose out of dissatisfaction with “conventional anthropological concept of culture, an inadequacy which propelled … many … who … sought to understand cultural disjuncture to devise new strategies for studying both the interstices between cultures and the differences within them. … Borderlands surface not only at the boundaries of officially recognized cultural units, but also at less formal intersections, such as those of gender, age, status, and distinctive life experiences. … According to Rosaldo, social analysis must reorient itself to the study of such borderlands, which ‘should be regarded not as analytically empty transitional zones but as sites of creative cultural production that require investigation.’”[34]

[At this point in their discussion, it occurred to me that if I was to imagine ‘identity’, it would be by dropping the idea that there is a line or a symbolically tangible if permeable boundary, in favour of recognizing the idea of ‘difference’ as a cloud-like vapour that shifts, like a fog bank, or a wisp of smoke – there is nothing solid about it, it is however sensed, and therefore accorded a presence. It is this sensation that is talked about as if it were real. It is accorded status and made ‘real’ – realized — in politics and economy, in that policies are organized to accommodate it as if it were actually there. There is a response to these inventions/interventions, and so it goes on and on, as a self-perpetuating, constantly modifying mechansim/process/thingism.]



Robert R. Alvarez and George A. Collier are presented describing borderlands “in the wholesale markets [that seem] to share some of the socio-political processes characteristic of borders between states; namely, both involve ‘differential access to formal channels of power’.”[35]


In studying Mexican wage labourers who migrate, Roger Rouse describes an instance which “suggests … [the original people] now constitute a single community across a variety of sites, each with its own history, language, political system and cultural code. They inhabit a world which shows few signs of synthesis or homogenisation and where competing cultural forms can be managed only buy developing skills of ‘cultural bifocality’.” This he thinks of as exemplifying conceptually a ‘border zone’ which exists across space even though the sites [people who carry a shared ‘identity’?] might be far apart.[36]


Relying on the observations of Heyman, Donnan and Wilson comment that “Such images [as that above] can be seductive.” But they caution “vigilance against being carried away by the rhetoric.” [Again, it seems, when culture and borders get combined, borders end up being everywhere because cultures are not homogeneous]. “By falling for this metonymic usage … our understanding of the border becomes reductive [not to say impossibly relative], and risks leaving power out of the picture.”[37]

The studies of Gupta and Ferguson are discussed as examples of using borderlands to evoke the ‘postmodern condition’ and places of ‘incommensurable contradictions’; a zone where cultures overlap. [At this point in the text it seems as though this kind of postmodernist approach reflects a disinterest in tying together diffuse occurrences; a disinterest that is indicative of an avoidance of discussing, or taking any responsibility for, inequalities that might qualify the investigator, or narrator, as — by association — one of the reasons why these inequalities persist. The approach protects the use/deployment of a kind of scholarly myopia from the reader’s view – one can’t see the trees for the forest.]

Gupta and Ferguson are quoted as observing “The term [borderland] does not indicate a fixed topographical site between two other fixed locales (nations, societies, cultures), but an interstitial zone of displacement and deterritorialization that shapes the identity of the hybridized subject.” [It seems to me that in this instance, it appears ‘borderlands’ is something internalized by individuals, something that might as easily be described as ‘past experiences’ or ‘sense of alienation’ and attached to the discussion of ‘identity’ — the analogy to territory seems gratuitous — an unnecessary confusion.][38]


“Much recent writing by natives of this border [US/Mexican] region has similarly attempted to expose the ‘multiple subjectivities’ of borderland life by describing how those who live there draw strategically on multiple repertoires of identity (for instance, see Behar 1993; see also Hicks 1991; and the essays in Welchman 1996).”[39]


“These intellectuals find themselves in exile among the Ashkenazi … elite of Haifa and Tel Aviv, yet equally perceive their return ‘home’ to their natal villages as exile from exile.”[40]


Smadar Lavie “draws attention to the explosion of identities which characterises postmodern borderlands – explosion in the sense both of proliferating and fragmenting identities – as well as to how the dilemma of negotiating identity is magnified there.” [italics in original] [41]


“from the perspective of these scholars [for example Lavie, Turner, McMaster] the borderland is simultaneously a zone of cultural play and experimentation as well as of domination and control. The ‘borderzone is not just a dangerous space, but a festive one, because of the creative energy liberated by the common struggle of resistance’. It is liminal space, an ‘experimental region of culture’, whose appeal is ‘the access artists have to many languages (discourses) from different communities’.”[42] But, it seems, it isn’t always empowering. [In my opinion the fun is only understood as fun from the outside – from the inside it is wry, ironic, and even sometimes desperate – a coping strategy – see comments on Pocahontas’s Daughters.]


Dan Rabinowitz argues “that borderland encounters … have deepened the rift between Israeli and Palestinian identities rather than produced a synthesis, and the same is arguably true of Catholic and Protestant identities at the Irish border.”[43]


In thinking about Donnan and Wilson’s text — which I enjoyed — the principal impression I was left with was a suspicion that transference and projection were inescapable tendencies for researchers — no different really from the older notion of ‘bias.’ I am not sure that Donnan and Wilson — informative as their book was — have resolved any problem. Is this an integration? Is it integrating to show how disparate perceptions can be by providing a ‘thick description’ of diverse views?

[1] Hastings Donnan, and Thomas M. Wilson, Borders: Frontiers of Identity Nation and State (New York: Berg, 1999). back cover.

[2] Horsman Marshall, quoted in Ibid., 1.

[3] Donnan and Wilson, Ibid., back cover.

[4] Ibid., 40.

[5] Ibid., 41.

[6] Ibid., xiv, 4.

[7] Ibid., 16.

[8] See Umut Özkirimli, Theories of Nationalism: A Critical Introduction (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), for example.

[9] Ibid., 151.

[10] Carole Nagengast, quoted in Ibid., 154.

[11] Ibid., 153.

[12] Ibid., 2, 153.

[13] Ibid., 1, 152-154.

[14] Ibid., 16.

[15] Ibid., 19, 41.

[16] Ibid., 20.

[17] Ibid., 21.

[18] Ibid., 22.

[19] Ibid., 23.

[20] Sandra Wallman quoted in Ibid., 23.

[21] Ibid., 24.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 25.

[25] Ibid., 26-27.

[26] Ibid., 30.

[27] Ibid., 32.

[28] Ibid., 33.

[29] Ibid., 34.

[30] Ibid., 35, they cite, for example, Heyman, 1991, and Kearney 1998, in chapters five and six, of this volume.

[31] Ibid., 41.

[32] Ibid., 40.

[33] Ibid., 35.

[34] Ibid., 35-36.

[35] Heyman quoted in Ibid., 37.

[36] Donnan and Wilson, Ibid., 37.

[37] Ibid., 38.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid., 39.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid., 40.

borderlands and 21st century pop culture: danger entertainment as play, avatar identities:

“Borderlands Intro,” posted to You Tube by TheCyborgNinjaJaguar, 13 October 2009.


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
This entry was posted in Aboriginal Studies, Book Notes 2, Section I: Identity and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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