Internalizing Borders: Placing Migration History in an Interdisciplinary Context

Since October 2023, I have been a member of the interdisciplinary research group Internalizing Borders: The Social and Normative Consequences of the European Border Regime. During the academic year 2023/24, the research group explores “the normative and social consequences of the fortification and closing of borders for the states and societies engaged in these processes”.1 This focus is relevant politically and also timely. Moreover, the interdisciplinary research context is fruitful for historical studies of border and migration regimes.

Internalizing Borders: The Social and Normative Consequences of the European Border Regime

The research group “Internalizing Borders” at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF: Zentrum für interdisziplinäre Forschung) is convened by cultural anthropologist Sabine Hess, historian Frank Wolff, legal scholar Dana Schmalz, and political scientist Volker M. Heins; the group’s coordinator is Sebstian Lemme. The convenors assembled an interdisciplinary group of international border and migration scholars whose work both impresses and inspires me.2 The research group constantly meets in different formats: next to thematic working groups, the research group meets bimonthly for workshops and hosts public events such as the Border Talk Series (scroll down here to find information on the various events). By the way, I will be reporting on the research group over the coming months on Instagram @genderinn, using the hashtags #TravellingHistorian and #WhatHistoriansDo.

Historical Perspectives on Un/Doing Borders

At the Kickoff Conference in November 2023 (program as PDF file), I gave an input on “Historical Perspectives on Un/Doing Borders”. In this paper, I argue that historical approaches to borders are productive to place recent developments in a broader context. The historical perspective provides explanations of how (current) borders were conceived and formed, what alternatives to contemporary practices were explored and how, and what experiences historical actors associated with them. Today’s border regimes have a history—or rather, they have histories in the plural. We need to consider these histories in order to better understand how physical as well as social borders function, how bordering processes, inclusion, exclusion, and belonging have been practiced over time.3

Doing or undoing borders involves a broad range of actors and practices to re/create, de/stabilize, enforce, or undermine borders—not only at the borderline, but also within the borderlands. This includes privileged and non-privileged actors on different scales, the global, national, regional, or local level. Next to border actors, border practices need to be studied, e.g., establishing and controlling borders, conflicts at the borderline, but also rules of residence resulting in belonging or non-belonging. These different practices are—more often than not—violent. A specific aspect of border violence is epistemic violence,4 that is also a central element of coloniality.5 Epistemic violence is linked, for example, to knowledge of borders, legislation, administrative knowledge, and the ability or resources of a migrant to act in this way.

Moreover, border practices are connected to social inequality. We thus need an intersectional lens to analyze these aspects: how do gender, race, nationality, class, dis/ability, religion, sexuality, or age come into play and intersect with one another at borders and in boundary drawing?

Borders as Laboratories of Social Transformation

Since my paper was part of a panel called “Borders as Laboratories of Social Transformation”, I also looked at our research group in terms of laboratory studies:6 how is positionality important not only for border actors and people experiencing border-related violence, but also for our research group? Since the start of our interdisciplinary cooperation, I definitely benefit from the different positionalities and points of view, such as different academic systems, different disciplines, different geographical and social backgrounds.

For what could be more like a laboratory than the Center for Interdisciplinary Research, ZiF, with its brutalist architecture, a laboratory for border and migration scholars? I therefore suggest that we take this laboratory situation into account in our collaboration to understand it as an opportunity to generate new knowledge, and to see it as a constant project to critically question our own assumptions as well as our research object/s. From my point of view, the advantage of this approach of understanding the ZiF research group as a laboratory is that we have to cross-examine our own research in a multidisciplinary way. At the same time, we will question and expand our respective disciplinary methods, theories, and modes of working.

The picture shows the gray poster of the "ZiF Border Talk Series" announcing the next lectures.

ZiF Border Talk Series, spring 2024 © ZiF.

Further Research on Internalizing Borders

After our interdisciplinary discussions on topics, methods, concepts and theories, the research group systematically approached different dimensions of border internalization during the recent workshop in March 2023. Migration and border researchers from the fields of law, social and political sciences, cultural anthropology, and history reflected on how social, political, and legal processes of internal border practices towards migrants, refugees and their families can be theoretically captured and empirically analyzed. Despite the often depressing subject matter, the discussions were inspiring and we will be meeting again in June to discuss the research group’s findings (the program will be announced here). Stay tuned!

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Levke Harders (2024, 21. März). Internalizing Borders: Placing Migration History in an Interdisciplinary Context. Migration and Belonging. Abgerufen am 22. April 2024, von

  1. As the group’s website announces. []
  2. For the list of fellows scroll down here. []
  3. For different historical approaches to border studies, including a variety of borders actors and border practices, cf. Harders, Levke / Schnicke, Falko: Practices of Borders and Belonging: Historical Perspectives, in: ead. (ed.): Belonging across Borders: Transnational Practices in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Oxford, New York 2022, 1-29. []
  4. Cf., for example, Brunner, Claudia: Conceptualizing Epistemic Violence. An Interdisciplinary Assemblage for IR, in: International Politics Reviews 9 (2021), 193-212; DOI. []
  5. E.g., Ludwig, Gundula: Demokratie und die Kolonialität der Gewalt. Konstitutive Verwobenheiten und aktuelle Verdichtungen, in: Zeitschrift für Politische Theorie 12 (2021) 2, 218-237; DOI. []
  6. E.g., Knorr Cetina, Karin: Das naturwissenschaftliche Labor als Ort der „Verdichtung“ von Gesellschaft, in: Zeitschrift für Soziologie 17 (1988) 2, 85-101; Latour, Bruno: Gebt mir ein Laboratorium, und ich werde die Welt aus den Angeln heben, in: Belliger, Andréa / Krieger, David J. (Hg.): ANThology. Ein einführendes Handbuch zur Akteur-Netzwerk-Theorie. Bielefeld 2006, 103-134. You can easily find English publications by both authors, too. []

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