Book Review: Bordering



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4 Minutes

Guest post by Carolin Müller. Carolin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at The Ohio State University. She is interested in arts-based pro-immigration activism, community projects, and literature to understand how arts-based strategies define specific political spaces in which claims to religion, ethnicity, democracy, and cultural diversity are negotiated. She is on Twitter @CaroMue0323.

Review of Bordering by Nira Yuval-Davis, Georgie Wemyss and Kathryn Cassidy (Polity Press 2019). 

Like a swarm of angry bees, repeating images of walls, fences, and other barriers communicate that there is something vital at stake in political and social life across the globe today. In addition to discernible material barriers at state borders, there are invisible bordering processes and border brutalities that constitute and control the everyday lives of people. Bordering offers a multi-local ethnography of material and immaterial “bordering scapes”, a term that refers to the spatial zones in which local and global hierarchies govern the mobility of some but not all people. The book pays particular attention to how border performances in everyday lives in the UK inform citizenly behaviour, identity constructions and claims to belonging.

The collaborative research design of this study, which brought together researchers from multiple universities in and around Europe, helped to produce a fresh and multi-disciplinary study of borders. Nira Yuval-Davis, Georgie Wemyss and Kathryn Cassidy pursue this study through a critical lens of how borderings emerge in today’s neoliberal globalized world. The authors argue that divisive imaginaries (re)create de novo ways to regulate different spaces in civil society in all times and places. For this study, the authors identify the locations and times where that happens in order to show how borders have become constitutive to the social fabric of pluralist societies. The book also draws attention to the people and institutions entangled in different borderings on multiple levels of governance, so-called “differentially situated social actors”.

In regard to the UK, the authors demonstrate that borders not only dominate political discourse, but they have also reshaped the concept of citizenship – the key contribution of this book. Bordering practices have become part of how the state imagines the duties of its citizens. Those who participate in the spatial zones of, for example, international border-crossing points, marriage registrar offices and the ‘hostile environment’ that resulted from the 2014 Immigration Act in employment, housing and education, have to act as upholders of racial and colonial legacies that govern the mobility into and within the state boundaries. Border-guarding for them has become a citizenly duty. British citizens are asked to demonstrate their ‘loyalty’ to the state by implementing racialized legislation that tightens the permeability of state borders and restricts the rights of border-crossers, for instance, when performing passport controls as part of the new guidelines to determine a person’s access to welfare services.

Yuval-Davis et al. spend the first chapter tracing the genealogy of bordering processes gradually intruding into everyday lives. Chapter two examines the dominance of Eurocentric Westphalian imaginary within border logics. Chapters three through five focus on the empirical illustrations of this argument.

The third chapter explores the visible and invisible regulatory regimes that decide who can and cannot cross the state and internal borders in the UK. The authors introduce the term “firewall borderings” to describe different practices of letting in and blocking experienced by migrants at visa offices, airports, train stations, seaports and also in registry offices. Here, Bordering considers how racialized images and discourse about migrants circulated within the media can trigger harassment and victimization and increase inequalities and stigmatization. The authors explain that the perpetuity of the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ increases aversion towards migrants among citizens. Non-EEA and EEA migrants, for example, face discrimination when seeking accommodation and their uncertain visa status makes them vulnerable to exploitative landlords. The authors explain that firewall bordering at times enlists unwilling participants as border-guards such as registrars. Registrars can experience a moral dilemma when determining a couple’s right to marry. As UK officials, registrars may face retaliation if they refuse to formalize the social and racialized stratification of migrants.

Chapter four attends to how everyday bordering strategies affect migrants in employment, housing and education. Yuval-Davis et al. highlight how employers must comply with ever-changing immigration regulations when hiring. Bureaucratic bordering techniques foster unequal access to the labour market for migrant workers. Meanwhile, landlords benefit from stricter reporting procedures that allow them to exploit already vulnerable migrants, and new residency regulations for non-EEA international students turn educational administrators into border-guards.

The question of who can lay claim to belonging becomes even more complicated in border grey zones, the subject of chapter five. The authors analyse bordering experiences in the “Jungle of Calais”, grey zones in Britain and the town of Dover, located near a border but on the UK mainland. Central in this chapter is that there is a sense of incessant exhaustion among migrants who embark on the journey to cross and struggle to find opportunities to progress in the spaces where they arrive because, as the previous chapters illustrate, bordering techniques also imbue life on the mainland. The “Jungle of Calais” is exemplary for how people perceive the perpetuity of restrictions and pushbacks. Conflicting political agendas and camp policies create inequalities among migrants in the camp. For some, “being stuck” becomes a seemingly infinite state of being, while others get to move on. Even after arrival in the UK, migrants perceive that the border migrated with them, creating new grey zones through no-choice accommodation and lack of access to the labour market.

This book shows that researchers studying borderings must recognize ambivalences in motivations and actions but also the structures that create complicity for citizens. This book is also a call for researchers to include the “gaze” from different power positions to account for intersections in the power geometry of borderings. Although the book draws most of its empirical illustrations of borderings from bordering scapes in the UK, its focus on intersectionality and differentially situated social actors makes it a relevant resource for rethinking how we approach the study of borders. Even though the authors demonstrate that their research benefited from critical race theory, the book would have benefited from integrating non-EU examples to shed light on the relationship of imperialist practices and postcolonial borderings. All in all, researchers interested in a practical guide to intersectional approaches in qualitative research and those curious about the many forms of borderings that regulate quotidian life today will appreciate this book.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Müller, C. (2021). Book Review: Bordering. Available at: [date]

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