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Contested Borders? Practicing Empire, Nation and Region in the 19th and 20th Centuries

26-28 April 2018

International Conference

Venue: German Historical Institute London

Conveners: Levke Harders (Universität Bielefeld) and Falko Schnicke (GHI London)

Brexit, the Basque country, Kashmir – the drawing of social and spatial boundaries, the question of belonging, and the creation of identity are at the heart of many current debates. They are based on general political, social, and economic developments and the historical experience of individuals. This is why the drawing and negotiating of borders is a relevant topic for historical research. Although borders (are intended to) define geographical and cultural spaces and possibly also political communities, there is nothing ‘natural’ about them. Rather, they are the outcomes of specific historical conditions. Thus the emergence of the European nation-states and empires was accompanied not only by the drawing of borders, but also by the establishment of political and social borders, and boundaries relating to identity politics. Nation-states and empires, therefore, are seen as the central categories of European modernity and beyond. We argue, however, that processes that occurred before and beyond the creation of nation-states equally influenced inclusion and exclusion. The categories of belonging and non-belonging were created at (post)-imperial, national, regional, and local level, and involved various actors. For some years, the social sciences have used ‘belonging’ as a productive concept in researching these processes of negotiation. At a theoretical level and as a methodological instrument, however, ‘belonging’ has not been clearly defined.

This conference intends systematically (1) to contribute to the definition of ‘belonging’ as a research concept, (2) to explore the region as a category of historical research, and (3) to combine regional analyses consistently with perspectives drawn from the nation-state and (post)imperialism, as has been repeatedly demanded in recent literature, (4) to contribute to overcoming a widely criticized ‘methodological nationalism’ via transregional and transnational approaches. We will examine how belonging is created, as well as instances of suppressed or prevented belonging, and the political, social, and personal hierarchies associated with them. How were inclusion and exclusion created? What role did the different forms of boundaries between empires, states, nations, and regions play? What actors were involved in the creation of belonging, in the drawing of borders, and in crossing them? Fractures, resistance, and interrogations can be used to reveal lines of conflict and demonstrate the elementary functioning of the policies of belonging, and the logic behind them. We are interested both in specific local/regional and state practices of belonging, and in the concepts inherent in them.

In the nineteenth century continental Europe was characterized by dynastic developments, a number of wars, and shifting boundaries that thus became, in part, ambiguous. Both the Franco-German border and the borders of (and within) the Habsburg monarchy and the Russian empire can be described as ‘entangled borderlands’ during this period. Their ambiguities had a considerable impact on the economy, politics, and social structure, and they were changed, among other things, by cross-border migrations. After the First World War the right of popular self-determi¬nation placed the drawing of borders on to a new legal footing. In its specific application as a legal principle, this new instrument had varying and sometimes paradoxical effects on the negotiation of borders and nationality. This can be traced, for example, by looking at the British Empire, which from the outset was a complex system of hybrid affiliations. With the transition to the Commonwealth, the question of belonging was complicated in a new way, for example, when India had to position itself between ‘Western values’ and non-aligned status, or when newly created republics in Africa were represented by the Queen along with the monarchies of the Commonwealth. Currently (sociological and ethnographic) research on migration and citizenship is increasingly examining these everyday processes of negotiation and focusing on the actors (migrants, marginalized groups, civil society, authorities etc.).

On the basis of (comparative) case studies of border regions and the processes of drawing and crossing borders in Europe and in the British Empire and Commonwealth, during the conference the concept of belonging is applied to historical research, theoretically and methodologically, at micro-level, meso-level, and macro-level, while existing research on nationalism is expanded by transregional and post-imperial perspectives. In order to pursue the questions outlined above, we would like contributions from the following subject areas and beyond:

  • central terms and concepts: (1) transnational, transregional, and translocal approaches in historical research; (2) belonging and the politics of belonging in historical research;
  • (non )belonging, exclusion, and inclusion in colonial and de-colonialized contexts;
  • contemporary descriptions, treatment, and practices of regions, nation-states, and empires in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and their different functions;
  • the representation, emotionalization, and politicization of empire, nation-state, and re-gion;
  • the creation of spatial, social, and political borders and border-crossings;
  • social inequalities and belonging (migration, marginalized groups);
  • agency and actors in these processes.