Living on the Edge: experiences and responses to Europe's changing borderlands

Project Details


Borders are fluid – sometimes physically, but more often intellectually, economically and emotionally as definitions about belonging, sovereignty and power ebb and flow. These changes have defined Europe’s history, which is tied closely with the history of nation states, national identity and transnationalism. Europe, the states within it, and even smaller sub-national communities are shaped by their relationships with the edges of their perceived places in the world.

This project focuses on where Europe’s and the UK’s borders are and have been, and what a border means. Rather than treating “potential” borders (such as politically, ethnically, or religiously imagined borders between continents, states, empires and communities) as absolute or fixed we will instead interrogate how specific sites (such as ports, transport nodes or customs facilities) can be assessed not as the physical edges between distinct areas but the contact zones between them. In turn, we can understand these spaces as interlocutors between distinct networks on either side of the border, forging connections in areas such as trade, diplomacy and migration. Through exploring the ways in which Europe’s borders have shifted in the past we can offer an understanding of how contemporary borders affect the lives of people living on them – for good and ill.

Early modern global history provides a remarkable array of opportunities with which to examine this topic and change the way we understand Europe’s future as well as its past. The period between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed a transformation of Europe’s borders, geographically as they were pushed southwards, eastwards and westwards by exploration, trade and empire, and intellectually and emotionally as Europeans encountered new people and places. Whether in sub-Saharan Africa, the far reaches of Siberia or on America’s Atlantic coast, these encounters were sites where we can trace in detail the ways people understood and responded to changing borders. They are also, however, sites where we can trace the local response. Undertaking archival and archaeological research in Accra, Berlin, Lisbon, London, Manchester, Seville and Tyumen, we will examine moments of connection and disconnection, union and disunion in rapidly changing communities. Each of these sites represent spaces where the creation of new borderland communities can be assessed in transnational settings and where introspective sources allow a long-term assessment of the key challenges facing communities living in border regions. By bringing together sources from Britain’s, Portugal’s and Sweden’s global experience with evidence created by local people this project will undertake imaginative, interdisciplinary research that will cast new light on how living in borders and borderlands contributed to the formation of new communities, new identities and new conceptions of the world. In doing so we will not only change our understanding of Europe’s past but also present a methodological and intellectual approach for appraising the impact of changing borders in the world today.
Short titleR:HAH SmithBA2018
Effective start/end date31/01/1930/07/20


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