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Frontiers, Borders and Border Segmentation: Toward a Conceptual Clarification

Ellwyn R. Stoddard


In our desire to contribute meaningfully to borderlands research, we wander all over our material employing amorphous terms to characterize vague theoretical frameworks. As a rather newly established scientific field of inquiry, we tolerate some ambiguity, a few spongy concepts and a smattering of awkward or inapplicable methodologies in our rush to accumulate a ready reservoir of scientific data. But perhaps borderlands studies has reached a maturity level in which we, as borderlands scholars, might begin to turn our energies inward in an attempt to clarify and standardize our lexicon, our conceptual tools and our assumptions. Moreover, our publications seem to reflect two incongruous perspectives. In general, beginning border investigators focus on specific data assuming their material to be completely unique in substance, in time and in space. In contrast, more seasoned scholars with broader experience and resources at their command begin to generalize; ostensibly to synthesize but with the latent consequence of creating a specious border homogeneity which is unfounded and counterproductive. Both orientations are needed, however, to maintain some balance.

This essay describes and clarifies three of the most common terms or concepts in borderlands studies: frontier, border and border segment. It will focus on four dimensions within each concept: spatial differentials, temporal variations, substantive issues and scholarly perspectives (including underlying assumptions). Because of space limitations, this essay will not be a comprehensive treatment but rather a selective survey indicating various dimensions and criteria which are reflected in scholarly applications of each concept.

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Print ISSN: 0886-5655
Online ISSN: 2159-1229