Primer: Borderlands History

Barry McCarron
Two photos of men wearing western suits with number 8 and 9 under their photo


Borderlands history studies the making and crossing of borders. While the term “borderlands” has no fixed definition, it can refer to spaces of encounter between different peoples and political entities. As an interpretative framework, borderlands can help practitioners of world history better understand circulations, connections, exchanges, flows, and networks across borders, as well as intergroup dynamics, identity formation, and cross-cultural interactions on the edges of empires and nations. Furthermore, it can raise new research questions for world historians and provide them with fresh and distinctive ways to examine events, experiences, perspectives, stories, and spatial-temporal configurations beyond Eurocentric and nation-state frameworks of analysis. In this essay, historian Barry McCarron charts the origin and evolution of the field of borderlands history and discusses how borderlands approaches enrich the craft of world history.


The definition of borderlands has shifted since the term came into prominence through the work of Herbert Eugene Bolton in the early twentieth century. Bolton defined borderlands as the “regions between Florida and California, now belonging to the United States, over which Spain held sway for centuries” (Bolton, The Spanish Borderlands). Bolton’s “Spanish Borderlands” scholarship was intended as a counterpoint to Frederick Jackson Turner’s Anglo-centric frontier thesis, which foregrounded a westward-moving frontier as the crucible that forged America’s exceptional national character (Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”). Traditionally associated with Spanish colonialism in territory that became the US Southeast and Southwest, borderlands history now encompasses a broader set of themes, processes, and social groups, and spaces worldwide as well as varying time periods ranging from the Ancient Meditteranean world, Ming China, and imperial Russia to early modern France, modern Iran, and the twenty-first-century Baltic littoral. Some scholars examine borderlands in a comparative perspective, including comparing borderlands across different continents and periods. While the term “borderlands” has no fixed definition, it can refer to spaces of encounter between different peoples and political entities. Generally considered by scholars as both spaces and processes, borderlands can be viewed as "ambiguous and often-unstable realms where boundaries are also crossroads, peripheries are also central places, homelands are also passing-through places, and the end points of empire are also forks in the road" (Hämäläinen and Truett, “On Borderlands”). Influences on the evolution of the field of borderlands history include scholarship in American Indian, Asian American, Chicana/o, Latina/o, and Asian American studies programs that grew out of US social movements in the 1960s and 1970s, the new social history, the “cultural turn,” postmodernism, and more recently the transnational turn.” Borderlands history moved from a marginal to mainstream field of academic inquiry around the 1990s and is currently practiced by scholars worldwide. Although rooted in the discipline of history, the study of borderlands is now an interdisciplinary and a multidisciplinary endeavor, involving disciplines ranging from anthropology and linguistics to sociology and psychology.

A borderlands interpretative framework can be used to enrich the craft of world history. The concept of borderlands provides useful insights into circulations, connections, exchanges, flows, and networks across borders, ranging from capital, diseases, and goods to ideas, technologies, and people. Borderlands, which excels as an analytical concept for the study of distinct spaces of contact and exchange, specifically contested, fluid, and plural “contact zones,” can be applied to further understand intergroup dynamics, identity formation, and cross-cultural interactions in world history (Pratt, “Arts of the Contact Zone”). With its emphasis on movements across borders, entanglements between different peoples, and convergence and overlap between political entities, borderlands history can be fruitfully combined with cognate approaches and concepts used to study world history such as globalization, imperialism, intellectual exchange, migration and diaspora, and comparative, transcultural, and transnational histories. Borderlands history, which considers traditionally marginalized peoples as central actors, examines pasts not coterminous with national periodization and master narratives, and focuses on spaces characterized by contingency, heterogeneity, and liminality, can raise new research questions for world historians. In addition, it can provide them with fresh and distinctive ways to examine events, experiences, perspectives, stories, and spatial-temporal configurations beyond Eurocentric and nation-state frameworks of analysis.

Borderlands history does not mean an absence or neglect of the state, given the state often influenced borderlands in significant ways and vice versa, but rather the state is not a self-evident starting, end, or focal point for historical inquiry. Furthermore, it does not mean confining analysis within local or regional contexts since borderlands shaped and were shaped by events and processes at larger scales including the global, as demonstrated in the “Short Teaching Module: Connecting Local and Global History via Mercantile Networks.” 

Besides physical borders, borderlands historians examine non-physical borders or conceptual categories such as culture, ethnicity, gender, nation, race, religion, and so on that people used to understand and navigate borderland worlds. One example of a primary source that illuminates the making and crossing of borders, both physical and conceptual, while underscoring the limitations of discrete national histories are maps. While maps help create borders that seem immutable or natural, all borders are social constructs. Because constructing borders is a form of power that benefits some people over others, borders are invariably contested, and thereby always unstable and unfinished (Orsi, “Construction and Contestation”). In the case of national borders, they may appear to be natural or static and are delimited on maps as bounded but are in fact sites of ongoing processes such as conflict, contestation, exchange, interaction, negotiation, and violence. A case in point is the “Map of the Partition of Israel and Palestine.”

Borderlands history, in whatever form its future direction takes, will be indispensable to the study of a central aspect of the human experience worldwide and across eras: border making and crossing. Borderlands approaches, particularly their insights into borders and distinct spaces of human interaction on the edges of political entities, enrich scholarship and teaching on the global past beyond a nation-state unit of analysis.


Primary Sources

Chinese Migrants to U.S. by way of Mexico

Two photos of men wearing western suits with number 8 and 9 under their photo

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the United States passed laws that barred the entry of Chinese laborers, the first group singled out by the federal government for exclusion based on class and race. These laws included border enforcement measures such as inspection stations, patrol officers, and physical barriers along the nation’s northern and southern borders. Despite these efforts, thousands of Chinese laborers crossed the border into the United States from Canada and Mexico. Borderlands approaches are an excellent way to examine transnational lives such as these Chinese laborers and the broader realms that shaped them and they shaped. Among the Chinese laborers who sought to enter the United States across its border with Mexico during this exclusion era were those pictured in the photographs above. These photographs were obtained by an official who worked for the Department of Commerce and Labor, then responsible for the enforcement of US immigration laws, as part of a 1907 report on the smuggling of Chinese laborers into the United States. Aspects of the strategy used for clandestine and illicit passage across the porous US-Mexican border included Chinese migrants disguising themselves as Mexicans. This can be seen in the above photographs depicting Chinese men with their queues (a hairstyle Han Chinese men wore to indicate their submission to the Manchu Qing dynasty) cut and wearing Western-style clothing, which were used in fraudulent Mexican citizenship documents. Chinese laborers were also aided by smugglers from different class, ethnic, and national backgrounds including Mexicans, white Americans, immigrants from Europe, and Chinese communities on both sides of the border. Furthermore, US-Mexican border crossings involved connections, networks, and migration routes, often extending across several nations and as far as China. Borderlands history provides rich insights into this particular ambiguous, diffuse, heterogeneous, indeterminate, and unstable world of border making, crossing, and contestation, situational identity formation, transnational and transimperial connections and exchanges, and multiethnic and multiracial commingling in ways that elude the more rigid and discrete nation-state framework. 


This source is part of the Borderlands History methods primer.


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Bolton, Herbert Eugene. The Spanish Borderlands: A Chronicle of Old Florida and the Southwest (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1921).

Gutiérrez, Ramón A., and Elliott Young. “Transnationalizing Borderlands History.” Western History Quarterly 41, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 26–53.

Hämäläinen, Pekka, and Samuel Truett. “On Borderlands.” Journal of American History 98, no. 2 (September 2011): 338-61.

Hernández, Kelly Lytle. “Borderlands and the Future History of the American West.” Western Historical Quarterly 42 (Autumn 2011): 325-30.

Lee, John W. I., and Michael North. Globalizing Borderlands Studies in Europe and North America. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2016.

Orsi, Jared. “Construction and Contestation: Toward a Unifying Methodology for Borderlands History.” History Compass 12/5 (2014): 433-43.

Pratt, Mary Louise. “Arts of the Contact Zone.” Profession 91 (1991): 33-40.

Readman, Paul, Cynthia Radding, and Chad Bryant, eds. Borderlands in World History, 1700-1914. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Truett, Samuel, and Elliott Young, eds. Continental Crossroads: Remapping U.S.-Mexico Borderlands History. Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2004.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1893 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1894): 199-227.


Barry McCarron is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Sun Yat-sen University. He earned his PhD in history from Georgetown University and worked as a faculty fellow at New York University. He is finalizing a book project based on his doctoral dissertation, which won the 2016 World History Association Dissertation Prize. Titled China and Ireland in the World, this will be the first book to examine the history of connections between China and Ireland and Chinese and Irish encounters in global perspective.

How to Cite This Source

"Primer: Borderlands History," in World History Commons, [accessed May 28, 2024]