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Theme Project:

Crossing Borders

In the constant quest for new knowledge, borders play an essential role. However, borders are in themselves not immutable.

In the constant quest for new knowledge, borders play an essential role. Borders are important for the delineation of concepts, for the classification of phenomena, for the description and understanding of systems, for the critical analysis of data and for the effective communication of ideas.However, borders are in themselves not immutable. They are subject to change and they can become diffuse and porous. The commitment of STIAS to the generation of new knowledge implies the willingness to challenge the limits of existing knowledge and to venture into unchartered territory. This by necessity entails the crossing of borders – the borders of academic disciplines, of dominant paradigms, of conventional solutions, of isolated mindsets – in order to achieve what has been described as the “cross-pollination of ideas”.

Against this background, STIAS welcomes research proposals aimed at exploring various aspects of this theme. The following are examples of subthemes in need of further investigation.

Information and development

One of the most spectacular examples of the crossing of borders in recent times that needs further investigation, is the way in which the information age and the network society have reshaped the borders of our existing world. Through the possibilities created by electronic communication and digitalization, alternative ‘worlds’ have come into existence, often subverting existing centers of power and influence. Manuel Castells has shown how the ‘network society’ functions as an alternative (virtual) society that co-exists with ‘normal’ society, with all kinds of social, political and economic implications, including the relationship between informationalism and development.


STIAS promotes research projects that draw on the methods, insights and results from more that one discipline. Existing boundaries between disciplines are often historically determined and arbitrary in nature. The most interesting new insights often emerge from the ‘cracks’ between them. The differentiation between disciplines can be the source of a creative tension that results in new advances. Since its inception STIAS has supported research in all disciplines, thereby providing an environment of constant and lively interaction between the natural, biological and human sciences. For this very reason the concept of inter-, intra- or transdisciplinarity itself is in need of critical examination.

The social and economic consequences of human mobility

Since it earliest beginnings, the evolution of humankind has been marked by human movement on a lesser to a massive scale. The crossing of geographical and political borders is an inherent feature of human history. In recent times, and more specifically since the ‘third wave’ of democratization since 1989, forced or voluntary human migration is again at the forefront of social and political developments. Whether it is the challenges of immigration and the integration of Europe, the massive displacement of large parts of the population in Africa, the apparently unstoppable process of urbanization in many parts of the world, human mobility has far-reaching social and economic consequences. The weakness of the state, the vulnerability of national boundaries, the violence characteristic of these processes and the impact on human and natural resources affect individuals and groups on different levels and in different ways.

Investigation of rising levels of xenophobia in South Africa (but also in many other parts of the world), the formation of collective identities, patterns of migration, unacknowledged atrocities and the rise of ‘urban mindsets’ provide some examples of work in this area, but much more research needs to be done in this field.

The porous borders of living systems

John Mingers (Realising Systems Thinking 2006: 65) writes:  “It is an interesting paradox that a system boundary is one of the most fundamental concepts underlying systems thinking and yet it is one of the least discussed, especially in the seminal literature. Arguably, the concept of a ‘system’ existing within an ‘environment’ is the foundation of systems theory and yet what is it that separates a system from its components and their relation is effectively to delineate its boundary. Or, put the other way, in order to define a system it is necessary to define its boundary. Thus the drawing of a boundary is in fact the most primitive systemic act that one can perform.”

Despite the foundational role of the concept of a boundary, current research of systems increasingly makes it clear that these boundaries are porous. The distinction between what is part of a system and what is not becomes problematic, and raises the challenge how to conceptualize boundaries that divide and include at the same time.

Boundaries and Legal Authority in a Global Context

There is widespread agreement that the enormous growth of cross-border human activities increasingly calls into question the regulatory capacities of the territorial state. Yet the broader conceptual and normative significance of these developments remains the object of protracted debate.  One of the central conceptual problems consists in establishing how (spatial) boundaries and boundary contestation continue to play a decisive role in making sense of legal orders in a global context, where processes of inclusion and exclusion are no longer exclusively linked to the forms of closure proper to the territorial state. This de-centring of boundaries and boundary contestation from the territorial state raises important normative questions concerning legal authority.  What renders authoritative the acts of setting legal boundaries in a global context? Moreover, what are appropriate and effective institutional mechanisms by which such authority can be contested? The project blog can be accessed here.