Community, belonging, identity

Yesterday, Andrea Nightingale visited IDS and we had a discussion about ‘boundary-making’. Her research in Nepal looks critically at what boundaries mean, how they are made, and how they are constantly being remade and renegotiated. From purity codes, caste, class and gender boundaries, to disagreements about access to water, boundaries shape people’s lives, but they’re also strangely elusive things.

Boundaries can be things you can touch or see, but also symbolic, unstable, unspoken, boundaries between ideas as well as creatures, boundaries in time as well as space. Sometimes they don’t make sense, and you get a chance to challenge and unmake them. Sometimes you only realise a boundary’s there when you try to cross it.

We didn’t talk about Brexit yesterday but it made me reflect on it again. Today the UK leaves the EU and begins the long process of renegotiating trade deals and arrangements around the world. This morning, the Leave-supporting MP Gisela Stuart said on the radio that “the leave vote was about community, belonging and identity and whether you agree with that or not I don’t think you should sneer at it.” OK, but are we allowed to think critically about it?

Brexit has always been about more than the technical withdrawal from an economic trading bloc. How much is it about boundary-making? Boundaries are being redrawn and remade before our eyes. Some of these of course are sensory, we’ll be able to see if ports are expanded and border controls tightened, there will be more paperwork for certain things, we’ll get a different flavour of chicken in the supermarket.

Some boundaries are a bit more fuzzy, though. Is the Irish border a set of technical challenges, to be overcome with computers and checkpoints – is that what the border means to people?

Overnight, thousands of people find themselves on the wrong side of a boundary, without even having to leave the house. Others will celebrate that familiar boundaries have been re-asserted. Community, belonging, identity. In remaking a boundary a lot of things happen.

Boundaries are also about people’s ideas of what’s natural, acceptable, what people will stand for or stand up to, who gets access to things, how people look at you when you speak a foreign language on the bus, the things you allow yourself to think about and hope about. The limits you put on numbers and the resources you allow to be stretched.

The EU was never a utopia. It always worked better for some than others. And beyond our own coasts, hundreds of miles away there are even harder borders, in Greece, Italy, Hungary. There are internal borders too, of class, race, gender, citizenship and so on. They’re not immovable and eternal. They cost money, time, energy and heartbreak to maintain and sustain them.

Political moments of very widespread and radical change are not that common in the UK, but it feels like one of them is happening now. As the boundaries of Britain are being remade and renegotiated a lot of people will be looking at the terms of trade, the practicalities of getting goods in and out, how it’s all going to work.

But it’s also a good moment to look at how boundaries themselves are made, who makes them, who has the authority to set and maintain them. What power and force keeps them in place? What cultural assumptions allow us to accept them? What are the right conditions to make a challenge to them? Which invisible boundaries are being set up or removed, and how will we know when we come across them?