Current project: Just Borders. Peoples, Territories, and the Rights of Place

fenceToday most people think of borders as the shores of an island. Just as beaches delimit a castaway’s desert realm, so borders define the distinct edges of an independent territory, occupied by a unified identity group, who legitimately own the land. This Desert Island model is so pervasive that most people do not see it as a model; they simply believe that this is what borders are. Moreover, the model goes hand in hand with a theory that says we owe special political obligations chiefly to those who share our collective identity. This identity may be national, ethnic or a civic, and it grounds the idea of self-determination. Hence both the Desert Island model and this theory of special obligations come from an approach to territorial politics that sees everything through the lens of identities dividing “us” from “them.” This model, however, leads to a dilemma when it comes to legitimizing territory: either we sort identities into well-defined territories in order to ground territorial rights in the principle of self-determination (thus risking identitarian violence and virulent xenophobia); or we embrace diversity within territories but then have no way to determine who are members of the people in a democracy or why the borders of a territory are legitimate.

My book argues that that is a false dilemma, because the identity approach to territorial politics does not exhaust our options. Long buried under the Desert Island Model’s utopian ideals, there lies an alternative tradition that we could call Topian. Rather than seeing territory as the property of a unified identity group, the Topian tradition focuses on how place and geography shape a group. Just Borders draws upon this tradition to offer a place-based approach to territorial politics. On this approach, borders, territories, and special obligations are grounded on the concrete features of the places they connect and divide, and in respect for the place, for its natural features, and for the network of concrete duties that keep it functioning as a located institution. The book therefore defends a place-sensitive theory of special political bonds, according to which everyone has special obligations to those present with them in a given place. These non-identitarian duties I call “place-specific duties.” On this foundation, the book argues that borders and jurisdictional rights are grounded on place, rather than identity. On this view, a people or a nation does not own a territory; rather, a territory emerges from local socio-natural relations and institutions, which scaffold up to constitute territories, public spaces, and demos based on presence.

Using place-specific duties as a basis, the book models the borders of states as watersheds instead of as shores. A watershed is a ridge that marks the drainage trajectory in a water basin. Just Borders proposes that we see borders as analogous to watersheds, and territories as analogous to water basins, in that borders determine relations and connect jurisdictions, rather than separating a territory from the outside. Instead of the native/alien divide pushed by the Desert Island model, in the Watershed model the distinction between the inside and the outside comes from differences in the type of relations and institutions that obtain on each side of the border line. In the Watershed model, it is not identity and property alone that determine political bonds: presence and participation in systems involving geology and biota also determine those bonds. The then book applies the place-based approach to questions about how to deal with immigration, transnational resources, and border walls.


Below are some links to my work on this project.

In May 2015 I discussed my current work on Borders in a seminar co-taught with Joe Carens in the Sydney School for Critical Social Thought. Here’s the poster

:Sydney School



In fall 2014 I gave a talk at the University of Louisville. Here’s the poster:




In summer 2014 I gave a talk at the Seminario de Etica Política y Filosofía Pública at CIDE in México City. The presentation was co-sponsored by the Sociedad Mexicana de Filosofía Aplicada.

In Spring 2014 I participated in the conference Architecture, Urban Space and Democracy, at the Princeton University Center for Human Values, and the conference Making and Justifying Territorial Claims at the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies.

In 2012 I organized a Conference at Yale on The Ethics and Politics of Border Barriers.  Here’s the poster

Borders Conference Poster

In 2012 Stuart Elden discussed the conference in his blog Progressive Geographies

In January 2014 I gave a talk at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana, entitled “¿Qué tienen de malo los muros de la frontera?  Here’s the video (In Spanish):