Constructing Maps

The Ground Without Foundation? Terrirtory as a Social Construct,” by Tuomas Forsberg, Geopolitics, Vol 8 No 2 (Summer 2003), pp 7-24,

This article joins the growing series of readings and writings (presumably) leading up to International Law as a Social Cognitive Battlespace. Also fascinating because of the emphasis on Geography, maps, and other fun stuff.

During the past decade, constructivism broadly understood (encompassing postmodernism) entered and gained a lot of ground in virtually all branches of social sciences. Constructivism seemed to radically challenge established views and truths; in the constructivist genre, territory is not what it used to be, namely stable, objective and immune to human thought, since in the view of constructivists, even physical objects such as territory, are (re)created in and through the human discourse. One of the most famous but simultaneously also contested constructivist interpretations was offered by Jean Baudrillard, according to whom maps are more real than territory, as they have replaced the territory they were meant to describe. Others rather emphasised the linguistic elements of social construction: space is narrated and borders are metaphors. As a result, it has become possible to describe national borders as ‘political constructs, imagined projections of territorial power’ that reflect ‘merely the mental images of politicians, lawyers and intellectuals’.

This reconceptualisation of territory along the constructivist lines opened new and refreshing avenues for research and set up the movement of critical geopolitics. Yet, a problem in a lot of constructivist literature is something that Thomas Osborne calls ‘a macho constructionist view’ (’Look here! You thought this or that was natural but it’s not, it’s constructed all along’) of territoriality. Suddenly there was no meaningful distinction between material boundaries and symbolic ones, between real and virtual space, or between territories and flows. Much of the confusion may also have derived from the fact that spatial expressions became fashionable among postmodernists, for example Deleuze and Guattari regarded territorialisation as any institution that restricts the free flow of individual desire.7 It was thus no wonder that Alan Sokal’s famous parody article in Social Text was entitled ‘Transgressing Boundaries’. At the same time, geographers who were analysing postmodernity, such as Edward Soja and David Harvey, were probably more Marxist than postmodern.

A strong constructivist view of territory is partly trivial and partly misleading. It is trivial because objects of the material world cannot be understood without human interpretation. Discussing different ideational constructions of territories and borders, such as mental maps, contractual character of boundaries or the identity value of territories, has been part of political geography and international relations long before recent theoretical innovations. It is misleading because social constructions are always constructions of something; hence they are not entirely arbitrary and people are not able to design the world deliberately according to their wishes. Therefore constructivist insights should not be seen in contradiction with realist ontology. The view that the importance of the material world depends on dynamic normative and epistemic interpretations of that world, does not necessarily deny that there is a reality beyond the discourses. Surely, territorial boundaries are often very concrete manifestations, but we can still be interested in how the normative and symbolic elements shape and often override the direct material effects of geography.

A social constructivist view of territory does not deny the existence and effects of physical borders. Borders that simply separate people because they are obstacles that are difficult to overcome are not yet socially constructed borders. But if we suppose that people recognise that a line of stones also creates rights and obligations, such as that it is forbidden to cross the line, then we can speak of a symbolisation. State borders cannot be understood without those rights and obligations we have connected to them. Social constructions can be more or less ‘rational’; a certain concept of territory or borders is not necessarily more ‘rational’ if it is devoid of symbolic meanings. In Pierre Hassner’s view, for example, territory seen as sacred land, seat of power, and functional space, is a compromise between the mythical aspect and a rational or pragmatic one.

Social constructivists are primarily interested in intersubjectively constructed meanings, not just private perceptions and cognitions. The construction of territory and borders rests on subjective views, but it is not that individuals, be they laymen, policy-makers or scientists, construct the meanings whenever they explain them. Social entities that depend on collective understandings resist individual views of them, because the constructions are real. Hence, any analysis of how a certain group or actor has constructed social reality requires an analysis of how a particular construction became more widely shared than other constructions by the relevant collective. The Westphalian system of states, for example, emerged and developed over time, and its existence has been a fact that individuals could not escape. A number of factors affect how the system is changing, and some of them are surely material, such as the ability of nation-states to acquire and use military power.

Territory is important for ethnic groups for slightly different reasons. Anthony Smith argues that ethnie always possess ties to a particular locus or territory which they call their own. In his view territory is relevant to ethnicity not because it is actually possessed nor even for its ‘objective’ characteristics of climate, terrain and location but because of an alleged and felt symbiosis between a certain piece of earth and ‘its’ community. It is the mythical and poetic character of territory that counts. Many places such as ancient centres, historical battlegrounds, holy places and monuments or areas of natural beauty are central in the national memory and imagination. Although homelands typically entail such ideas of sites of historical memory, even ordinary landscapes can acquire an ethnic significance in the consciousness of modern generations. Yi-Fu Tuan argues that attachment to homeland is a common human emotion and it can grow simply with familiarity and ease without any explicit concept of sacredness. Territory offers a sense of roots and belonging for all individuals. Consequently, the loss of homeland is often a very dramatic experience. Although people may be able cut emotional ties to their homeland, memories of lost territories with familiar and sacred places may last well over generations. Although such processes are partly subconscious, there is a degree of choice to what extent memories are kept alive. States typically normalise territorial gains faster than the losses, but former territories can sometimes be quickly depicted as foreign when the new territorial identity of the state has become rooted in the mindset of the people [shades of BF Skinner — tdaxp].4

Nationalism and statehood are built on many elements, and the link of territory can be weaker or stronger depending on each case. Its strength varies among different cultures and historical periods. Processes of socialisation and normalisation contribute to the understanding of what is elementary for a state and where the borders of the homeland lie. Creating the idea of spatial unity, teaching the boundaries and presenting visual maps with sharp lines and different colours underlines the cartographic background elements of state and national identity. Thus a particular representation of social space is firmly connected to the social order.

Organic conceptualisation of state territory further underlines its value. For example, for Russians the concept of ‘Russian land’ is emotionally loaded. It is more than the place where they live, it is the body upon which they are dependent; it is Mother Russia. Similarly, for many Germans, ‘Heimat is first of all the mother earth that gives birth to our folk and race’. Indeed, whereas power is masculine, space is often feminine. Territorial invasion by the other is penetration that equals rape. If a great power is stripped off its buffer zones, it can find itself ‘naked’ and vulnerable. Anthropomorphic characterisations of territory have been common throughout histories. The upshot of these metaphors is that because land is female it has to be protected and it is the duty of man to die if necessary in fighting for the defence of the land.

Moreover, when a territorial identity of a state takes the form of a (female) body, it is sometimes reflected even by the physical shape of the state. Finland, for example, was often characterised as maiden, having her head and two raised arms in the north. In the Second World War the Maiden of Finland, however, lost the other arm. As a consequence the image is easily created that Finland has been dismembered and is not a whole – argument that is used by some representatives of the pro-Karelian movement. Similarly, when India was partitioned in 1947, in Jawaharlal Nehru’s words, it meant a break up the body of India.48 The physical shape of India, in turn, can be depicted as a heart. In a similar vein, West Bank can be called the beating heart of Israel, which underlines the indispensability of the territory to the country as a whole.49 In the context of Turkey, as well, territory is conceived as a body. Ola Tunander has argued that the recognition of local ethnic rule has been perceived as a territorial retreat. It is seen as a weakening of the state and comparable to the loss of an arm or a leg or as an amputation of part of the body of the nation itself. Because there are several ethnic minorities, the Turks have been worried that the loss of one limb could be followed by a loss of another, ending up with a state body bleeding to death.

In other words, because territory is constitutive of the identity of a state, states value territory beyond its ’rational’ strategic and economic importance. Similarly, nations value territory simply because it is their home, it belongs to them and nobody else. Consequently, nation-states have a double tie to territory that may explain the central place of territorial questions as a source of violent conflict during the past centuries. If territory is conceived as a part of the identity of states and nations, it can very well explain the tendency of territorial disputes to be dangerous. For example Erik Ringmar has argued that states can start wars in order to get recognition for their identity rather than for reasons of national interests based on any pre-existing identity [implies IL can cause wars? — tdaxp]. In his view actions that are undertaken in defence of an identity are of a peculiar kind. They are not rational actions but instead of actions that make rational actions possible. Such action is, in Ringmar’s words, undertaken ‘in self-defence in the most basic sense of the word – in defence of the applicability of our descriptions of ourselves’.

The international regime that emphasises territorial integrity and makes peaceful changes of territory difficult is a double-edged sword, because norms both prevent and launch disputes and violent conflicts [normas as war-creators — tdaxp]. On the one hand, commitments to norms such as territorial integrity have constituted the cornerstone of international law. A tight regime clearly prevents territorial disputes from emerging. On the other hand, once norms have been broken, a strong commitment to uphold these norms may lead to more rigid positions. The difficulty to achieve territorial changes by peaceful means may militarise such disputes. The Balkans may be only one recent example of such processes.

Indeed, territorial claims are often motivated by the sense of injustice. For Welch, territorial issues are among those issues that are most likely to trigger strong feelings of injustice in international affairs. Murphy argues that territorial claims refer almost always to territories that have been wrongfully taken away. In his view, the emergence of historical arguments as the dominant form of conflict justification in the post-Second World War era can be understood only against the backdrop of the development of modern international law and its relationship to national territorial sovereignty. Stephen Kocs, in turn, has come to the conclusion that the legal status of states’ boundaries appears to be a very powerful predictor of interstate war in the contemporary world. When explaining territorial conflict, he argues, we need to take more seriously states’ international legal obligations as explanations.

In the course of this article, I have tried to systemise the constructivist approach and sharpen some constructivist claims regarding territory. In doing so, I have been able to contrast constructivist claims with sociobiological theories of human territoriality or rational choice theories that emphasise the materialist economic and strategic value of territory. Although territorial entities may bear different kinds of symbolic meanings such meanings cannot be confused with social construction of territory. I have argued that two such specific constructions are especially prevalent and may help explain the tendency to defend territory by military means. First, territory is often conceived as a (female) body. Second, it is regarded as private property. Both metaphors are interwoven in normative structures that may explain why people fight over territory although in strategic and economic sense it would not be rational to do so. Although the argument for such a link in any particular context, not to say more generally, needs more empirical substantiation than here, the idea has been to demonstrate how social constructions shape human territoriality. Further research on territorial discursive practices on different geographical scales and historical and social contexts are certainly needed. It would be helpful if this research would focus on demonstrating how the constructions have been established in particular contexts and how they change, and finding out in what way and why the constructions differ from the norm or other similar contexts rather than describe the constructions and assert that they matter.

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