A political boundary is the area of land on a map that separates regions of government such as states and nations.
Political boundaries allow societies to organize themselves, demarcate sovereignty over land, and avoid political disputes over land ownership.
The establishment of political boundaries is a central part of the process of nation-building. It involves dividing people into distinct administrative units.
There are various types of political boundaries including antecedent, consequent, cultural, defined, delimited, demarcated, and more.
Note that one boundary can be of multiple different ‘types’ simultaneously.
Types of Political Boundaries
1. Antecedent Boundaries
Antecedent boundaries are political boundaries that are based on prior agreements or treaties between two or more nations or states before the land was heavily populated by the respective nations.
An example of an antecedent boundary would be the border between the United States and Canada. This boundary was established in the Treaty of Paris in 1814 after the American War of Independence (Carroll, 2021, pp. 61-63).
The boundary helped to ensure there were few disputes between the two modern nations as they began to populate their areas of land and promoted peaceful relations between the two growing nations.
2. Consequent Boundaries
A consequent boundary is a boundary that has been created to separate two different or feuding cultural groups.
An example is the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, which was drawn as a consequence of disagreements between the majority Protestant north and the majority Catholic south on the island of Ireland.
Another example of a consequent boundary is the boundary between Israel and Palestine. This boundary was drawn in 1949 to separate the majority Jewish Israel from their majority Muslim neighbors.
The borders between Israel and Palestine have been in dispute for many decades because neither party can agree on where the boundary should be drawn.
3. Cultural Boundaries
A cultural boundary is a dividing line between two or more cultures.
An example of a cultural boundary is the border between the United States and Mexico.
The United States and Mexico are two very different cultures, and the border between them is a physical boundary that separates two very different societies (Pavlakovich-Kochi, & Morehouse, 2017).
Cultural boundaries can be difficult to cross. For example, immigrants who want to live in the United States must learn English, which is the dominant language in America.
Many immigrants find this difficult, and the border between the United States and Mexico is often perceived as a barrier that limits their opportunities.
4. Defined Boundaries
A defined political boundary is one that is specifically outlined by law or treaty.
It may be a permanent or temporary line, but it is always clearly defined within a legal document.
An example of a defined political boundary is the U.S. border with Mexico. The boundary is specifically outlined by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and it has been consistently enforced since then.
Other examples of defined political boundaries include the border between North and South Korea which was agreed upon to end conflict during the Korean civil war.
Each of these boundaries is clearly defined, and both sides are aware of the situation along each side of the boundary.
5. Delimited Boundaries
A delimited boundary is a geographic boundary that is drawn on a map. It is distinct from a demarcated boundary because it may not be actually visible on the landscape, but only on maps.
The only key factor to remember when understanding delimited boundaries is that they are ones that you can literally see have been drawn onto an official map.
An example of a delimited boundary is the border between the United States and Canada. The two countries have defined the border down to the exact location along the 49th Parallel.
6. Demarcated Boundaries
A demarcated boundary is physically identifiable on a landscape. You will see it as you approach it.
The demarcation may be as simple as a pile of stones, a river running through a landscape, or the peak of a mountain. Or, it could be as complex as a wire fence, military checkpoint, or even a line of landmines to prevent access.
An example of a demarcated boundary is the US-Mexico border. The border is a conceptual line that separates the U.S. from Mexico, but there are also physical barriers, like the US-Mexico fence (Trump’s wall!), that keeps people from crossing over (Ganster & Lorey, 2008).
Demarcated boundaries can be important for many reasons. For example, they can help to protect people and property on one side of the boundary from aggression or theft on the other side.
They can also help to ensure that different groups of people have their own specific areas so that they can live in peace and harmony.
Demarcated boundaries can also be important for economic reasons. For example, they can help to ensure that a country protects important resources, like oil or fishing grounds.
7. Economic Boundaries
An economic boundary is one that sets the borders between economic regions.
A colloquialism for this is often that people live “on the other side of the tracks”. This saying comes from the idea that towns are separated into the rich and poor parts of town based on which side of the railway tracks you live on.
Similarly, the divide between the two sides of Berlin during the Cold War could be seen as an economic boundary (as well as a demarcated boundary) because the west was wealthy while the east crumbled under communism. To this day, east Berlin remains economically poorer.
Historically, economic boundaries also separated social castes within a society, whereby people of lower castes were sent to live in less desirable areas.
8. Geometric Boundaries
A geometric boundary is a boundary that is defined by a specific geometric shape. An example of a geometric boundary is a boundary that is defined by a straight line.
Another example is a boundary that is defined by an Arc.
There are a number of reasons why geometric boundaries can be important for defining political boundaries:
- First, geometric boundaries are easy to remember and understand.
- Second, geometric boundaries can be easily mapped onto physical maps.
- Third, geometric boundaries can be used to define different types of boundaries, such as political, economic, and territorial boundaries.
The Canada-U.S border is an excellent example of a geometric boundary. It is a straight line that separates two countries.
However, geometric boundaries are often criticized because they do not acknowledge geographical or cultural factors that should be considered when boundaries are drawn.
For example, the geometric boundaries drawn after the Second World War may have been convenient on a map, but failed to carve out space for the ethnic Kurds to have their own nation.
9. Militarized Boundaries
Militarized boundaries are boundaries that are heavily guarded by military forces. They are often used to protect countries from invasion or to control the movement of people and goods.
An example of a militarized boundary is the border between North and South Korea. The Korean War (1950-1953) created this boundary, and the U.S. military is still responsible for guarding it.
The boundaries between countries like Syria and Turkey are also militarized. The governments of these countries have sent their military to control the border and prevent hostiles from crossing from one side to the other.
10. Natural Boundaries
A natural boundary is a geographical feature that separates two or more political entities, such as states, countries, or provinces. In this sense, it is similar to a demarcated boundary, but is always defined by a natural rather than man-made structure.
For example, the Rocky Mountains serve as a natural boundary between the U.S. states of Colorado and Wyoming. Another example is the English Channel, which separates the United Kingdom from France.
Natural boundaries can be important for many reasons. For example, they can protect valuable resources, such as oil and gas reserves, from being pillaged by one country or province from another.
11. Open Boundaries
Open boundaries are political boundaries that have no fences or barriers. They are generally unmarked and are often difficult to see.
Open boundaries are used in cases where the two countries share a long, open border. For example, the border between the United States and Canada is an open boundary. There are no fences or barriers between the two countries, and the border is easily visible.
This type of boundary is often used in cases where two countries have a strong relationship and want to avoid any potential conflict or tension between the two countries.
In other situations, the term is used only to describe boundaries where people can cross the border freely. For example:
- States in the USA have open boundaries that allow people from one state to travel to another for work or to live.
- In the UK, citizens can travel between Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and England freely.
- In the European Union, all nation-states must allow freedom of movement and work.
12. Relic Boundaries
A relic boundary is a type of political boundary that is no longer used but is still visible on the landscape as a cultural artifact.
An example of a relic boundary is the border between East and West Berlin before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The boundary is no longer used to regulate people or goods, but it is still recognized by the government as the official dividing line between the two parts of the city.
Another example is Hadrian’s wall, which was a wall that marked the edge of the Roman Empire on the British Isles. It was occupied on and off between AD122 and about AD410, after which Roman rule of Britain was relinquished.
13. Superimposed Boundaries
Superimposed boundaries are boundaries that are drawn without the consent or consultation of locals.
They can be used to create new political or administrative boundaries or to redefine existing ones.
Superimposed boundaries can be very controversial, as they can often result in clashes between different groups who claim ownership of the same land.
One example of superimposed boundaries is the carving-up of the Middle East and Africa by colonizers. These often left cultural groups separated by arbitrary demarcated boundaries.
For example, the Berber ethnic groups span nations including Libya, Algeria, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso, despite the fact many were not politically separated prior to colonization.
14. Subsequent/Ethnographic Boundaries
A subsequent or ethnographic boundary is a boundary created after two groups have settled there. It is the opposite of an antecedent boundary, which was established prior to settlement.
They’re often established to ensure ethnic groups have their own sovereign land. It is often used to separate different groups of people based on their ethnicity or cultural background.
Subsequent boundaries are different to consequent boundaries because consequent boundaries are always established as a consequence of conflict. By contrast, a subsequent boundary could be established due to either diplomatic negotiation or conflict. It’s a term that’s mostly used as the binary opposite of antecedent boundaries.
An example of a subsequent boundary is the border between Israel and Palestine. This boundary was created in 1948 after the Israeli Declaration of Independence and the British Mandate for Palestine. The subsequent boundary is based on religious, ethnic, and linguistic differences between the two countries.
Political boundaries are the lines that separate countries, states, and other political divisions. They can be natural features such as rivers or mountains or man-made features such as roads or borders.
They can sometimes be changed through war or negotiation, but they are the foundations of global politics.
Political boundaries also help to define and protect the rights of different groups of people, and they help to ensure that different groups of people can live peacefully together. They are an important part of society and are vitally important for the protection of human rights.
Carroll, F. M. (2021). A Line of Blood and Dirt: Creating the Canada-United States Border across Indigenous Lands. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ganster, P., & Lorey, D. E. (2008). The US-Mexican border into the twenty-first century. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Pavlakovich-Kochi, V., & Morehouse, B. J. (2017). Challenged borderlands: transcending political and cultural boundaries. London: Routledge.
Williams, P. (2011). West Virginia: The state that said no. The Washington Post. Retrieved 15 March 2022, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/west-virginia-the-state-that-said-no/2011/03/30/AFLxJrQD_story.html
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.