Context & Objective

Context and novelty

National borders usually are considered to constrain the international flow of products, services, people and capital. In order to promote more international interaction and more cohesive cross-border regions and European Union as a whole, the EU aims to dissolve borders between member states. However, as physical borders may be removed relatively easy, mental borders and images of 'otherness' can be incredibly 'sticky' (Van Houtum, 1999).

The project will look for uses of history in developing images of cultural identity, nationality and Europeanness and analyse how these are reflected in contemporary representations of borderlands. These images have, among others things, been shaped through different historical representations, and the project will study the changing contextual and conceptual frameworks that have informed these representations.

From a present-day perspective, the history of the construction of state borders is often presented in terms of national consolidation with a strong tendency to cartographically project modern territorial nation-states back to pre-Westphalian history (Pounds and Ball 1964). Even the heyday of the formation of national states can in some respects be seen as a trans-national European phenomenon with common fundamental changes in political language concerning the rule of law, legitimation of power, rights of the citizen etc. And, indeed, looking more carefully at later cultural representations of borders, we can in most cases recognise the simultaneity of ethnic-national and supra-national/European arguments and images used in order to legitimise borders.

Old mental representations of controversies, cooperation, differences and similarities between 'us' and 'them' can create both steady and changing borders - as clear signs of European times. Such representations may have a long lasting impact on cross-border practices. They could even obstruct a great deal of international mobility and diminish opportunities for cross-border cohesion and communities to develop. In this context, the concept of 'unfamiliarity' is often used to explain whether international differences encourage or discourage cross-border interaction (Bauman, 1995; Timothy, 1995; Molinsky, 2007; Valentine, 2008).

This concept of 'unfamiliarity' is used in many studies on borders and border regions to philosophically explain cross-border (im)mobility. However, no detailed and comprehensive empirical analysis of the concept has been undertaken so far within an internationally comparative framework. This collaborative research project aims to fill the gap by drawing on recent work from the main applicants on the so-called 'bandwidth of unfamiliarity' (Spierings & Van der Velde, 2008). This bandwidth aims to find empirically grounded and richer explanations for cross-border (im)mobility in the EU by focusing on the complex and dynamic interplay between 'rational' and 'emotional' differences between places on both sides of the border.

People seem willing to accept a certain degree of unfamiliarity and see 'appealing' differences as rational and emotional reasons to cross borders. International price or wage differences due to differences of national legislation, for instance, could generate mobility (Bygvrå & Westlund, 2004; Zimmerman, 2005). The same could be argued for different customs and material cultures (Haldrup & Larsen 2006; Edensor, 2007). As such, borders operate as 'crowd pullers' promoting international interaction. At the same time, a lack of appealing differences could hamper international mobility because people see no reason to go to 'the other side'. Unappealing differences may even obstruct international interaction. In fact, people may want to prevent uncomfortable situations in international contexts (Reicher et al., 2006; Tosun et al., 2007). They might feel uncertain when not well-acquainted with foreign languages and cultures for instance (Vandamme, 2000; Van Houtum & Van der Velde, 2004), which could cause borders to operate as 'crowd repellers', i.e. limiting international interaction.

unfa·mil·iari·ty (noun)

Meaning: Unusualness as a consequence of not being well known
Classified under: Nouns denoting attributes of people and objects
Synonyms: strangeness; benightedness, cluelessness, incognizance
Hypernyms ("unfamiliarity" is a kind of...): unusualness (uncommonness by virtue of being unusual)
Attribute: foreign; strange (relating to or originating in or characteristic of another place or part of the world)
Hyponyms (each of the following is a kind of "unfamiliarity"):
  • crotchet; oddity; queerness; quirk; quirkiness (a strange attitude or habit)
  • eeriness; ghostliness (strangeness by virtue of being mysterious and inspiring fear)
  • abnormality; freakishness (marked strangeness as a consequence of being abnormal)
  • singularity (strangeness by virtue of being remarkable or unusual)
  • bizarreness; outlandishness; weirdness (strikingly out of the ordinary)
  • quaintness (strangeness as a consequence of being old fashioned)
  • eccentricity (strange and unconventional behavior)
Antonym: familiarity (usualness by virtue of being familiar or well known)
Source:, Merriam-Webster, Inc.


The main objective of the collaborative proposal is to unravel how mental barriers for mobility are constructed and deconstructed in the minds of EU inhabitants, how historical commonalities and fractures have an impact on their representations of borders and ‘otherness’ and what influence political plan and media campaigns may have to change representations and create cohesive cross-border regions. It aims to find out what cross-border unfamiliarity means, how its experience changed during the course of time and still influences contemporary cross-border behaviour and why – uncovering historical explanations – experiences have changed and behaviour is influenced.

The collaborative proposal employs a relational notion of the border region, much in the social constructivist sense. Border regions are spaces where nationally defined cultures, political systems, institutions and economies meet. They are also transnational in nature, characterised by cross-border interaction and cultural overlap, generating their own specific ‘borderland’ identities. Inherent in the recent debate on the changing significance of state boundaries is the notion that their dividing character can be overcome through the development of local/regional transnational political communities.

Borders between (member) states are then understood here as mental representations instead of physical morphologies (Paasi, 1996). This implies that they are constructed via discourses which are mediated through many social and political institutions. History books, policy reports, ceremonies, memorials, newspapers, songs, stories and myths, for instance, perpetually reproduce borders in the mind of inhabitants (Newman & Paasi, 1998; Laven & Baycroft, 2008; Epstein, 2009). These mental representations are also continually reinterpreted and modified when social and political institutions develop. Personal experiences and governmental campaigns, for instance, may change one’s mind. As such, borders are dynamic mental ‘processes’ (Jones, 2009), which is constituted by interacting social and political representations as well as practices and clearly routed in history. In this context, the collaborative project closely investigates the ways in which inhabitants experience cross-border unfamiliarity and how they express this through their material cultures and customs combined with scrutinizing the discourses of identity and power used by government officials and the media sector.

To achieve the objective, the focus will be on an analysis of daily life practices of inhabitants in different ‘old’ and ‘new’ inner as well as ‘new’ outer cross-border regions across the EU. Their daily life is seen as expressing representations of cross-border unfamiliarity and (re)producing mental borders (Galasińska & Galasiński, 2005) – generating either international mobility or immobility. Such a focus will also open insights to promote more international interaction and regional cohesion.


This collaborative project uses a mixed method approach, using both quantitative and qualitative research (Flyvbjerg, 2001), to unravel the complexities of historical representations of otherness influencing contemporary daily practices in border regions. A macro level, quantitative analysis is made of practices generating either cross-border mobility or immobility. Representations of borders, border regions and 'neighbours' are qualitatively analysed at the micro level. Research on representations conceived in the mind is combined with research on practices performed on the ground to gain a holistic perspective on cross-border unfamiliarity and cohesion.

The quantitative analysis of cross-border (im)mobility and (non-)interaction between people living in cross-border regions will be made through surveys. The bandwidth of unfamiliarity will guide the design of these surveys, focusing on the interplay between and impact on practices of rational and emotional differences between places. Data originating from the surveys will be statistically analysed and will provide an important input for the qualitative part.

The qualitative part consists of an analysis of personal, political and media representations of borders, border regions and 'neighbours'. Here we will mainly use three sources. Oral life histories of EU inhabitants living in border regions will be reconstructed through in-depth interviews to gain rich insights in personal experiences. Written documents will be collected to find political and media representations. In-depth interviews will also be undertaken with government officials and representatives of the media sector to achieve a much better understanding of the meaning and reasons for making these documents. Historical archives will be used to further investigate historical commonalities and factures, as mentioned during in-depth interviews and found in documents. The transcripts of interviews and the texts coming from documents will be discursively analysed. The resulting data will be used to contextualise and find more detailed and better grounded historical explanations for the found contemporary practices as performed in cross-border regions