GEOG 571
Intelligence Analysis, Cultural Geography, and Homeland Security

4.4 Borders, Boundaries, and Scaling Identity


When people think of borders, they often think of international boundaries or internal boundaries within national boundaries. Obviously these boundaries and borders can be created by or impact a person or group’s identity. When thinking about national boundaries these identities can often take the form of nationalistic and separatist sentiments, movements, and identities, which will be covered extensively in the next lesson.

International and internal political boundaries, however, are not the only scales by which identity can manifest and/or create boundaries. Think about the United States and the regional divisions that cross state lines: there are cultural, dialectical, and even culinary differences between these regions. When you think about grits, hush puppies, barbeque, and the word “y'all,” where do you think of? Anecdotally, when I was younger, I moved from New England to the South. Driving along the way, we stopped at a McDonald’s in southern Virginia for a burger, and I discovered that mustard was included on the burger as a standard. In New England, this was not the case, it was only ketchup. While distinct border lines are difficult to draw, as it tends to be a gradual shift, many Americans’ identities are shaped by these regional differences.

These types of identities also occur in much more localized settings. Think of the neighborhoods within a city: Little Italy, Chinatown, Koreatown, and the list continues, where different ethnic groups cluster together and create bounded areas of familiarity that are recognized not only by the community they include but by others as well. Wen et al. (2009) lay out the premise for these ethnic neighborhoods, especially in the United States, as related to immigrant circumstances upon arrival in the United States: often they didn’t speak English and did not have a job. Due to these circumstances, immigrant communities often formed enclaves where language, culture, and other characteristics were similar and provided a sense of identity and belonging. While this phenomenon is still present in many large cities, like New York, Los Angeles, and Houston, Wen et al. (2009) also provide evidence for the establishment of ethnic communities and “ethnoburbs” outside of large metropolitan areas, providing another avenue for the solidification of ethnic identities outside of city centers. Research of this kind at a more localized scale is often difficult, as data is often sparse and not collected at the scale required for such an analysis. Logan et al. (2011) was able to test three methods of delineating neighborhood boundaries from point data from the 1880 census, using GIS to delineate potential neighborhood boundaries. Their methods allowed for both discrete delineations and transitional delineations; however, there were no assessment mechanisms to determine which method is correct. More data and research in this vein would be very useful in understanding ethnic neighborhoods in both urban and suburban environments, as ethnic boundaries serve to help create a sense of community and identity for ethnic groups and demonstrate that boundaries occur at a variety of different scales, depending on the context.


Logan, J. R., Spielman, S., Xu, H. and Klein, P. (2011). Identifying and bounding ethnic neighborhoods. Urban Geography, 32(3), 334-359.

Wen, M., Lauderdale, D. S., and Kandula, N. R. (2009). Ethnic neighborhoods in multi-ethnic America, 1990-2000: Resurgent ethnicity in the ethnoburbs? Social Forces, 88(1), 425-460.