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Political Borders and Cross-Border Identities at the Boundaries of Europe

Reviewer: Joseph A. Kotarba


Political Borders and Cross-Border Identities at the Boundaries of Europe

Edited by John Borland, Graham Day and Kazimierz Z. Sowa. Rzeszów: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Rzeszowskiego, 2002. 259 pages. Paper.

The papers in this collection were originally presented in a workshop on cross-border relationships held at the International Institute for the Sociology of Law in Onati, Spain. The Rzeszów Pedagogical University and the University of Wales Bangor jointly organized the workshop. The International Sociological Association provided financial assistance.

When I first read these acknowledgements, I was leery of reading the rest of the book. Books derived from scholarly panels are often comprised of disconnected, unrelated, and underdeveloped essays. My question as an American sociologist was: what meaningful intellectual, let alone empirical, link could there be between recent Central European experiences of borders, boundaries, and identities, and similar experiences in the British Isles? The answer is that, although the essays are a bit uneven, the links are definitely there. We get a glimpse of the generic social and demographic processes that guide the evolution of cross-border relationships. The book is especially useful in providing a European view on immigration for American scholars who focus overwhelmingly on migration issues in the Western Hemisphere.

Two of the editors, Graham Day and John Borland, argue in the introduction that the evolution of the European Union (EU) is sufficient cause to examine the notion of "modern Europe." The evolution of the EU has not, however, been even. Over the past few hundred years the countries of Central Europe have been pulled to the East and have found themselves under the influence of Russia, for better or, mostly, for worse. Thus, "Central Europe has suffered a tumultuous and bloody political history, during which frontiers have changed, allegiances have been tested, and identities have been uncertain and insecure" (p. 10). In contrast, the countries on the western edge of Europe have experienced more stability and considerably more economic and social development.

With the advent of the New Europe, all bets are off. As borders become increasingly formal and set, populations, and therefore identities, do not. Minorities become visible, verbal, and often contentious. Migration continues, and in many different directions. This collection of essays leaves the reader with the impression, though, that the New Europe simply uncovers the ongoing complexities of fluid border and identity dynamics in Europe; the New Europe does not create these complexities.

Stanislav Andreski, a Polish sociologist living in Britain, provides a somewhat conservative portrait of migration from poor to rich societies. Professor Andreski makes the obvious point that people move to richer countries largely to improve their economic lot. He argues against the prevailing liberal viewpoint common in the United States which holds that immigrants contribute much more to the economy of the receiving country than they cost in term of social services and depressed wages. Instead, he predicts that ecological constraints, such as the costs of pollution and overpopulation, will result in increasingly rigid barriers to immigration in western European countries like Britain and Germany.

As an American, I found the chapters by Drs. Stepien, Wierzbieniec, and Ślezak fascinating because they illuminated the long-term conflict between Poland and Ukraine. For most of our lifetimes, a lazy mass media along with Communist hegemony have led us to believe that society and culture in the old Soviet Union were pretty homogeneous. These authors invoke the European sense of history to inform us that the great European powers Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Germany nurtured local conflict between Poland and Ukraine as a strategy of occupation. Consequently, it will take time and great effort to reduce remaining bad feelings between these two peoples.

In contrast, the demographic activity in the British Isles comes across as, well, considerably less interesting and less vital. Welsh nationalist thought? I guess I was expecting to read more (read something?) about the Northern Irish dilemma and South Asian immigration to Britain in a book on political borders and cross-border identities.

Good demographic research, like any scientific research, requires comparative analysis to generate useful theory. The present collection provides that comparison through Professors Bancroft's and Gordon's chapters on the Roma. The Roma provide a great case study because they are migrants par excellence, and they have been stigmatized and persecuted in many different ways. The Nazis tried to annihilate them, but they are resilient. To read about how they have been treated in Britain and the Czech Republic is to learn much about the border and identity processes in these two countries. During the Communist era, the Czech and Polish governments tried to assimilate the otherwise nomadic Roma by turning them into good, stable, socialistic workers. In contrast, British society has traditionally treated Roma as social outcasts susceptible to populist violence and ghettoization. In the 1990s, Czech officials attempted to solve the Roma problem by paying them to migrate to Britain, where they in turn were often treated as criminals for not arriving with the proper papers.

Bancroft very insightfully conceptualizes the Roma, or "Gypsy-Travelers" as they are known in Britain, as a paradox of modernity. On the one hand, Czech society rejects Roma because the Czechs do not want to be identified with the allegedly primitive and unsophisticated migrants in their efforts to Westernize. On the other hand, Roma are functional to their hosts to the degree they occupy the Simmelian role of the stranger. The stranger is valuable because he helps the host establish cultural and cognitive boundaries denoting identity. We may not be sure who we are, but at least we know we are not like the stranger.

This book will be of use to American scholars who study migration and dominant-minority group relations. We can learn much from the European experience, the history of which is longer than ours. Comparative research like this can help elevate migration research to a higher and more powerful theoretical level.


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