The formation of virtual spaces, territoriality, and sovereignty in a borderless world

Thoughts on the concept of ‘sovereign states’ in an inter-connected economic society from a socio-anthropological perspective

Sami Hamed
29 min readMar 18, 2022

Author’s note: This essay was written in Summer of 2016 during my social anthropology studies at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. Six years later, it is still relevant as national borders are being renegotiated by political and military force in Ukraine and the resulting movement of people, goods and information emphasises the complexity of an economy-driven world interconnected across sovereign states. In this essay, I talk about geographical borders of nation-states and how economic globalisation and technological innovation have changed the power of sovereign nations over their citizens as well as how they led to the implementation of new mechanisms to control the movement of people, goods and information within a supranational society.

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The inside vs. the outside — Microscopic and national borders

Let’s start with a biological example of borders. The cell membrane of a human cell encloses the internal organelles and determines which substances can enter the cell. It regulates the supply of nutrients to the cell, thereby ensuring that the cell can perform its function. For example, insulin is produced in the β-cells of the pancreas, which causes blood glucose levels to drop elsewhere in the body. To ensure that this process is not disrupted and that the cell system continues to function, the different cell types engage in an interactive exchange despite their physical demarcation from one another.

Demarcation of an inside from an outside is also found in many areas of cultural anthropology. The subdivision of spaces occurs at different levels. This ranges from discussions of biosecurity and the containment and control of pathogens at the micro-scale (Bingham 2008), to research on the European Union’s external geographic borders, where attempts are made to control migration processes in a tense environment (Carr 2015).

This essay discusses how the concept of borders can be viewed from different angles of global economy, law, and mobility, elaborates on a shift in the formation of boundaries, and analyzes paradigm shifts in the description of those borders. The focus is on the formation and fluidity of the national borders of sovereign states and the mechanisms of assignment of social, as well as political groups and economic organizational structures. Considering the work of Saskia Sassen (Sassen 1996, 2008), an attempt is made to depict the development of modern nation-states and to place their demarcation from one another in the 21st century in a political and economic context.

The concept of political sovereignty plays an essential role in this discussion. Space and border are identified as fluid constructs in exchange with each other. In her work “the anthropology of space and place” (Low 2003), the cultural anthropologist Setha Low explains that technological innovations in the field of global mobility and the acceleration of transport possibilities in the 21st century lead to a change in the formation of space (Low 2003: 28f). Against this background, this essay analyzes the linkage of geographic places in a translocal network of people, goods, capital, and physical, as well as virtual, movements.

Spaces exist as social, political, and economic constructs on multiple levels, from the individual space of a person (i.e. the human body), to the communal demarcation of a social group of trading partners in global spaces (i.e. international commerce companies), to alliances of sovereign nation-states (i.e. NATO).

To this end, this essay considers the human body and its potential to act as a mobile carrier of borders in translocal spaces. The technological progress of the last 30 years, in which the Internet has been made accessible to people and ubiquitous mobile communication has been standardized on a global level, leaves the impression that borders seem to be dissolving and the territorial sovereignty of nations is no longer sufficient as a theoretical basis for delimiting social and political spaces. Still, every individual human carries with them a collection of political, cultural and social borders wherever they go.

Geographical distance, it is argued, should no longer be a barrier, and spaces thus created are subject to constant change, guided by technological progress and political developments, but also by economic regulations (see Amilhat Szary 2015:4).

Spaces are translocal and borders are mobile, which can extend their effects into other parts of a global system. The cohesion or disintegration of these spaces and the role of demarcation in these processes are examined in this essay against the backdrop of technological change, mechanisms of control, and new forms of social organizational structures. Building on the results of this work, I pose the question of how boundaries can be empirically explored in anthropology today. Essential to this is the localization of the field, made up of transnational and translocal spaces.

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Embodied space and myths — The human mind as a carrier of mobile boundaries

Just as the β-cells of the pancreas have a physical cell wall, the human body also has a material boundary, constituted by its skin. In addition, however, it also has a representational reach (cf. Fodor 1998) that extends beyond the physical boundary of the body and into external spaces.

Setha Low attempts to unite these two images of the body with the concept of embodied space (Low 2003:2), thus linking the construction of the body as a physical and biological entity, as an accumulation of experience, and as a center of agency (cf. ibid.). The concept of embodied space represents an attempt to locate the result of connecting a physical body and its representational reach:

“Embodied space is the location where human experience and consciousness take on material and spatial form” (Low 2003:2).

In this view, in addition to the human physical body, a largely closed system to be located in its biological makeup, there also exists a social body that operates externally. Both bodies are connected by the skin, the outer boundary of the physical body. According to Low, the surface of the body represents a social boundary,

“a kind of common frontier of society which becomes the symbolic stage upon which the drama of socialization is enacted” (ibid.).

The skin is a person’s point of contact with their social and spatial environment and thus forms the point of connection between an inside and an outside. The emergence and encoding of this inside/outside difference is attempted by historian Yuval Noah Harari in his book “Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind” (Harari 2014) by looking at the early proliferation of myths. Initiated by a cognitive revolution in the period from about 30,000 to 70,000 years ago, during which physiological energy was diverted away from muscles into the neural system of Homo sapiens at that time, humans began to organize themselves into social groups (see Harari 2014:9). The use of tools and fire enabled Homo Sapiens and Homo Neanderthalensis (and probably other species of Tribus Homini) to adapt their diets, to cook food, and thus, unlike the related chimpanzees, to use fewer energy reserves for digestive purposes. From the resulting shortening of the digestive tract and the corresponding reduction of the energy consumption taking place there, two decisive changes resulted:

  • First, the shortened nutrient intake left the homini more time to seize the day.
  • Second, the technology of fire allowed users to take in proportionately more energy, regardless of their physical, muscular strength, and to develop stronger cognitive abilities through the surplus of calories and nutrients (see Harari 2014:14).

According to Harari, this very shift of energy as a resource in the biological body provides the basis for the coming together of larger social groups (cf. Harari 2014:25f). The linguistic abilities of Homo Sapiens enabled him to establish a trust system with other members of his group. Reliable statements about the trustworthiness and the social relationship between members of these groups led to a steady and closer group growth and new possibilities for cooperation. According to what he calls the “theory of gossip” (Harari 2014:26), that form of social coming together of Homo Sapiens would be the first step toward an interior as discussed earlier, an early structure of social belonging and early organizational logic around internal security structures.

Building on Homo sapiens’ ability to talk about their spatial environment and its inhabitants, Harari emphasizes the possibilities of language to have an impact beyond personal introspection (cf. Harari 2014:27). Language, in its multifaceted form, has the potential to describe things that do not exist in any material form, in addition to the acute description of the physical environment.

An initial form of fiction and mythology enabled homo sapiens not only to imagine non-existent things, but also to hold them in a collective memory:

“Historical and cultural narratives make complicated realities tangible through meaningful narratives and mediate both mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion” (Zachary 2016).

Agreement on these externalized myths and stories enabled people to rapidly adapt their behavior, to pass it on to the following generation independently of genetic mutations, and to integrate new behavioural patterns even without the need for genetic change. The encoding of internal and external difference is thus predisposed by mythology into personal affiliation. The result of this development is the ability of Homo Sapiens and its group to selectively adapt to the immediate environment. Communication within these groups enabled regional expansion and ultimately led to the displacement of Homo Neanderthalensis from Europe (cf. Harari 2014:19) and the spread of the Sapiens genome throughout the world. The idea of internal demarcation through cultural narratives and the shared mediation of an environment provides insight into the evolutionary history of internal and external difference and describes borders as a social means for cohesion, an organizational logic for security structures, but also as a means of distancing from other groups.

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National Borders — Differentiation Measures of Sovereign Ruling Systems

Against the previously discussed background, how do we justify the materiality of borders as we may know them in their linear form on world maps? How does the positing of an internal and external difference legitimize a territorial right to rule, and why does the concept of a border still have the nuance of territorial vocabulary today?

October 24th, 1648, marks the end of the Thirty Years’ War for Western Europe, as well as the turning point in a long process of transformation, the result of which was a social agreement on the existence of a national sovereignty of European states (Duchhart 1999; Amilhat Szary 2015).

Certainly, systems of physical demarcation through city walls and other difficult to overcome obstacles existed before, but this agreement legally legitimized the spatial demarcation of internal ideologies in European nation states.

The composition of the Westphalian system idealized nation-states in the following centuries as homogeneous and sovereign ruling entities that, through a strong separation of internal orders by means of territorial demarcation, justified the previously described internal and external difference not only with social belonging but also with territorial and thus material belonging. This historical step of a legal division of land areas consolidated the idea of material and linear borders at the edge of a political dominion and subsequently created the diplomatic possibility of international order in the European area.

The consolidated territory thus demarcated a region with material, as well as symbolic resources, and created a political collective entity characterized by economic and strategic markers on the geographical outer edge of sovereign nations (cf. Amilhat Szary 2015:10).

International borders did not provide a means for ubiquitous political peace in Europe and the world, but did lead to authoritarian legal systems that could be debated across territorial borders. The juxtaposition of sovereign states with equal rights did not take place to the exclusion of war as a means of enforcing political interests, but it did legitimize the monopoly of nations on the use of force in their own territorial space, which in many cases, fragmented by colonies, encompassed parts of the entire globe. The territorial expansion of sovereign nations nevertheless made it possible to locate ever-changing national borders on the basis of their geographical location.

Territorial borders in this sense formed the outer edge of a national monopoly on the use of force, which could be crossed by diplomatic interests between nations. This ideology of authoritarian and separate nations in the European space escalated in two world wars in 1914 and 1939, which were to significantly change the conception of territory, authority, and law (cf. Sassen 2008).

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The radicalized idealization of the German nation and the totalitarian dictatorship of the National Socialists from 1933 to 1945 ultimately required a supranational structure of rule that would no longer allow the localization of legal systems and territorial areas on the basis of national borders.

Diplomatic interests, which in the centuries before had still been constituted by the nobility close to the ruling class, increasingly sprang from the economic interest of the political economy, “which was built up as the bourgeoisie carved out for itself its own legal subject: a subject in possession of rights that began in the struggle against absolutism and the nobility as a legal nonentity” (Sassen 2008:171), paving the way for the emergence of industrial capitalism in an economically interconnected world.

With the end of World War II, the will of the people established itself as the legitimizing basis of political and legal sovereignty in a nation (see Sassen 1996:2). This redistribution within the nation shifted decision-making power to the interest of the people, but by no means marked the end of national borders.

The Berlin Wall formed a physical border, not only between the western Federal Republic of Germany and the eastern German Democratic Union, but in a political and geographical sense separated the world into different ideologies. Under the dominance of the United States, the capitalist-oriented Western states of Europe were separated by the Berlin Wall from the socialist-oriented Eastern states around the USSR. The fall of the Wall in 1989 seemingly marked the end of the Cold War and international polarization.

“The general consensus was that walls would disappear and borders would open” (Amilhat Szary 2015:4).

However, although international agreements such as the Schengen Agreement made national borders (selectively) more permeable and facilitated the movement of people in international space, the coming period of time marked not the free movement of citizens but the global expansion of the market economy.

While the territorial dimension of the national border remained largely intact, the movement of goods across those borders simplified many times over. The global economy transformed borders and shifted their claim to legitimacy into the hands of political economy and global jurisdictions. But if, as a result, jurisdiction and territory can no longer be arranged in the same two-dimensional space, national borders must be questioned and the relationship between economy and territoriality rethought. Just as the border systems of mythology and territory differ significantly, the category of an economic border system cannot be explained by previously given structures.

So how does one locate the borders of an inter- and supranational economy in a world sorted by national borders? It requires new powers of differentiation to establish hierarchy and togetherness.

At this point it must be said that my previous argumentation of the absolutism of the territorial external borders of a nation can only stand to the exclusion of mobility. What happens to a carriage from Germany, which for the first time touches French soil? Is the carriage henceforth French? And the passengers? And in the same, more modern sense; is an automobile that comes from a Japanese design forge Japanese if it drives on a German highway? How do we encode belonging while taking into account the global mobility of people, goods and, above all, information?

So far, three interacting dimensions have emerged that play a role in redefining affiliation in the 21st century:

  • a supranational legal system that organizes business and human rights in a supranational space,
  • a global economy,
  • and an accelerated mobility of people, resources, and data in many forms.

In the Control Society

Before attempting to analyze the impact of economic globalization on territorial national boundaries, it is necessary to address a transformation in society that was essential to the emergence of modern economic phenomena.

In his short essay “Postscript on the Societies of Control” (Deleuze 1992), the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze describes the transformation from a Fordist disciplinary society to a post-Fordist society of control (Kammerer 2011).

He thus continues the biopolitical thoughts of Michel Foucault, who describes the development of modern penal systems in Europe in his work “Surveillance and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison” (Foucault 1976), and adapts them to newly emerging control mechanisms within a global economy (cf. Deleuze 1992:4).

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In the previous disciplinary society, the state still organizes mechanisms of order and punishment. Closed systems such as the prison, the school, and, in the Fordist sense, the workplace (on the assembly line) position individuals in space and time (cf. Williams 2005).

Above the level of the individual human lays society, the human collective, in which humans are to be divided and which must be ordered. The individual, the inseparable, which in its constitution in the disciplinary society represents the smallest form of a fragmented society, dissolves further in the continuation of Foucault’s thought according to Deleuze and becomes fragmented in itself. It becomes a dividend, an endlessly separable human subject, which can be sorted in its fragments and brought closer to power and market structures:

“We no longer find ourselves dealing with the mass/individual pair. Individuals have become ‘dividuals’, and masses, samples, data, markets, or ‘banks’” (Deleuze 1992:5).

Let’s quickly dive deep into the idea of a dividual. A human being, the smallest fragment of society, is supposed to be in-divisible, hence the term individual. Modern supranational structures allow for human beings to rearrange their personal attributes and form various new bodies of their own fragments, through multiple political affiliations (i.e. through various citizenships), through multiple ethnical or cultural affiliations (i.e. mixed ethnic origins or migrational backgrounds), and multiple economical affiliations (as users and customers of businesses and services across national borders). Individuals become data bodies that can rearrange their attributes to form various new bodies relevant to various national or supranational systems.

The phenomenon of dividuals forces national states to move away from a system of punishment towards a system of control. Structures of domination and surveillance are consequently transformed into control mechanisms that no longer (exclusively) punish, but intervene in the accessibility of the (in-)dividual. Rather than punishing and surveilling individuals, the state selectively controls the access of dividuals to their various fragment bodies.

In his essay, Deleuze describes the thought experiment of his collaborator, Félix Guattari, who imagines access and cordoning off on the basis of electronic cards assigned to people in a city:

“Félix Guattari has imagined a city where one would be able to leave one’s apartment, one’s street, one’s neighborhood, thanks to one’s (dividual) electronic card that raises a given barrier; but the card could just as easily be rejected on a given day or between certain hours; what counts is not the barrier but the computer that tracks each person’s position — licit or illicit — and effects a universal modulation.” (Deleuze 1992:7)

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Control by computer technologies classifies people according to their different attributes and thus turns them into agents that can be classified into different political and economic systems and, above all, databases. This results in civil and political rights, as well as the social entitlements of citizens in (conservative) welfare states like Germany (cf. Sassen 1996:36f), but also in explicit divisions between people based on their socioeconomically assigned positions in subsystems.

This distinction becomes evident when access is given or denied. If we reduce the idea of control through distinction and classification to the crossing of national borders, three distinct groups immediately emerge that can be analyzed in this context:

  1. tourists, who use their personal (or foreign) capital to cross the territorial borders of their home country and enter other national systems;
  2. business travellers, who are led to other countries by the dynamic international trade relations of their companies; and
  3. (political) refugees, who cross national borders for various reasons to ensure their personal well-being.

The movements of the first two categories are motivated by economic motives, whereas the latter group enters foreign territories with other motivation. Relevant to this essay is the difference in the political treatment of the groups:

“when it comes to immigrants and refugees, whether in North America, Western Europe, or Japan, the national state claims all its old splendor in asserting its sovereign right to control its borders” (Sassen 1996:59).

Where the neoliberal state makes its borders permeable to tourists, businessmen, corporations, and data in the society of control, national borders take on a completely different form for political refugees. They continue to be confronted by the state as a ruling authority that has the prescriptive power not only to sort them into databases, but also to place them in space and time as in Foucault’s disciplinary society; seemingly with tools of punishment. For refugees, the regime of the nation-state seems to be one of restricted rights and authoritarian and punitive order, whereas the travellers of the global economy are assigned access rights accompanied by ubiquitous technical control (cf. Amilhat Szary 2015:12). This can be seen especially when comparing the personal freedom of movement between asylum seekers and seekers of residence permits. In the German system, the state authorities are empowered to place asylum seekers in space and time, while seekers of residence permits are granted freedom of movement and the opportunities to seek work across the country and its 16 states.

Deleuze describes this categorization of differentiated attributes of a dividend and the resulting allocation or denial of access rights using the terms watchword and password (Deleuze 1992:5).

With the term watchword, Deleuze describes the signature or number of an individual in the disciplinary society, which classifies them in the already described mass of society and thus makes them bureaucratically tangible and consequently monitorable.

For Deleuze, the password is the symbol of a society of control, a code that gives access to space. It is at once the allocation of differentiated attributes and the evaluation of a person’s activities. The mass no longer exists in its old form and evolves in the control society into the aforementioned technological systems around sampling, data, markets, and banks (ibid.). The password divides the individual and distributes it to the control structures of society that claim access to the individual data:

“The problem is not to use technology but to realize that one is used by it” (Virilio 2008:92).

National states use the watchword to identify and control the dividual’s (un-)fragmented national body. The dividual uses their password(s) to access spaces with their various fragmented bodies.

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Modern control mechanisms are decentralized and no longer necessarily legitimized only by the state. They are in the hands of economic actors, globally operating companies that seem to straddle geopolitical boundaries and form their own borders. But if these borders are then no longer predisposed to the static matter of territory, but are shaped by ubiquitous movement and logistics, what is the strategic basis of the controllers?

For economic actors, it is certainly capital and, increasingly, time, because, as they say, time is money.

Perhaps this is the reason for the division of the individual into data strands, because nowadays data can be transmitted and processed in real time and they have just this advantage over material goods, they are fast. In his books, French philosopher Paul Virilio describes speed as a crucial element in the production of wealth and military, strategic power (Virilio 2006). In his argumentation of the relation of speed, technology and war, he repeatedly refers to the military and its central role as the dominant social force and engine of technical and social progress.

Against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution, the two world wars, and the Fordist rationalization of labor power and time, this makes sense, but he neglects the institutionalizing potential of new technologies and media. This comes from a time in which military action was the main driver of technological innovation — this has changed with the upcoming of a supranational economy.

The strategic colonization of foreign territories and the construction of ever faster trade routes dissolved the dimension of distance and gave the European bourgeoisie of the 16th century wealth and strategic power. In the same sense, modern server farms in the hands of globally active private companies dissolve not only spatial distance but also the dimension of time, generating vast amounts of user data in real time and separating them, among other things also spatially, from the nation states in which they are generated. Just as trade routes granted colonists access to the colonies’ natural resources, nowadays, server farms grant companies access to supranational sets of customer and business data.

Digital data, it seems, knows no national borders and crosses them at a speed that a disciplinary society can no longer monitor.

How can the mobility of this data be classified in a society of control that differentiates inside and outside by national borders, and what legal or regulatory measures must be taken to determine the belonging of this fragmented data and to order it?

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Economic Citizenship

The emergence of a globally networked economy and mobile communication capabilities that can distribute information around the globe in real time significantly influenced and changed those institutions that once controlled and ordered society. In her book “Losing control? Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization” (Sassen 1996), sociologist Saskia Sassen discusses the hierarchical position of these institutions and their claim to political sovereignty in the context of a transnational economy. She questions whether national sovereignty and territoriality have a lower significance in international systems and calls for an understanding around a new geography of power in response to this problem (cf. Sassen 1996:5). In doing so, she analyzes three components of this new perspective on geography. Thus, she first refers to the territories in which, according to Sassen, responsible institutions pluralistically adapt to a global economy and globalization materializes (ibid.).

Institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) with their headquarters in Switzerland, the highly organized stock markets in New York, Frankfurt or Tokyo, and the rating agencies, private companies that assess the creditworthiness of companies as well as of individual financial products or even states, are shaping global markets and in the process breaking through previous limitations of recognized structures of power and the territorial boundaries that enclose them.

The second dimension encompasses the emergence of a new legal regime that determines cross-border transactions and drives the regulation of the global economy into the hands of the political economy:

“A rather peculiar passion for legality (and lawyers) drives the globalization of the corporate economy, and there has been massive amount of legal innovation around the growth of globalization” (Sassen 1996:5).

The third component describes the increasing number of economic transactions that are carried out in electronic space and seem to override territorially bound jurisdictions. Especially the shift of services into virtual structures makes it difficult for nationally oriented institutions to justify a geographical attribution of economic practices in legal terms. A juxtaposition or global-local dichotomy that attempts to separate the nation-state and the global economy is no longer sufficient at this point. Both systems would have to be mutually exclusive in this sense, which Sassen does not see as necessary. She sees an interplay between state supremacy and economic globalization that decentralizes national sovereignty and partially denationalizes territory (cf. Sassen 1996:28).

She justifies this process with the principle of economic citizenship (Sassen 1996:36) of private business enterprises. Citizenship again plays into the argumentation of a disciplinary or control society, which places the state as sovereign above the individual, be it a citizen or a company. However, Sassen does not emphasize the state affiliation of the citizen, but the accountability or accountability of the state to the same (cf. Sassen 1996:27). Primarily, however, she focuses her argumentation on the economic citizenship of private companies. Citizenship is understood as a principle of belonging whose claim to territoriality is deconstructed within the framework of alliances of states and agreements such as the Schengen Agreement.

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The Schengen Agreement allows EU citizens and selected non-EU citizens to move freely within the Schengen area while abolishing local border controls. Citizenship in this context is lifted out of the national-sovereign category and applied to a transnational system. The nation-bound relationship of the citizen to the sovereign state is dissolved and de-territorialized in favor of a supranational apparatus, the EU.

In a similar manner, economic citizenship thereby enables private enterprises to claim accountability to the state-bound institutions of respective nations and to build a transnational regime of economic jurisdiction based on the dynamics of economic globalization. These territorial and non-territorial processes need to be understood in order to explain the construction and dissolution of borders in light of global markets.

The global economy, on the other hand, is not a supranational power that invalidates the sovereignty of the state, but the product of denationalized economies in exchange with their geographical environment. It de-nationalizes “what had been constructed as national — be it politics, capital, political subjectivities, urban spaces, temporal structures” (Sassen 2008:18).

The complex construct of the nation-state remains; only its administrative practices are adapted to a space beyond the territorial border, leading to the “emergence of explicitly global processes and institutions” (Sassen 2008:20), which include the aforementioned institutions around the WTO, stock exchanges, and rating agencies. Geographical nodes are often found in the locales of global stock markets. New York, Tokyo, and Frankfurt constitute precisely these denationalized trading zones — not in the geographic sense of an urban space, but in the accumulation of regulations and other economic processes that emerge and are practiced there to ensure the flow of capital, information, and services in global space (cf. Sassen 1996:59; Urry 2000; Appadurai 1990).

Economic citizenship thus not only empowers business enterprises to influence the jurisdiction of individual or associated nation-states, but also establishes additional monitoring and punitive systems that regulate the comprehensive interactions of the global economy and establish their own control mechanisms in the form of creditworthiness and legal disputes.

Crossing Borders — Flows, Scapes and Translocality

In an era of denationalized institutions around global processes, a way must be found for cultural anthropology, as well as the other social sciences, to encode trans- and supranational processes and to consider belonging, like internal and external differences, in a new way.

However, as economic globalization is no longer limited to the transnational movement of material goods, but includes virtual services and mobile communication, an approach must be taken that encompasses multiple categories of goods and perspectives.

In his book “Sociology beyond societies: Mobilities for the twenty-first century” (Urry 2000), British sociologist John Urry calls for a paradigm shift around an increasingly de-territorialized world. Under the conditions of an economic globalization of society, the focus must be on physical and virtual movements of people, ideas and capital across national borders. Urry thereby tries to build a complex systems theory according to Niklas Luhmann (Luhmann 1984) around an exchange of societies (cf. Urry 2000:8). In doing so, he emphasizes the “inhuman globalization” (Urry 2000:12) brought about by machines, technologies, and physical environments and how they are integrated into and made inseparable from people’s practices.

Similar to ethnologist Arjun Appadurai’s concept of scapes (Appadurai 1990), Urry thereby describes the complexity and flexibility of global processes and analyzes them from different perspectives.

In his essay “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy” (Appadurai 1990), Appadurai examines five dimensions of global flow, which he labels:

  • ethnoscapes,
  • mediascapes,
  • technoscapes,
  • finanscapes, and
  • ideoscapes (Appadurai 1990:296).

With the help of these five dimensions of cultural-global currents, Appadurai identifies the conditions of economic globalization, the increasing speed of which makes the separation of scapes much more difficult. The interactions of these multifaceted scapes overlap spatial territories and thus reach across national borders, but neglect the institutional reach of sovereign states and their influence on the movement of people, goods, and services.

How do we describe an eternally litigating internal and external difference that admits no material boundary and is in constant flux through a juridically coded hierarchy of control systems?

How do we observe processes of adaptation within a national framework, considering the multiple possible vantage points that technologies, finance, media, and politics allow?

And how do we locate the translocal in the (geographically) local?

Setha Low uses the term transnational spaces (Low 2003:25) to describe, among other things, translocal spatial changes generated by the economy of modern capitalism. However, her focus is on the international mobility of people and the resulting spatial transformations rather than the movement of capital and goods in international space. She examines the results of deterritorialization and the post-Fordist, economic restructuring of labor as a whole on the three levels of

  • global spaces,
  • transnational spaces,
  • and translocal spaces (ibid.).

With the concept of global spaces, Low tries to connect global economic processes and geographical place. As an example, she cites the essay “Supply-side Sushi: Commodity, Market, and the Global City” (Bestor 2001) by American anthropologist Theodore Bestor, in which he examines globally circulating goods, people, and capital at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market. At this geographically delineated location, he uncovers structures of a global economy around commodity chains, business relationships between fishermen, traders, buyers, markets, and capital flow, and, according to Low, describes a global space (Low 2003:26) that can be geographically located as a node of global events and empirically investigated within a research framework.

Low finds transnational spaces in the areas where people cross national borders in search of work, among other things. One effect of this is the emergence of “multipositional identities” (Low 2003:27). Migrants thereby create hybrid spaces and practices and generate a decentralized multicultural terrain (e.g. Chinatown and Little Italy in Manhattan, New York). This spatial level critiques notions of territorially bound, national belonging and offers an alternative of transnational assignment to multiple respective social groups. On the other hand, by emphasizing national belonging, it neglects the thematization of supranational structures such as the EU and bases the nature of national assignment too much on cultural practices.

Translocal spaces extend the previous levels as a concept in the sense that they elaborate the interconnectivity of seemingly geographically delimitable systems under conditions of globalization. The concept of translocality emphasizes the interrelationships of different people and places. These interrelationships bring about regional exchange through migration flows and the movement of people, but also through the formation of networks that emerge increasingly quickly through mobile communication possibilities (Low 2003: 28f). In this context, John Urry, without himself using the term translocality, describes a debate that arose in 1990 around the broadcast of the U.S. television series ‘Baywatch’ in Iran (Urry 2000:161). There, satellite dishes enabled Iranian living rooms to receive TV programs from outside the country. This particular television series appeared to the nation’s Islamic leaders as a problem in the form of a ‘cultural invasion’ and underscored the helplessness of the territorially demarcated in the face of the technological means of communication of globalized modernity.

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Translocality is the connection of geographically distant spaces and people and, in the age of digital means of communication, seemingly the end of territorially delimitable spaces. Even the largely isolated People’s Republic of North Korea, a nation that separates itself from the world by a very clear and thoroughly material, territorial and national border, has no way of establishing a private internet and opened its digital gates as a result of a misconfiguration of local DNS servers that made all of the country’s websites accessible worldwide in September 2016 (Wienand 2016). Thus, as John Urry alluded to in his book Sociology beyond societies: mobilities for the twenty-first century (Urry 2000), it is necessary to scientifically observe physical and virtual movements of people and evaluate their impact on the territorial.

Migration flows across national borders can no longer be explained as the sole origin of transnational practices. A multiplicity of processes and flows of people, capital, goods, ideas, and virtual services makes it difficult to trace and localize specific processes in global networks.

Consequently, a polycentric worldview with multiple centers distributed across continents is also too static and one-dimensional. As the Dutch-American sociologist Jan Nederveen Pieterse describes it in his essay “Globalization as Hybridization” (Pieterse 1995), globalization in the structural sense is

“the increase in the available modes of organization: transnational, international, macro-regional, national, micro-regional, municipal, local” (Pieterse 1995:50).

He directs attention to two worlds with interlocking structures of belonging that exist in parallel.

On one side is a world centered on the nation-state and populated by citizens with one nationality; on the other is a multicentric world in which corporations, NGOs, and media spread their networks and synchronize people and practices in all regions of the globe (ibid.).

For Pieterse, globalization manifests itself in the expansion of the reach of these organizational structures and in the process of hybridization (ibid.).

Reflection and Conclusion

In this essay, I have presented concepts and authors that deal with sovereignty in the nation-state and spatial studies in anthropology on several levels. Critical to this is the very Western perspective on globalization and various economic, as well as political processes, such as citizenship and the transnational legal system. This is also marked accordingly by some authors (Pieterse 1995; Low 2003; Amilhat Szary 2015).

Saskia Sassen, for example, examines the construct of citizenship, critically questioning its contemporary role in the Arab and South Asian regions (Sassen 1996). Citizenship in the sense of national or cultural demarcation seems to be becoming less useful as a means of territorial, political, and social assignment, as not only inhabited places are translocal, but also people become hybrids through the fragmentation of their involvement in organizational structures.

Unambiguous belonging, as it was once still encoded by myths (Harari 2014), seems to become a myth in anthropology itself. Incorporated into highly networked processes, individuals or dividuals (Deleuze 1992) are no longer bound physically or in their representative reach to national territories and leave their traces in virtual space as well.

The different perspectives on globalization processes described by scapes (Appadurai 1990) and spaces (Low 2003) are interesting. They offer insight into the interconnectivity of global processes and spaces and allow local change to be categorically divided and traced in translocal spaces. It seems conceivable to perceive translocality empirically in the field and to investigate global places and their interconnectedness in political, economic, and social structures using these concepts.

Essential to the study of sovereignty is the concept of control. Through international jurisprudence, this is becoming increasingly detached from sovereign nations, but in many sub-areas remains in the hands of explicitly global institutions. But the advent of faster, more flexible, and more mobile means of communication is creating spaces that are precisely outside the control of these institutions. The internet offers an exciting space for the question of belonging. Server farms of major international corporations that store the user data of several million customers are geographically localizable, but legally difficult to assign. Jurisprudence struggles to keep up with the technical progress of the global economy and overlooks spaces beyond national control.

Photo by Dil on Unsplash

On the one hand, the debate about data retention underscores the excessive demands placed on national institutions by the sheer volume of data; on the other hand, it offers an insight into the attempts to control mobile communication methods and to integrate the individual into the nation’s own system of surveillance and punishment.

National sovereignty is thereby supposedly no longer tied to territory. More rational arguments continue to relegate sovereignty to rights of disposal and strategic resources, and encode national boundaries territorially and through economic ownership. However, supranational systems of governance, such as the human rights and international economic law championed in many places, are shown to be superior to national structures.

Nevertheless, material and territorial boundaries remain. Political conflicts continue to be fought on the border of North and South Korea, Russian intervention shifted Ukraine’s territorial national boundary into the Ukrainian interior, and again thoughts of building a wall with Mexico were being discussed in the United States. The question of belonging and the constant recoding of internal and external differences will pose far more complex questions for cultural anthropology in the years to come.

In particular, I see some interesting questions for the future in the proliferation of virtual spaces. Collaboration within global corporations with server-based technology, the increased communication and amplified reach of activist groups via the Internet, and the storage of user data and its mapping into legal systems illustrate just a few applications of the concepts discussed earlier and problematize entirely new issues for the now and the future.


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Sami Hamed

Engineering Manager & Product Engineer with a background in Social Anthropology