What are the ways in which “(b)ordering” enacts “othering” (Van Houtum and Van Naerssen 2002)?

The drawing of a border creates a fault line, separating the people on one side from those on the other, a move that is often portrayed as necessary to establish “order” by eliminating any ambiguity about who belongs where and what belongs to who.

Van Houtum and Van Naerssen (2002) describe the resulting manoeuvring to control the flow of people, goods or money as “bordering,” a “territorial human strategy” (p. 126) that crystallises who has rights and jurisdiction in a specific territory.

One of the most important functions of “bordering” is the creation of a narrative of unity and homogeneity within the territory, while at the same time portraying the people beyond the border as different, a concept known as “othering.” This differentiation between the people who are entitled to live within the territory, as opposed to those who do not belong, is particularly relevant and important during the process of nation-building.

In this essay I will be discussing the processes of bordering, ordering and othering in reference to two different ethnographic case studies – one relating to the impact of partition between India and Pakistan, and the other related to the aftermath of the drawing of a military demarcation line separating North and South Korea.

Ethnography: The Sikhs of Khari

The first ethnography (Sharma 2020) is based on fieldwork within a community of Sikhs in the village of Khari, in the present-day district of Poonch in India.

Prior to partition the people who lived in Poonch were united by ties of ethnicity (Pahari), language (Pothowari) and kinship. The community embraced different religions, to the point that it was customary for families to raise one son as a Hindu and another son as a Sikh, and they all celebrated several festivals which combined aspects from different faiths.

In 1949, after the intervention of the United Nations to negotiate a cease fire between the warring Muslim and Hindu factions, a cease-fire line was drawn which split the fiefdom of Poonch in two.

The border went straight through the village of Khari, resulting in neighbours suddenly finding themselves living in different countries based on an arbitrary line drawn on a map.

Nation-building rhetoric

The governments in Pakistan and India then embarked on nation-building campaigns, indoctrinating citizens to believe that ethnicity and language were secondary to religion when it came to the definition of identity, and that differences in religious beliefs implied “otherness” (Chaturvedi 2001).

Both countries focused on creating a sense of national identity by demonising the other, presenting the cease-fire line as a boundary that created “order” by safeguarding the people of their territory from the impurity of “the others”.

“The making of a place must hence be understood as an act of purification, as it is arbitrarily searching for a justifiable, bounded cohesion of people and their activities in space which can be compared and contrasted to other spatial entities”

Van Houtum & Van Naerssen 2002 p. 126

The people living in Poonch internalised this messaging.

What had previously been a cohesive community forged on the foundation of shared ethnicity and a common language, suddenly disintegrated as citizens re-invented themselves according to the new narrative.

The situation was exacerbated by several government policies, created to institute “territorial order” (Sharma 2020), but which created illogical categorisations of Poonchies, leading to an unfair access to state resources.

When Khari was split in two by the ceasefire line, the Hindus and Sikhs on the Pakistan side of the border crossed to the Indian side, in the process gaining the official status of “refugees,” which meant that they were entitled to compensation for the property and land they had lost.

The Hindus and Sikhs whose properties were on the India side, however, were not entitled to any compensation, even though their homes and holdings had been razed to the ground, because they were classified as “internally displaced” and not as refugees (Sharma 2022).

The transformation in identity did not only impact the Hindus, but also the Sikhs, many of whom started to focus on religion as their core source of identity, as opposed to ethnicity and language.

Families that had identified as Pahari first and Sikh second, re-negotiated their identity according to the parameters of religious “purity” as per state doctrine. The result was a schism between those Sikhs who wanted to continue living according to the old Pahari Hindu-Sikh traditions that had developed over several generations, and those who wanted to build a new identity based on “pure” Sikhism and not on ethnicity or cultural traditions (Sharma 2022).

“How can I abandon the rituals and values that are ancestral and had been a key part of our lives for generations? How am I less of a Sikh by adhering to our ancestral norms? We reject this closed-understanding of Sikhism that cannot open itself for values one has lived with since ages.”

Sharma 2020 p. 284

Those Sikhs who opted to make a total break from the past did not only jettison the Hindu elements of their traditions, but also the Pahari language, opting instead for the more cosmopolitan Punjabi.

It is therefore clear that the “othering” had infected the Sikh community, whose division was often exacerbated by the different classifications imposed on their communities as “refugees” versus “internally displaced,” and the financial implications thereof (Sharma 2020).

Ethnography: North Koreans in South Korea

The second ethnography that I will be analysing in this essay addresses the racialization and “othering” of North Koreans (t’albungmin) in South Korea (Hough 2022).

The split between North and South Korea originated after the second world war, when the Allies defeated Japan and the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to split the Korean peninsula into two separate occupation zones, controlled by the two superpowers.

This was presented as a temporary measure until Korea could be united under self-rule. However, the advent of the Cold War made it impossible to come to a proper transition plan, and in 1948 South Korea announced that it was now the Republic of Korea, followed thereafter by North Korea’s announcement about the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Both sides claimed sovereignty over the entire peninsula, resulting in a war between the two halves. In 1953 an armistice was signed, and a Military Demarcation Line (aka Armistice Line) became the official land border between North Korea and South Korea.

Minjok – one nation and one people

The official policy of South Korea is based on the concept of minjok (one nation) based on the homogenous ethnic purity of Koreans on both sides of the border (tanil minjok).

In fact, any North Koreans who arrive in South Korea are given citizenship almost automatically, because South Korea denies the sovereignty of the North and refuses to accept the military demarcation line as a national border. This is in sharp contrast to the hoops that non-Korean “others” arriving in the country are made to jump through (Hough 2022), in a clear example of a situation where “some others are more welcome than other others” (Van Houtum & Van Naerssen 2002 p. 129).

However, when North Koreans arrive in South Korea, they soon discover that notwithstanding the fact that they receive preferential treatment at the border, and the rhetoric that North and South Korean are both part of one “ethnically distinctive and uniquely homogeneous Korean nation … [based on] a shared language and common bloodline” (Hough 2022, p. 616), in truth, “South Koreans view t’albungmin as outsiders, similar to non-ethnic migrants” (Hough 2022 p. 617).

Jennifer Hough conducted her fieldwork with 130 t’albungmin who had moved to the South and were now living in and around Seoul.

She explains that while the concept of a shared language is constantly referenced as proof that Korea is in fact one nation and not two, in practice North Koreans are easily distinguishable because their accent marks them out as not being “authentic” South Koreans.

“Visually indistinguishable from South Koreans, t’albungmin can pass for South Koreans until the moment they open their mouths.”

Hough 2022, p. 618

Linguistic Bordering and Othering

Thus, South Koreans are “othered” by linguistic bordering, predicated on their accent, intonation and the fact that they do not use American English loanwords, which pepper the speech of South Koreans.

The years of conflict between the two factions, and the subsequent anti-communist propaganda used by the South Korean government as part of its nation-building discourse, led to South Korea internalising the othering based on the depiction of northerners as different and dangerous – after all, they were the enemy in the war.

Furthermore, subsequent portrayals in the South Korean media of the misery and hunger suffered by North Koreans led to them being stigmatised as inferior, uneducated, and brainwashed, thereby positioning North Koreans crossing over to the South as refugees, coming to scrounge off their richer neighbours (Hough 2022).

“Wherever you go, they ask, “Where are you from?” And if you say North Korea, they don’t hire you because they think you don’t know anything….”

Hyangmi aged thirty- four: a North Korean living in South Korea (Hough 2022 p. 629).

The t’albungmin in the ethnography are very aware of the fact that their accent and intonation mark them out as “others,” which leads to them facing harassment and discrimination.

“Wherever I go, they ask me where I’m from…They can tell, even if I just say one word.”

Yŏngok, aged twenty-three: a North Korean living in South Korea (Hough 2022 p. 625)

“There seems to be a widespread image of North Koreans that isn’t particularly good – ignorant (mushik’ada), old-fashioned (ch’onsŭrŏpta) …rough (ŏkseda), and I think this image comes from the [Hamgyŏng] accent.”

Migyŏng, aged twenty-six: a North Korean living in South Korea (Hough 2022 p. 625)

Strategies of de-othering

The stigmatisation suffered by North Koreans because of the way they speak has led to them adopting different strategies to “de-other” themselves.

Some of them spend hours practicing at home, copying the vocabulary and intonation of news anchors and talk show hosts on South Korean television. Others lie when asked about their origins, claiming to come from regions in South Korea where the accent does not match that of Seoul. And some opt to keep their mouth shut and not talk at all, to avoid marking themselves out as different (Hough 2022).

The stigmatisation and othering that they experience is a perfect illustration that “‘some borders are no longer situated at the borders at all’ in geographical or political senses of the terms. Borders have become invisible borders, situated everywhere and nowhere. Hence the undesirable persons are not expelled by the border, they are forced to be border.” (Balibar as cited in Khosravi 2007).

Final Thoughts on Bordering and Othering

In conclusion, this essay has shown that the creation of borders sets in motion a domino effect, where a new order is established based on a narrative that casts the people on the other side of the border as the “others.”

This process of “othering” is so important that any pretext can and will be used to portray the difference between “us and them,” however unimportant this factor might have been prior to the drawing of the border.

Thus, we have seen othering based on a multiplicity of factors, such as ethnicity, wealth, education, class, language, accent, religion and politics. In fact, it is clear that anything that can further the objective of creating separation and division from “them,” while manufacturing a sentiment of unity in the “us,” is fair game in the creation of borders.


Chaturvedi, S. (2002) “Process of Othering in the case of India and Pakistan”, Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie, vol. 93, no. 2, pp. 149-159.

Hough, J. (2022) “The Racialization of North Koreans in South Korea: diasporic co-ethnics in the South Korean ethnolinguistic nation”, Ethnic and Racial studies, vol. 45, no. 4, pp. 616-635.

Khosravi, S. (2007) “The ‘illegal’ Traveller: An Auto-ethnography of Borders.” Social Anthropology vol 15, no. 3, pp. 321-334.

Sharma, M. (2022) “Remaking of ethnic-boundaries: identity and religion among Sikhs in the borderland of Poonch, Jammu and Kashmir”, Asian Ethnicity, vol. 23, no. 2, pp. 279-297.

Van Houtum, H. & Van Naerssen, T. (2002) “Bordering, Ordering and Othering”, Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie, vol. 93, no. 2, pp. 125-136.

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