Major Insight Episode 11 : How Borders Affect Our Perception of the World

On this episode, Terry Tait talks about his research that frames the Iraq War within the emerging field of borderlands studies. Terry looks how individual people try to understand their circumstances in a global world, and at how our perceptions of borders -- both visible and invisible -- can have a profound effect on our lives.

Featured Majors

History, Arabic, Middle East and Islamic Studies

Featured Study Abroad

AMIDEAST Intensive Arabic in Amman and Jordan, Oman and UAE


Music: “Only Knows” by Broke For Free

Read the transcript

James Loy: Major Insight is a production of Miami University. This is where we showcase successful students, their promising new research and its relevance in our world. Our lives are surrounded by borders. Some are marked clearly on a map, while others are more invisible, but borders are not permanent, borders change. Political lines can be redrawn and communities can be reshaped. And on this episode, Major Insight host Jacob Bruggeman speaks with Terry Tate, whose work in research frames the Iraq war within the emerging field of Borderlands studies. Terry looks at how individual people try to understand their circumstances in a global world and at how our perceptions of borders both visible and invisible can have a profound effect on our lives. Now, here's Jacob Bruggeman and Terry Tate with more.

Jacob Bruggeman: All right, Terry, welcome to the podcast. I would like to begin by just asking you to give us a little bit of an overview of how you came to your research interests, what exactly they are, and what you've done at Miami to pursue those.

Terry Tait: All right, well, thanks for having me. Currently, I'm studying the history of the Iraq war in the Middle East and I first became involved in studying the region probably my freshman year. I was starting to take Arabic classes and I kept taking them for three years here and then I studied abroad in Jordan. My freshman year I studied abroad in Oman through the universities, J -term course in the country. Now it's Oman in the UAE that they go every year. But then later on I kept getting more interested in taking more classes and then eventually did a honors thesis in the history department on a diary written during the 1990s in Iraq. And I talked a lot about identity and exile, and now I'm working on a project on taking Borderlands concepts from the American Midwest and applying it to the Iraq war and looking at how different people experienced and understood the war itself.

Jacob Bruggeman: That's excellent. Could you tell us a little bit more about the diary, the exiled, the emotions you analyze that were present in it? And then if at all, how it applies to anything you're reading in the news today or the experiences of people in other countries at this moment that are racked by violence?

Terry Tait: Sure. The diary was written by Iraqi artists named Nuha al-Radi. She grew up in Baghdad, her family was very interesting because they were by no means ordinary Iraqis. Her father was a diplomat stationed in Iran and then India for the monarchy, which was then overthrown. But during her life she lived in Europe, she lived abroad and then later on came to live in Iraq under the Saddam Hussein regime and wrestled a lot with not agreeing with the government, not quite feeling a sense of belonging. And then with the Gulf War in 1990 and 91, the tensions in the country and the state of living in the country wasn't the same. And so with sanctions in the years after it became harder to live there and eventually she decided to leave. And you get the sense that she almost feels more content living outside of the country than she did inside of the country. But she in both cases didn't quite feel at home.

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah, like our identity was split or fractured in some way.

Terry Tait: Right, a duality of identity.

Jacob Bruggeman: So as a historian of the Midwest, at least an aspiring one myself, I love the Borderlands mythology and apply it in some of my own work. And I think the idea of the International Borderlands is just generally a very promising academic pursuit. Could you tell us a little bit about that research that you're engaging with now and maybe how it applies in some way beyond say like the the history department? It sounds like the idea of International Borderlands at least has a potential, it seems like to apply and a lot of different refugee situations that we're reading and hearing a lot about today.

Terry Tait: Certainly one of the main ideas in that area of study that really stood out to me is time and anthropological idea that all perspectives are more or less equal, that they shouldn't be weighted stronger more heavily than others. And so kind of looking at every perspective in its own right and giving every idea its own value. And so I wanted to apply that to an area that I felt that one, isn't very understood in that we could get a lot of value out of taking those concepts and applying them elsewhere.

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah. It's interesting though, sort of radical subjectivity of, I mean it almost relates to, I mean it does relate to what you were talking about with the diarist who has in some way this very subjective split, fractured dual identity that is tied up in geography that sounds incredibly unique to her circumstances.

Terry Tait: Right, yeah.

Jacob Bruggeman: And that of course, everybody has their own-

Terry Tait: Their own experiences.

Jacob Bruggeman: Perhaps not as extraordinary as hers, but that's an interesting concept. Do you see the field of history dealing more in International Borderlands? How do you see your research as fitting in with, if it does, a new wave of scholarship on that front?

Terry Tait: There is a lot of scholarship being done on a global scale in thinking about how different areas of the world have interacted with each other, in ways that haven't really been thought of before. So you get transatlantic histories and thinking about ways that events in Africa and in Europe and America were all happening at the same time and having major effects on one another. And so my projects have kind of taken a similar approach on a much smaller scale, but with the same mission in mind of kind of placing these small little events into a larger context and seeing how individual people understand their circumstances within a global world.

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah. Do you think that this, the theory of International Borderlands or the idea of it, the emerging scholarship around it has the potential to bring on a sort of paradigmatic shift in international or global studies? I mean, I'm thinking of a lot of these other modes of understanding that are prominent and that have really sort of shaped the field of history and then also international studies, bringing it full circle and putting it more succinctly. Do you think that International Borderlands has the power to really change scholarship or to bring a new edge into it?

Terry Tait: I think one of the ideas that I really try and place in my research is not so much the internationalization or the dismantlement of institutions of thought, but just kind of understanding a locality and its reach beyond borders. And so not thinking about geography within a political context of nation states, but just that people do cross borders and that those borders don't necessarily affect the way people understand their lives. And so when I think of the Midwest, a lot of pioneers or people moving West weren't thinking, "Oh, this isn't America." they were thinking, "This is manifest destiny, we're moving West and we're going there to pursue our fate, like our own individual fate and we want to go get rich or pursue our own dreams in elsewhere."

Terry Tait: In like that same context, people had a very different understanding of their own geography and their own lives. And so whether or not that's an international feeling, two people in the same place have a very different understanding of the world. And so you can't really, it's hard to wrestle with a globalized system when even two people living across the street from each other don't understand the world in the same way.

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah. So the difference maybe between visible and invisible borders, right?

Terry Tait: Right.

Jacob Bruggeman: I mean, I'd be curious to hear what you identify, perhaps in your own work, as the invisible versus the visible borders. I mean, it seems that we're living in a time where both kinds of borders are quite prominent. I mean, you have, for example, the Trump administration, which has been pushing for a physical separation, a physical barrier on a visible border, one that we can trace. But then you think of perhaps the Chicago Riots in 1919, which we've approached the centenary of, and those riots were caused by a young African American crossing an invisible border in the city of Chicago, a racialized border. And so I'm curious, if you could elaborate for us in your own work, what are the visible versus the invisible borders that, perhaps, the diarist you mentioned or perhaps the subjects you're looking at in your new research for your MA thesis. What are those borders that they're crossing and traversing and questioning?

Terry Tait: Yeah. So something that I talk about a lot is the difference of community where a lot of these invisible borders are things that people understand, but don't regularly think about. So where community lines are understood in one context versus another. So before the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, a lot of people in the Western Province of Al Anbar would have thought of themselves as belonging to a city or a town or a part of our larger tribe. But as the war dragged on, and there was more sectarian violence, people thought of themselves as being Anbari or in the more sectarian terms. Not because that's how they felt, but that's the way that they needed to think in order to survive, that's how the conflict was developing.

Terry Tait: And so there is an implicit way that the community kind of separated itself so that these people could stay alive. And people would disassociate from people who associated with Americans because it could potentially have repercussions on their lives. People did the same for people who associated with insurgents. And so the way that people associate and disassociated with people from their own communities, is very much drawing lines invisibly within the community.

Jacob Bruggeman: Fascinating. The process of, which sometimes I think can be natural or organic or spontaneous even, emerging from communities of border drawing or border enforcing versus the sort of power driven, externally forced perhaps borders that are often, I think put upon us.

Terry Tait: Yeah, and a lot of these boundaries aren't exactly fixed. So even a fixed border can be redrawn on a map or a wall can be moved a couple of feet.

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah.

Terry Tait: In the same way that a community can re-understand itself after a decade or in a few years. There's different ways that a community can shape itself. And so there's different implicit and explicit barriers that different places need to experience or that they just do experience.

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah. Perhaps you could, for our listeners and for people just not in the Academy, explain why borders are important for us to think about, to recognize, to perhaps interrogate in the way that you're interrogating the borders that you've mentioned, invisible and visible.

Terry Tait: For me, the borders are always interesting questions, especially in the Middle East where they're based on political power. And the way that political entities think about the borders aren't necessarily the same way that people think about the borders. And so people can cross these boundaries regularly or it can be the way that their lives are shaped. Like these boundaries are ever present and they don't know what their life would be like without it, but they think of it constantly. And so boundaries are implicit and explicit in everyday life in the middle East, but it takes on different meanings based on what group you're looking at. And so that's one thing that I've been looking at over the past few years, and that I think has significant meaning now with the way that different communities are fleeing the region and now thinking about going back. And even elsewhere in Latin America, or within the US where people are migrating constantly. And so it's just something that people need to be aware of that these boundaries aren't the way that everyone conceives of their world.

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah, I mean I think of the United States that perhaps most prominent boundary that we've been hearing about for some time, the Rural-Urban Boundary, the divide between the corn fields out yonder and the city streets. And I think it is something that we have to be critical towards because and to some extent there is a boundary there that is explicit. I mean one area is more developed, has a higher population density, et cetera, et cetera. But at the same time it seems also to be a false boundary or border or one that at least is false in certain ways.

Terry Tait: Like there's no physical line separating what is rural and what is urban, but there is a cultural divide between who is from like a rural area and who is from a city. Like there's a very different that those two people think of themselves and conduct themselves in daily life.

Jacob Bruggeman: Absolutely. And you know, and that's one way in which the boundaries and the borders are true. And then another way in which I think that they're not true is through like a critical urbanist type perspective, where someone like Neil Brenner who came to Miami's campus last year as part of the Altman Program, would classify perhaps the urban-rural divide is false because we're really sort of a mesh. There's an urban mesh across the world, so to speak, that feeds upon itself. So for example, Chicago exists as a separate entity from the other towns around it, for example. But it can only exist because of its relationship and in its relationship to those towns. So there's a way in which the boundaries are false, right? As well as true, just as-

Terry Tait: There's a dependence between the communities.

Jacob Bruggeman: Exactly. And there's an incredible amount of interconnectedness that perhaps our boundaries don't necessarily allow for us to consider. Which makes you think of a lot of the prominent boundaries that we've been discussing and hearing about in 2016 and beyond. Most notably, you know, racial, economic border and et cetera, but have sort of sparked at times vitriolic political conversation. Terry, can you explain for us and the listeners what it is about your research that lends itself to perhaps an intervention in public debate or a greater understanding of current affairs? There's a lot going on. I mean everything from the killing of journalists in Saudi Arabia to refugee crises. There's a lot of headlines that we've been seeing that your research might sort of lend itself to.

Terry Tait: I think the main way that I see my research is being applicable to the public conversation, is mainly that a lot of the ways that people associate themselves politically or socially or otherwise is not permanent. And so that people will associate themselves with whatever current is best suited to their interests. And in a lot of cases that is not stagnant, that is not going to remain the same throughout time. And so for example, in Saudi Arabia with rights and the development of liberal progress, a lot of people saw Mohammad Bin Salman, the current Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, as a reformer when he first came into his position. But a lot of people who were rights activists, women's rights activists, free speech activists were very wary of whether or not he would be that propulsion of change that people were touting him as. And even in the years that followed, he proved himself to not be that.

Terry Tait: And so while people who wanted to embrace someone like MBS as a driver for change, those who are truly interested wanted him to succeed in that venture, but they weren't sure if he would truly liberalize the country and the way that people were explaining him to be a [liberalizer 00:19:48] because of the history of the country and the way the country lends itself to conservatism and oppressive governance.

Jacob Bruggeman: What's next? You'll graduate this May with your MA, right?

Terry Tait: Yeah.

Jacob Bruggeman: PhD programs, policy world, what are you thinking?

Terry Tait: Right now I'm keeping my options open and applying everywhere. But yes, hopefully graduating in May with the MA and probably not going to do the PhD. Maybe somewhere down the line, but I'm looking to hopefully get involved in things in Washington, DC, maybe do research in the public private sphere. Who knows?

James Loy: Terry Tate earned degrees in history from Miami University with minors in Arabic as well as Middle East and Islamic studies. And after graduating earlier this year, he's now an intern with the US House of Representatives. If you enjoyed this episode of Major Insight, please share it with your friends, with students, with colleagues. You can find many more episodes for free right now on Apple Podcasts on Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcasts.


Featured Majors: 

History, Arabic, Middle East and Islamic Studies

Featured Study Abroad:

AMIDEAST Intensive Arabic in Amman and Jordan, Oman and UAE


 Major Insight

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Major Insight is a production of Miami University. This is where we showcase our students and how they transform academic subjects into lifelong passions. Join us wherever you listen to your podcasts and discover these students journeys.

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The Major Insight podcast is hosted by Jacob Bruggeman. Bruggeman, a Miami Honors student and double-major in History and Political Science created the podcast to feature stories of students navigating 21st century academic life.

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