Enduring divisions within border studies


In recent years, large-scale research programs, such as BIG or AFRIGOS, have been launched in different parts of the world to examine border conflicts, cross-border cooperation, regional trade, or transnational migration. We, border scholars, travel more, meet more people at exciting conferences, and submit more proposals. But when it comes to publishing, we still write alone. In our own country.

This phenomenon is of course not happening only in border studies. In a recent paper, Cerina et al. (2014) show for example that connectivity between scientists decays exponentially in Europe due to the existence of national communities of inventors, and as a power of distance in the borderless market of the United States. Internal divisions within border studies are however no small paradox for a science supposedly cross-border by nature. They also have been relatively little studied to date.

Less than half of the papers published in the Journal of Borderlands Studies (JBS), our flagship journal, have one or more coauthors. And this has not really changed over the last decade. Actually, the peak in co-authorship was reached more than 15 years ago, as can be seen from the graph below.

Co-authored papers published in JBS, in percent, 1986-2015


Source: Olivier Walther (2016) based on JBS’s website.

Because JBS is the primary publication of the Association of Borderlands Studies (ABS), founded in 1976 to study the United States-Mexico borderlands, US border scholars have enjoyed a dominant position in the journal. More than half of the papers ever co-published in JBS have been written by scholars affiliated with a United States institution. As can be seen below, those affiliated with a German, Mexican or Dutch institution each represent around 5% of the papers co-published since its creation.

Proportion of co-authors by country, in percent, 1986-2015


Source: Olivier Walther (2016) based on JBS’s website.

The first paper co-authored by a non-US scholar was published by Joan Anderson of the University of San Diego and Martin de la Rosa of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1991. It took JBS four more years to publish a paper whose co-authors were not affiliated with a North American institution.

Another way to look at how integrated border scholars are is to map who has published with whom in JBS since the creation of the journal in 1986. The sociogram below clearly shows how fragmented our community is when it comes to co-publishing. Instead of a fully integrated community, we form a fragmented network building on lots of dyads and triads. Despite the current internationalization of border studies, the main components of the network are still located in the United States (in red), and, secondarily, in Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, and Canada.

Co-authorship in JBS by nationality, 1986-2015


Source: Olivier Walther (2016) based on JBS’s website.

Not only do we often publish alone: we also predominantly publish within our own country. Cross-border co-authored papers are the exception in our field, as can be seen from the sociogram below, in which only the papers published by two or more authors located in different countries have been represented.

Cross-border co-authorship in JBS by nationality, 1986-2015


Source: Olivier Walther (2016) based on JBS’s website.

Academic genealogy

paul vidal de la blache

My interest in West African cities owes much to the fact that I received a joint PhD in geography from the University of Lausanne and the University of Rouen .

In Lausanne, my supervisor was Professor Jean-Bernard Racine, one of the pioneers of the New Geography in the 1970s, and a recipient of the Vautrin Lud Prize, the highest award in geography, for his work in economic and urban geography. In Rouen, I studied under the supervision of Professor Denis Retaillé, one of the world’s leading scholars on the Sahel, whose work on space and networks continues to exert an enormous influence on my research

The academic genealogy of my supervisors reveals fascinating intellectual connections: both Racine and Retaillé are actually indirectly connected to Paul Vidal de la Blache (1845-1918), the most influential French geographer of the 19th century (see picture above).

Professor Racine received his PhDs from the University of Aix-en-Provence (1965) and Nice (1973). While in North America, Racine was profoundly influenced by Walter Isard, the founder of regional science, and by geographers Brian Berry, Stanley Gregory, Bryn Greer-Wooten, David Harvey and Peter Gould, whose model of transport development was based on Ghana and Nigeria. In France, Sorbonne University professors Pierre George and Paul Claval had a strong influence on Racine’s thinking.

Racine’s PhD thesis was supervised by Professor Hildebert Isnard, whose early work dealt with North Africa, Madagascar and Reunion and who worked under the supervision of Professor Robert Capot-Rey of the University of Algiers. Capot-Rey, a one-leg professor who explored the erg of Murzuk and much of the Sahara, is the author of Le Sahara Français, a monumental volume published in 1953. Capot-Rey was himself a student of Lucien Louis Gallois, a Sorbonne professor who worked closely with Paul Vidal de la Blache on Les Annales de Géographie, an influential journal founded in 1891, and on de la Blache’s Géographie Universelle.

Professor Retaillé received his PhD from the University of Paris in 1983. His supervisor was Professor Jean Gallais, who discovered Africa in the early 1950s and became the leading specialist of the Inner Niger Delta in Mali. Gallais was himself a student of Professor Pierre Gourou, a major proponent of French tropical geography. Gourou studied with Albert Demangeon, a Sorbonne University professor who pioneered the use of surveys in geography and was a student of Vidal de la Blache.

Pathways via doctoral supervisors

— Paul Vidal de la Blache (1872) — Lucien Louis Gallois (1890) — Robert Capot-Rey (1934) — Hildebert Isnard (1947) — Jean-Bernard Racine (1973) — me (2006)

— Paul Vidal de la Blache (1872) — Albert Demangeon (1905) — Pierre Gourou (1936) — Jean Gallais (1967) — Denis Retaillé (1983) — me (2006)

New report on women’s empowerment in West Africa


In a report published by the World Food Programme today, my colleagues Leena Hoffmann, Paul Melly and I highlight some of the constraints that tend to limit the scope for women to achieve higher incomes from a more diverse and sustainable range of agriculture-related activities in West Africa.

Building on a comparative study of the Kano-Katsina region in northern Nigeria and the Maradi region in southern Niger, our report explores the rural and commercial setting in which women conduct their routine affairs and considers social, legal, regulatory and financial factors that influence women’s chances.

The study contributes to a better understanding and assessment of the links between gender and the functioning of markets and value chains under relatively stable conditions. It is part of the Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping (VAM) Gender & Markets Initiative of the World Food Programme Regional Bureau for West and Central Africa in Dakar.

Guest speakers at UF

This semester, four guest speakers will be speaking in my class “Politics of Ethnic Conflict” CPO 4721 at the University of Florida.

ibOn February 8, my colleague Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim from the University of Florida will present his new paper “The Wave of Jihadist Insurgency in West Africa” published in the West African Papers series of the OECD.




kirwinOn February 15, Matthew Kirwin, who works as an analyst at the State Department will discuss his research on Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other violent extremist organizations.



steven-radilOn February 22, Steve Radil from the University of Idaho will present a paper in which he uses social network analysis to understand the patterns of conflict and cooperation among 30 prominent warring groups within Syria, tracking relations between them over time.




danOn March 29, my colleague Dan Eizenga from the University of Florida will discuss his recent paper “The Unstable Foundations of Political Stability in Chad“, also published in the West African Papers series of the OECD.

Linking borderlands research and policy

MalanvilleDec2017 (12)

Linking borderlands research and policy was at the heart of a conference organized by Point Sud Bamako and the African Borderlands Research Network at LASDEL in Niamey last week. Thanks again to Mareike Schomerus and Gregor Dobler for having us on board and putting together such great panels!

My colleagues Leonardo Villalón, Leena Hoffmann, Lawali Dambo, Moustapha Koné and I presented our research on cross-border policy networks in West Africa and our on-going project Cities and Borders, both funded by the OECD.

While in Niamey, Bill Miles and I also officially launched our new edited book African Border Disorders published with Routledge this year.

Help us map One Stop Border Posts in Africa!

Regional Economic Communities have built dozens of One Stop Border Posts – or Postes Juxtaposés in French – in Africa over the last couple of years. OSBPs convert a two stop border crossing point into a one stop border with a view to facilitate intra-African trade.

As part of the 2017-18 Cities and Borders program of the OECD, we would like to map these border posts and know whether they are operational or not. Help us update our list by downloading this Excel file and email us at owalther[at] Thanks for your help!

The Gaya-Malanville One Stop Border Post, 2010-16

This satellite view of Malanville, in northern Benin, was taken in 2010, before the Niger-Benin OSBP was constructed. The city market – one of the largest in Benin – is near the top of the picture. Image: Google Earth.


This is Malanville in 2016, after the construction of the OSBP. The market has moved to the west of the city and been replaced with a huge border post. As of today, the OSBP is not operational. Image: Google Earth.


Political violence in the Sahel-Sahara

The Sahel and the Sahara are faced with exceptional political instability involving a combination of rebellions, jihadist insurgencies, military coups, protest movements and illegal trafficking.

In this new OECD working paper and blog, I argue that the Sahel-Sahara is not just the victim of an escalation of wars and conflicts that marked the 20th century. The region has also become the setting of a globalized security environment, which blurs the lines between what is local and global, military and civilian, domestic and international, politics and identity.

Using ACLED data on violent events from 1997 to 2016, I show that the current period combines three types of organized violence: armed struggles for political power, criminal activities for personal gain, and human rights violations to create homogeneous ethnic and religious areas. I also highlight the need to strengthen regional co-operation, restore the legitimacy of governments, and establish inclusive governance solutions in conflict zones.

The paper is an update of the chapter entitled “Security issues, movement and networks in the Sahara-Sahel” I wrote for the OECD Atlas of the Sahara-Sahel in 2014. It also builds on “Strange bedfellows”, a blog I wrote with Antonin Tisseron in The Broker in 2015.


Mapping conflicts and alliances across North-West Africa

The relationships between armed groups in North and Western Africa are often characterized by widely varying rivalries and alliances. Groups that were fighting each other one day can very well be allied the next day.

In a recent paper published in Terrorism and Political Violence, my co-authors Christian Leuprecht and David Skillicorn and I have used network analysis to represent alliances and conflicts among 179 organizations involved in violence in the region. Building on ACLED data from 1997-2014, we show that the structural positions of armed groups affect their ability to resort to political violence. In other words, groups with similar allies and foes have similar patterns of violence.

Our new paper combines, for the first time, two spectral embedding techniques that have previously been considered separately: one that takes into account the direction of relationships between belligerents, and one that takes into consideration whether relationships between groups are positive or negative.


Nigeria and Benin to host major border conference in 2018

The 16th edition of the Border regions in Transition (BRIT) Conference will be co-hosted by the Institute for Peace and Strategic Studies at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria and the University of Abomey-Calavi in Benin from October 15 – 18, 2018.

It is the first time that BRIT – one of the two leading border conferences in the world – is organized in Africa. The conference, which will address “North-South Dialogue on Border Management”, has received the institutional support of several Nigerian authorities.

Since 1994, BRIT conferences have been jointly held in two cities situated in different countries, including San Diego-Tijuana (1999), Jerusalem-Palestine (2005), Fukuoka-Busan (2012), and Hamburg-Sønderborg (2016).


New book addresses transnational organizations in Africa

Our new book “African Border Disorders” was published in the Routledge Series in African and International Politics this week. Edited with my colleague Bill Miles at Northeastern, the book explores the relationships that bind states, transnational rebels and extremist organizations, and borders in Africa.

Combining network science with geographical analysis, the first part of the book highlights how the fluid alliances and conflicts between rebels, extremist organizations and states shape regional patterns of violence in Africa. The second part examines the spread of Islamist violence around Lake Chad through the lens of the violent group Boko Haram, which has evolved from a nationally oriented militia group, to an internationally networked organization. The third part of “African Border Disorders” explores how violent extremist organizations conceptualize state bound­aries and territory and, reciprocally, how the civil society and the state respond to the rise of transnational organizations.

This edited volume is the first tangible output of our international network funded by the Danish government. It builds on a two-day workshop organized at the Division of Global Affairs at Rutgers–The State University of New Jersey in September 2016.

Editors: Olivier J. Walther and William F.S. Miles. Contributors: Dan Cunningham (NPS), Caitriona Dowd (IDS), Nikolas Emmanuel (Copenhagen), Sean Everton (NPS), Christian Leuprecht (Queen’s), William F.S. Miles, Jaume Castan Pinos (SDU), Steven M. Radil (Idaho), David Skillicorn (Queen’s), Kristen Tsolis (MIIS), Olivier J. Walther, Bruce Whitehouse (Lehigh), Quan Zheng (Queen’s).