It is commonly thought that, thanks to globalization, nation-state borders are becoming increasingly porous. In Sorting Machines: The Reinvention of the Border in the 21st Century (Polity, 2022) Steffen Mau shows that this view is misleading: borders are not getting more permeable in the era of globalization, but rather are being turned into powerful sorting machines. Today they fulfill their separation function better and more effectively than ever. While the cross-border movement of people has steadily increased in recent decades, a counter-development has taken place at the same time: in many places, new deterrent walls and militarized border crossings are being created. Borders have also become increasingly selective. Supported by digitalization, they have been upgraded to smart borders, and border control has expanded spatially on a massive scale, even becoming a global enterprise that is detached from territory.
Steffen Mau shows how the new sorting machines create mobility and immobility at the same time: for some travellers, borders open like department-store doors, but for others they remain closed more firmly than ever. While a small circle of privileged people are allowed to travel almost everywhere today, the vast majority of the world’s population continues to be systematically excluded. Nowhere is the Janus face of globalization more evident than at the borders of the 21st century.
Originally published in German in 2021, this new English edition was translated by Nicola Barfoot.
Steffen Mau is Professor of Macrosociology at the Humboldt University of Berlin. His recent works include The Metric Society: On the Quantification of the Social (2019) and Inequality, Marketization and the Majority Class: Why Did the European Middle Classes Accept Neo-Liberalism? (2015).
Catriona Gold is a PhD candidate in Geography at University College London. She is currently researching the US Passport Office's role in governing Cold War travel, and broadly interested in questions of security, surveillance and mobility. She can be reached by email, Mastodon or Twitter.
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