Beyond the Sea? Reviewing the manifold dimensions of water as barrier and bridge

Beyond the Sea? Reviewing the manifold dimensions of water as barrier and bridge

DFG-International Research Training Group 1540 „Baltic Borderlands"
Universität Greifswald
From - Until
20.09.2012 - 22.09.2012
IRTG Baltic Borderlands

From the beginning of mankind water has played an essential role by dividing and connecting different landscapes, peoples, cultures and identities. Although water has been the object of research in studies on maritime borders, dimensions of inclusion and exclusion that go beyond the mere physical character of water have often been neglected. This interdisciplinary conference intends to approach water beyond its immanent quality as a physical boundary and focuses on the character of water as a means of social, cultural, political or economic division and connection. The aim of the conference is to discuss the different roles and functions ascribed to water and what we can learn about social and mental boundaries through engaging with it.

Central aims and topics of the conference:

Throughout history water has been the basis for both inclusion and exclusion. Water bodies like oceans, lakes and rivers have often been experienced as physical borders between various geographical spaces and, consequently, as separating different peoples and cultures.

Yet, the function of water bodies as natural borders should be further scrutinised and critically reviewed. Why do some rivers and seas work as barriers, whereas others are regarded as bridges for social interaction? Obviously, narratives ascribe social meaning to them. For instance, the Mediterranean Sea has been a centre of civilization since antiquity, though today it is often considered to be the “graveyard of Europe” and a barrier walling off the “Fortress Europe”. On the other hand, though interaction was impeded by ideological obstacles during the Cold War, today the Baltic Sea Region can be regarded as a prime example for cooperation and peaceful transformation. Hence, the functions and meanings of water bodies undergo shifts over time and may vary in different cultural and social contexts.

Various actors have been actively collaborating on different maritime issues like environment, transportation and tourism. In this regard, water bodies do not only separate but also link different countries and societies and thereby can be perceived as bridges – depending on the respective interpretation and action. Hence, it has to be reconsidered if the demarcating function is only ascribed to water by different actors or if physical and attributed features coincide in this regard. There should be therefore a further discussion on how and why distinct functions of water are produced, maintained and transformed and what the underlying motives of such functional shifts could be.

The manifold dimensions of water as means of connection and separation have always been in the focus of literature, arts and cinematography which have been trying to depict the mysticism associated with water. Water as the essence of biological and cultural life can also be found in the great religions where it serves as a symbol of birth, origin, fertility and purity. Many religious traditions are based on water as a central element which can both unite people of the same belief and distinguish them from groups of other religions. The functions of water therefor go beyond the mere geographical barrier/bridge dichotomy and touch social, political, economic, religious and legal aspects.

Therefore, the conference encompasses, but is not limited, to the following aspects:

- the changing meaning and functional transformation of water as barrier and bridge
- water bodies (oceans, lakes, rivers) as historical physical borders and mental boundaries
- water bodies as extra legal spaces (piracy, smuggling, human trafficking)
- water as a resource (food, fishery, agriculture)
- social and political dimensions of water as a source for conflict and cooperation
- water in culture, fine arts and religion
- the governance of water bodies and their legal status
- water and mobility (trade, transportation, tourism)

Requirements, dates for application and organizational questions:

We invite senior scholars, young researchers (recent Ph.Ds and Post-Docs) and doctoral students from the fields of Anthropology, Cultural and Area Studies, Geography, History, Literature, Political Science/International Relations, Philosophy, Psychology, Sociology, Theology as well as neighbouring disciplines to submit paper proposals. If you are interested in contributing a paper, please submit an abstract of no more than 250 words and a short biographical note (max. 150 words) until 30 March 2012 to Successful applicants will be notified by the end of April.

More general information about the conference, programme, accommodation, travel and possibilities of financial support will soon be available on the web page of the International Research Training Group “Baltic Borderlands” (


Contact (announcement)

IRTG 1540 Baltic Borderlands

Department of History, University of Greifswald
Soldmannstr. 15, D-17487 Greifswald