Boundaries: Definition, Perspectives & Roles

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The concept of boundaries is a very important part of all human societies. In this lesson, we're going to explore this concept and check out a few different types of boundaries that govern many human interactions.


Growing up, we're told that it's important to know our boundaries. That bit of wisdom is unsurprising given that humans seem to be obsessed with creating lines of distinction. Basically, we like boundaries, things that indicate a separation between places or entities. Anthropologists have long noted that practically all human groups embrace some sense of boundaries within their society, which tells us that this isn't simply a cultural thing.

Boundaries Between People

The concept of a boundary is a loose one. This concept simply describes the idea or existence of some border (physical or intangible) between things. So, we need to break it down a little further. Many of the boundaries in our societies are built to serve as a division between humans and other humans.

Personal Space

Let's start with the most basic and small-scale boundary: the one surrounding ourselves. Psychologists claim that our comfort in many situations is based on the boundaries we create through the physical distance between ourselves and others. The most intimate of these boundaries is called personal space. The need for personal space is universal, biological, but the amount of personal space we need actually varies by culture. People in the United States tend to have a wider boundary around them that defines personal space, while people in Italy and Japan have smaller ones and are more comfortable being very near to others.

How much space do you need?
Space bubble

Rites of Passage

So, how do boundaries work on a larger scale? There are actually several boundaries within individual human societies. These boundaries are mostly cultural and vary widely around the world. Common ones, however, have included gender, age, levels of education or wealth, and class or ancestry. While some of these boundaries may be seen as impermeable by people in that society, others are meant to be crossed. The French/Dutch ethnographer Arnold van Gennep described rites of passage as ceremonial transitions from one group within a society into another. For example, many cultures treat a certain age as the point of adulthood and celebrate that birthday in a unique fashion, and this ceremony often symbolizes the crossing of a boundary within that culture.

In Judaism, the bar mitzvah is an important rite of passage indicating a coming of age
Bar mitzvah

Imagined Communities

On an even larger scale, humans also create boundaries around their groups. In 1983, professor Benedict Anderson described the phenomenon of nationalism as an ''imagined community''. People in the same nation may never meet each other but still feel connected within the boundaries of that identity. So, what unites people within an imagined community? Shared experiences like language, religion, national history, national heroes, or ethnic identification all work together to create the boundaries that define one group, and distinguish them from others.

Anderson's theory can help us understand how groups of all sizes identify themselves as being distinct from other groups. Commonalities create invisible boundaries that separate those within the nation or community from those outside. Scholars have applied this idea to all sorts of human groups. Even the fandom of football teams in the United States have been described as imagined communities, with members as patriotic as those of any nation.

Fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers are definitely their own community
Pittsburgh Steelers


There's one obvious thing we're missing in our discussion of human boundaries, and that's the physical one. A border is a physical boundary created between human groups. In our modern societies, we most often talk about this in terms of national borders. Anything within the border is ours; anything outside of it is foreign. This is a powerful concept in many places, and the notion of protecting the border has been an unchallengeable force in modern politics.

However, borders aren't always the rigid things they seem to be. For example, the US/Mexico border was simply a line in the sand until the mid-20th century. It was neglected by people on either side, who crossed it daily and developed strong transborder identities, or those that were defined by constant defiance of this seemingly arbitrary boundary.

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