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Walls, Fences, Borders and Boundaries: Essays on Social Exclusion, Inclusion and Integration, Eds. Mayra Besosa, Chengiah Rogers Ragaven, Sharon Loree Allen, Anthony O’Halloran, Dubuque (Iowa): Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, 2010, pp. 328, hb. $55.00, ISBN 978 0 7575 7940 0

Reviewer: Cathal O’Connell*

This collection of essays is an eclectic and engaging study which addresses the phenomenon of social exclusion, inclusion and integration through a range of case studies from across the globe. The common theme of the contributions is the role played by barriers, be these in the form of walls, fences, borders or boundaries, on people’s everyday lives. The book offers a novel and thought-provoking view of a phenomenon which has almost by stealth come to define how we live our lives and relate to the world around us to an ever increasing degree. The essays presented offer the reader a multi-disciplinary perspective on how our world and our lives are defined, shaped and configured by what we can and cannot do, where we can and cannot go, and who we can and cannot interact with as a result of the barriers and boundaries all around us.

The book is divided into eleven distinct chapters and takes a genuinely global perspective in terms of the range of topic covered. The sheer span and variety of topics could have been a weakness of the collection – it could have led to an uneven, diluted and disparate series of contributions which didn’t quite add up to a coherent whole. However that pitfall has very clearly been avoided. It is evident that each of the authors worked closely to the brief as set out by the editors and addressed their respective topics vis-à-vis the impact of walls, fences and boundaries with focus and clarity. So while the guiding hand of the editors is evident so is the application of the authors in adhering to the brief.

A further strength of the publication is that the reader can dip in and out at their own discretion as this is not a collection which needs to be read in strict sequence. So the narratives can transport the reader from the chapter of O’Connor (et al) on the increasingly anonymous agricultural tracts of rural Ireland (in contrast to the intimate field landscape that once existed) to the account by Fitzgibbon and Hirzel on the dreadful hardships endured by the Sahrawi people in the north of Africa who live in the shadow of the longest military wall on earth. Similarly we can traverse from the bizarre but seemingly necessary peace walls which zig zag through the green spaces of Belfast as analysed by Clodagh Harris to the critique of the Israeli-built iron wall in Palestine from Chengiah Rogers Ragaven.

Walls and boundaries are as much symbolic as material, as much urban as rural, and as much about the present and the future as the past. The contribution of Steve Gaetz and Seamus O’Tuama highlights how being on the wrong side of the ‘rights wall’ has profound and life-threatening implications for young out-of-home Canadians, while the account by Chip Crofts of walls of New Haven show how it can be fatal to stray beyond one’s own neighbourhood such is the degree of enmity between neighbouring communities who are all equally disadvantaged in the greater scheme of things.

If there is a limitation to the book it is the absence of analysis of what could be termed virtual walls which now govern our lives as much as physical barriers do. The most profound barriers which we must now negotiate are invisible to the naked eye but are rooted in data bases, sophisticated surveillance systems, regulations and legal frameworks. Migration, employment, welfare entitlement, urban planning, mobility and consumption, are all increasingly configured by who is inside the virtual wall, thereby leading to a world of insiders and outsiders who may often intermingle side by side. Thus the person beside us on the train, bus or street is not necessarily an insider if his or her status places them on the other side of the virtual divide.

As our public spaces shrink and are transformed into privately-regulated security zones and virtual fortresses the insider/outsider dichotomy is accentuated. This trend has profound implications for freedom, democracy, tolerance and diversity and appears to be compounded by a self-justifying rhetoric drawn from the “war on terror” narrative. However, aside from that observation it is difficult to find fault with the publication. The editors have done an excellent job in producing a reader-friendly format which also has great scope as a teaching aid. Each chapter contains a range of very useful discussion questions, data-gathering tasks and follow-up readings and many of the chapters contain photographs and illustrations which depict the case studies under discussion. All in all this is a very laudable text on a topic which raises issues that everyone concerned with social justice, human rights and social inclusion will relate to.