“Seen Through a Spatial Lens … ”: Interview with Benjamin Tallis

This interview is part of the series “Seen Through a Spatial Lens … – Spatializations in Global Times”. The series presents the guests invited by the Collaborative Research Centre 1199 “Processes of Globalization Under the Global Condition” at the University of Leipzig. The short interviews combine a peek at the scholars’ research with an invitation to creatively reflect upon the centre’s focus on spatializations. Enjoy reading!

Benjamin Tallis. Photo: Universität Leipzig.

Benjamin Tallis is Senior Researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague and from October to December 2017 Fellow of the Leibniz ScienceCampus “Eastern Europe – Global Area” in Leipzig.

In three sentences, what do you research and which questions guide your research?

I research how people can live, how they are governed, and how they govern themselves in different places. I look at how these places – whether countries or regions – relate to each other, in cooperation or in conflict, and how they are divided from each other by borders. I look at these issues from a variety of perspectives in order to understand how the ways people live and are governed and how our lives are ordered are affected by or expressed in political, social, cultural, and material forms.

What motivates you in your research? Which personal experiences encourage you to continue your research?

I want to understand aspects of the world for two main reasons: 1. Because they are intrinsically interesting and you are always surprised or enlightened by looking deeply and broadly at these kind of issues. 2. To change them for the better. I started researching these topics after I became dissatisfied with my work for the EU in Ukraine and I wanted to use this dissatisfaction productively to understand how and why different people are treated differently or have different possibilities. I then wanted to use this understanding to help create ways of improving the possibilities that people in various places, particularly but not only Ukraine, have and for creating more equitable and progressive governance that can benefit Europeans more widely.

Which key insights from your research do you consider to be the most surprising for general audiences? Why do you believe this to be the case?

That, on the Eastern frontier and in the Eastern neighbourhood, there is generally no such thing as “fortress Europe” but that the EU and its member states have failed to learn the lessons of their past successes, which have been built on openness, integration and confidence in the progressive tendencies that can be unleashed by opening up mobilities for people and by getting the balance of security and mobility right rather than focusing too much on security. However, people also might be surprised that I conclude that increased border control can, if done right, increase rather than decrease mobility, whereas prioritising the protection of human and fundamental rights without thinking through how this is done can stop people making the journeys they need and want to make.

Seen through a spatial lens, which processes of spatialization – understood as a central dimension and result of social actions – are particularly relevant in your research? Why?

The spatial aspects of how we make borders, in the ways and places that we do fascinates me – particularly in the context of the Schengen zone, where there are no longer permanent frontier controls at fixed locations, but also in the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood in the context of “remote control” bordering practices and other forms of externalization. This means looking at two aspects of spatialization or perhaps place-making – how we make places into borders, but also how borders make places and how these borderings with their associated de- and re-materializations and territorializations relate to questions of subjectivity and identity, order and governance. Of course, we can’t only look at the spatial aspects of these questions but to how spatiality is connected to temporalities and to socio-political processes, but space is a key aspect of the issues that I look at.

Let’s take a look from the future! Which processes of spatialization in the early twenty-first century were crucial for society in 2050?

The failed (and always doomed) attempt to re-border states as “sovereign” around national frontiers and then the successful progressive reaction to that which found ways to balance concerns about community and rootedness, with the mobilities and flows that make our world more prosperous, peaceful and enjoyable. The painful self-exclusion from the EU by the Central and East European (CEE) countries and the hard work they had to do to join again (after the collapse) was a showcase of the intersection of political, spatial and temporal factors that directly impacted on identities, borders and orders in CEE and beyond.

What role could science – and your research – have played in this development and how do you think this could have happened?

Understanding how and why mobilities take place and thus how borders must facilitate flows whilst also providing security was key to helping recover, as was linking border questions to issues of social inclusion and integration – not just for recent arrivals but for longer-standing “local” or “native” populations. This, allied to the greater understanding of the need to balance “risk analysis” with ‘opportunity analysis’ in policy making on border, mobility and security issues, as well as the greater exploration and demonstration of the culturally contingent construction of borders helped to show how artificial borders are but how real their effects are.


Citation: “Seen Through a Spatial Lens … ”: Interview with Benjamin Tallis, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 18.04.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/9754.

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