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Revista Interamericana de Bibliografía (RIB)
Número: 1-4
Título: 1997
Sección: Artículos / Articles

Placing Frontiers in Context

Turner’s frontier hypothesis had failed as “metatheory” throughout the Western Hemisphere. Even if the hypothesis is wanting as a general explanatory device, however, the frontier concept itself offers intriguing and continuing possibilities for studying differential development in the Americas and elsewhere.

Revisionist historians notwithstanding, the frontier as an analytical construct remains important in framing the history of the Western Hemisphere. I believe it counterproductive to bury the concept of frontier simply because Turner’s formulation has proved incorrect.

Several generations of writers rightly criticized Turner’s depiction of the frontier as “the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” The stark either/or formulation of the frontier thesis and of the metropolitan school distorts the importance of interactions across frontiers. These constructs also ignore variations among different types of frontiers.

As noted, Latin American thinkers both anticipated and echoed Turner’s pithy concept of the frontier. Interestingly, South American philosophers and novelists, more than historians, highlighted the importance of frontier interactions. The relationship of city and country, or as Domingo F. Sarmiento formulated it, “Civilization and Barbarism,” is an old, but useful theme. Rebellion in the Backlands (1902), by Euclides da Cunha (1866-1909), is another classic study of conflict between people of the backlands and the forces of urban modernization.29

Rómulo Gallegos (1884-1969) made the battle between civilization and barbarism the central motif of his powerful novel, Doña Bárbara (1929). Santos Luzardo, from the city, confronts the powerful witch of the Venezuelan llanos, Doña Bárbara. Civilization triumphs over barbarism, but Gallegos also reveals the close ties and crosscurrents between the two.

Silvio Duncan Baretta and John Markoff moved the motif from the realm of fiction to sociology. They creatively explored the complex interactions between urban “civilization” and cattle frontier “barbarism” in their oft-cited 1978 article. They demonstrated that civilization was “not only the ‘mother of barbarism’; it was also its child.”30

Walter Prescott Webb expanded the concept of frontiers to encompass the entire Western Hemisphere. The Great Frontier (1964) juxtaposed New World frontiers with European metropolis. I consider his vision a forerunner of world systems analysis.31

Thomas D. Hall and others are giving world systems analysis some fine tuning. Hall gives new life and significance to frontier analysis by developing a more nuanced look at the periphery. Frontier areas range from weakly incorporated (“contact periphery”) to moderately incorporated (“region of refuge”). Hall’s analysis accommodates important frontier variations as well as intra-frontier processes and conflicts.32

Hall revitalizes the frontier concept by placing it within a world systems framework. “A frontier,” he writes, “is where, in social and geographical space, incorporation occurs.” By identifying levels of interaction and incorporation, Hall engenders the frontier with an analytical richness lacking in Turner’s simple dualism. “Frontiers are integral parts of world-systems, even though they are—by definition—on the fringe.”33

Recent presidents of the Western History Association (WHA) have agreed that the frontier concept should be refined, not buried. In his 1987 presidential address, Martin Ridge reminded us that “the history of frontier theory is too valuable to abandon.”34

In his 1992 WHA presidential address, Richard Maxwell Brown recast and reinvigorated the frontier concept. He placed Indian-white frontier conflict in the context of incorporation, a view consonant with Hall’s work. “From 1850 to 1920, the conservative, consolidating authority of modern capitalistic forces infused the dynamics of the Western Civil War of Incorporation.”35

Brown drew recent research on frontier social marginals, including cowboys and bandits, to pose a broad question:
Did a nineteenth-century Western Hemispheric Civil War of Incorporation extend all the way north from the cattle spreads of Chile and Argentina to the prairies of western Canada? The intriguing evidence in Richard W. Slatta’s recent comparative study of cowboys of South and North America suggests an affirmative answer.36
In conclusion, even if we acquiesce to burying Turner, we should demur from burying the concept of the frontier with him. Frontiers should be framed within the process of incorporation. Frontier social changes and interactions need more probing. As Baretta and Markoff showed us, strong forces operated across the porous cultural membranes typical of frontiers. We need to identify and analyze these forces, some indigenous, some European in origin.