Stories about the Middle Ages may conjure images of kings proudly poring over maps marking the clear-cut borders of their conquests. But that depiction — at least the element involving maps — may need some modification, according to Jordan Branch. While doing some initial research for his thesis at the University of California–Berkeley, Branch found that while maps have been around for centuries, the stark delineations that separate states and nations are not nearly so old. Why then, Branch wondered, did nations become so fixated on establishing these very specific boundaries when none existed before?
“If you go five or six hundred years back, there was not this emphasis on drawing lines between territorial states. Instead, governments often ruled over people based on their identity or their sworn allegiance,” Branch said.
It wasn’t until several hundred years after those original maps came into popularity, Branch found, that borders between countries were set and adhered to. Once rulers realized that land could be carved up in such a specific fashion, the way they ruled also began to change.
“Once rulers started using maps, it became the natural way to put their rule into practice, both vis a vis each other, but also vis a vis their subjects,” Branch said.
That shift in ruler mindset set international politics off in a new direction, with issues like border disputes and treaties suddenly becoming a common part of the country-to-country relations that are such a large element in international relations today.
Branch is in the process of turning that research into a book. When he’s done with that, he’d like to shift that same work into the modern era, exploring how new tools like digital mapping and GPS might be further changing the way countries interact, possibly re-igniting centuries-old border disputes or inciting new ones.
Branch’s inclination toward maps and other technological tools both past and present may come as no surprise given that he started out as an engineering major in his undergraduate years at Stanford. While he was proficient in the subject matter, Branch found his interest waning partway through the courseload and switched to an international relations major, which had a more appealing variety of classes. After he graduated, Branch went on to work on the editorial staff at the Journal of Democracy in Washington, D.C. before realizing that research and writing were his true calling. He moved on, earning his master’s and Ph.D. in political science at Berkeley.
With several years as a teaching assistant under his belt, Branch said he’s excited to chart his own course at the head of the class. “When you’re a teaching assistant as many times as I was, it’s obviously easier, but you also get tired of not getting to choose the subject matter and the readings. I’m really excited about it. I see this as a chance to get to know a lot of great students and to work with them more closely.”