Professor studies relationship between physical, symbolic borders

By Liz Lebron

A map of Sicily.Assistant Professor of Geography and International Studies Ilaria Giglioli doesn’t see borders the same way most people do. To her, they are fluid. Sometimes they are physical, and others symbolic. Nevertheless, borders can bestow or deny citizenship, decide who belongs and who is an outsider, and define who has legitimate claim to a national identity.

Giglioli is from the north of Italy;  her research is focused in the south, on the border between that country and modern-day Tunisia. The region has traditionally seen both southern and northern migration, though most recently Tunisians have sought better economic opportunities in Italy and France.

“How did we come to understand this border as normal,” wondered Giglioli, “in a place where there has long been a history of backwards and forwards movement? I was interested in understanding … how does the demarcation of difference happen? How do you define who is European and who is not European? Who is a legitimate member and a national of the European community, and who’s not?”

To understand this relationship, Giglioli traveled to Sicily, the southernmost island of Italy and the European Union’s southern border. There, members of the Tunisian diaspora are viewed as outsiders.

“Sicilians have historically been this internally marginalized … population inside of Europe. How is it that all of a sudden this population becomes European? Becomes acceptable?”

It’s a matter of trust

Professor Giglioli spent six months in Sicily conducting ethnographic and archival research, including interviews and oral histories. To get Sicilians and Tunisians to open up about their feelings toward one another, she first had to earn their trust.

“The kind of research I do is based on developing relationships with people who know who you are, and who will recommend you to someone else,” said Giglioli. “I’m from the north of Italy, and there’s definitely some level of tension and animosity between south and north. Definitely I got a much better reception when I was the Italian coming from the U.S. than the Italian coming from the north.”

Connecting with Tunisians had its own set of challenges, but Giglioli’s language skills helped her gain entry into that community. In addition to her native tongue, she also speaks English, French, Spanish and Arabic. “That shifted the dynamic a lot,” concedes Giglioli. “It shifted the power dynamic in interviews because all of a sudden I’m the one that’s in the second language.”

Shifting borders

Professor Giglioli is writing a book about her work in Sicily, which shows, among other things, that Sicilians affirm their Italian heritage by marking themselves as different than Tunisians. She is turning to a border closer to her new home in Sarasota for her next project.

“I’m looking to develop my research from the comparative perspective between the Mediterranean border and the U.S.-Mexico border,” Giglioli said. “There’s a lot of similarities to what’s happening in both sites both in terms of border fortification and the logic behind it, the rhetoric.”

To help her shift gears, Giglioli meets regularly with a group of colleagues at New College who are also in the early stages of research. She is also working on an independent study project with a group of students for the upcoming winter term.

“At a more local level, I’m looking forward to developing some kind of collaboration with a migrant rights organization,” shared Giglioli. “I’m teaching an ISP in January that’s starting to lay the groundwork for a project that’s more locally embedded.”

–Liz Lebron is associate director of communications and marketing at New College of Florida


Located in Sarasota, New College of Florida has educated intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement since its founding in 1960. As the State of Florida’s designated honors college, New College provides an exceptional education that transforms students’ intellectual curiosity into personal accomplishment. The 110-acre bay front campus is home to more than 800 students and 80 full-time faculty engaged in interdisciplinary research and collaborative learning. New College offers nearly 40 areas of concentration for undergraduates and a master’s degree program in Data Science.

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