Unit Cultures and Conflicts in the World Today

International relations
Study-unit Code
Migration, globalisation and world governance
Dario Biocca
  • Dario Biocca
  • 36 ore - Dario Biocca
Course Regulation
Coorte 2023
Learning activities
Attività formative affini o integrative
Academic discipline
Type of study-unit
Obbligatorio (Required)
Type of learning activities
Attività formativa monodisciplinare
Language of instruction
In the past walls and barriers were built to protect communities from hostile invasion or to prevent people from leaving their home. In the Middle Ages, massive fortified walls still encircled nearly all European cities. In the late 19th Century, as Europe benefitted from an extended period of peace, local governments began dismantling their formidable defensive apparatus, regarded as obsolete, and citizens and goods were allowed to circulate more freely. However, walls did not disappear. As early as 1928 France approved the construction of a grand system of steel and concrete barriers intended to avert German aggression; similar walls appeared elsewhere within and beyond the borders of Europe. Eventually, in 1961 the Berlin wall marked the most dramatic and long-lasting fracture between the West and the East. Thereafter, more walls were built in Cyprus, Morocco, Israel and then Pakistan, the United States, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere.

This course explores the history of the most significant barriers built in the modern world and examines the debates and controversies surrounding the construction of each structure. Did walls achieve their alleged objectives? Did they provide a protective shield? Or did they merely reflect the inadequacies of modern diplomacy, intercultural dialogue, and peace-making? Are contemporary walls the product of a “cold war mentality”? Or do they effectively prevent conflict? Each week our readings and class discussions will focus on a particular wall and the social-political context in which it was built. Students will carry out a collective analysis and then, in a paper, individually select one structure and analyze it, highlighting its features and outlining potential long-term social, political, and environmental effects.
Reference texts
There are no course books to buy. All reading material, including films, maps, photos, etc. will be distributed in class and/or made available on the Moodle platform Unistudium
Educational objectives
The course makes use of essays, memoires, maps, archival records, photographs, videos, and musical recordings to study the complexity of contexts and cultures. Sources will also include excerpts from books, personal letters, parliamentary debates, and televised interviews, and media reports will be used in the study of contemporary walls whenever historical records are not available. Although these sources are diverse in kind, the general approach of the course is historiographical: students will learn to interpret and evaluate them as pieces of historical evidence. The course will also enable students to use past experiences to make discerning assessments of the options available to political leaders and peace makers, a valuable skill in a world in which governments and non-governmental bodies make significant efforts to anticipate and avert conflict and to provide aid to victims.
Proficiency in English, both spoken and written, is essential.
Teaching methods
Lectures, discussions. Films, videos, charts and pictures are used in class and are intended as course study material.
Other information
This course is elective. Please enroll only if your level of English allows you to participate to class discussions and write your exams and term paper in English.
Learning verification modality
Class grades will be based on the following assessments.

20% class participation

Class participation means developing arguments, articulating questions, and sharing opinions in and with the class. It also means reading assignments as scheduled and preparing for class discussions. Occasionally topics generate disagreement; class participation requires a genuine effort to accept different and even conflicting opinions.

20% midterm exam

The midterm exam (1 hour) is divided into two parts. The first is intended to verify the acquisition of factual information (names, places, dates, etc.) from readings and lectures. The second part aims at testing the ability to support a point of view with convincing arguments. Guidelines for preparing for the midterm will be provided one week in advance.

20% final exam

The final exam (1 hour) is structured in the same manner. It covers the material assigned and discussed in the second half of the course. Guidelines for preparing for the final exam will be provided one week in advance.

40% paper

The paper (10-12 pages) should reflect the ability to examine and discuss a particular context where a wall or a barrier was (or is being) built and to consider relevant research carried out by others, such as historians, anthropologists, political scientists, security experts, and reporters. The essay should present a point of view rather than a description. Abstracts should be sent to the instructor and individually discussed before a final draft is submitted. Plagiarism is not accepted, and papers must indicate, where appropriate, all sources used. Further information on footnotes and bibliography will be provided in class.
Extended program
Topic 1
Archetypes and precursors: The Great wall in China, Hadrian’s wall in Britannia, and the Aurelian walls in Rome provide striking evidence of the military power and engineering skills achieved by ancient empires, and also reveal persistent attitudes towards peoples and cultures regarded as primitive or hostile. The course begins with the study of ancient barriers and walls and includes an overview of the literature that has recently adopted a new, multidisciplinary approach to the study of conflict and land partition.

Topic 2
The Belfast City Cemetery. In the late 19th Century, in an effort to provide the city with a multidenominational, public cemetery, Belfast authorities in Northern Ireland inserted an underground barrier of stones and concrete to separate Catholic from Protestant as well as Jewish graves. Today the “Sunken Wall” provides disturbing testimony to the bloody conflict that plagued Ulster and its peoples before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Topic 3
The Maginot Line. In the aftermath of World War I the French military requested financial support for the construction of a formidable line of fortifications which included underground barracks and electric railways along the borders with Germany. The Maginot line was intended to prevent a new German attack. In 1940, however, the structure proved useless. In 1944 German armored divisions even found shelter from Allied aerial incursions hiding behind the French-built Maginot line. This class will focus on the political and cultural motives behind the construction of the fortified line and the decision to finally dismantle it in the 1960s.

Topic 4
The Berlin Wall. In October 1961, the Soviets built a wall that became the symbol of the cold war and signaled the closing of all diplomatic and military cooperation between the powers that had defeated Nazi Germany, marking the start of a new era of rivalry and confrontation. Readings include newly edited documents related to Berlin and other German cities and rural areas along the border with the German Democratic Republic.

Topic 5
Cyprus’ Green Zone. Following the 1974 Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus, a United Nations peace force (UNFICYP) helped establish a neutral area between the new Greek and Turkish states. The area was (and remains) protected by a wall which prevents contacts between local armed forces and civilian populations. Readings include documents from the 1974 invasion as well as reports from Famagusta, a now deserted city along the eastern shores of Cyprus surrounded by an impenetrable wall of concrete and steel.

Topic 6
The Berm. In order to prevent the spreading of armed conflict and secession in the desert region of Western Sahara, in the 1970s the Royal Government of Morocco built the longest of all contemporary walls and carried out the expulsion of thousands of Sahrawi citizens into Algeria. A guerrilla war ensued and the future of the region remains uncertain. Class discussion will focus on the peculiarities of the sand wall, commonly called “Berm,” and the humanitarian work of MINURSO, the United Nations peace force deployed in the region.

Topic 7
The Muna. During World War II, in a forested area of the Espelkamp district, in northern Westphalia, the Wehrmacht built a high wall to hide the entrance to a massive, secret underground facility called “Muna,” devoted to nuclear research and the stockpiling of forbidden chemical weapons. Heavily bombed by the British Royal Air Force in 1944-5, the structure remained buried underground. Local citizens now demand that authorities open hidden tunnels and inspect weapon repositories – to prevent radioactive or chemical contamination and, above all, to come to terms with the past.

Topic 8
The Security Fence, Israel. In the wake of the second Intifada, the Israeli government began construction of a barrier designed to encircle the West Bank and prevent terror attacks. Conceived as a temporary structure along the “green line,” the barrier became permanent and currently defines the borders between two (future) states. Readings and discussion in this class will examine the controversial construction of the Security fence and its expansion, as well as the Gaza barrier and the borders with Egypt.

Topic 9
The Vietnam Memorial Wall. Maya Lin, an undergraduate student at Yale University, designed the project and oversaw the construction of a Memorial monument to the Vietnam war in Washington DC. Completed in 1982, the black granite wall became a powerful symbol of reconciliation and eventually contributed to defusing the long lasting controversy over the war in South East Asia. Documents, interviews, and photos presented in class will examine the steps that led to the selection of Lin’s project and discuss the Congress’ objections and requests for modifications.

Topic 10
The Korean Wall. Since 1989 the Government of Pyongyang has made claims that the US military and South Korea have secretly built a 250 km wall south of the demilitarized zone. The wall was reportedly designed in such a manner that it was invisible to viewers from the south. Does the Korean wall exist? If so, who built it and for what purpose? Intelligence files and media reports reflect the bitter propaganda war between the Seoul and the Pyongyang governments over the alleged construction of a Korean wall.

Topic 11
The US-Mexico border. The Secure Fence Act of 2006 provided for the establishment of 700 additional miles of fencing, checkpoints, and other measures intended to curtail illegal immigration. Since then, the US-Mexico border has been the subject of growing political debate on both sides of the barrier. The Trump administration has recently proposed the completion of a concrete wall along the entire span of the frontier line. Congressional transcripts and other sources present different points of views and perspectives from either side of the US-Mexico border.

Topic 12
Virtual walls. Experts suggest that technology has made walls and other physical barriers obsolete. Drones, sensors, satellite imagery, video recordings, and other instruments derived from surveillance and security research allow for more effective scanning and appropriate countermeasures. The class discusses new perspectives on terrorism, crime, labor, human trafficking, and global trade in light of the deployment of invisible high-tech barriers throughout the world. Readings include material on barriers recently built around the world, from Guatemala and Hungary to Ceuta and Sao Paulo.
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