By Saverio Krätli, editor of Nomadic Peoples
Nomadic Peoples participated in ‘Mo(u)vement’ (2-6 May, Ottawa, Canada), the joint conference/intercongress of the Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA) and the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES). The ‘u’ in brackets caters for the bilingual approach of the initiative (English and French).
The Commission on Nomadic Peoples held a panel titled (literally, as in Boolean search strings) <order OR stability. Working with pastoral systems in a ‘messy’ world. Although not an unsuitable concept to describe the present state of global affairs, ‘messy’ was meant in the technical sense defined by Emery Roe (2013): systems that are structurally or irreducibly unstable, that cannot be ‘ordered’ into a steady or predictable state. Indeed, efforts to order them — reduce their uncertainty by introducing stability — have been observed to result only in increased turbulence (Roe’s ‘mess paradox’).
As messy contests become more common under the effect of financial volatility, political unrest, or climate change, notions of order as stability become more anachronistic and the relevance of the mess paradox spreads. The panel looked at the implications of the ‘mess paradox’ when working with pastoral systems. What are the alternative approaches to the understanding of order and stability, and by extension of ‘pastoral risk’? What is the cost, in development, humanitarian aid, or peace building, of continuing to operate with notions of order as a steady state?
We were unbelievably lucky to have Emery Roe himself opening the panel with an unscheduled presentation on high-reliability systems (working with ‘mess’) as a way of understanding pastoralism. A ‘mess’, Emery emphasised, does not have a solution but can nevertheless be managed in real time. To reflect this, the analysis of reliability and risk in messy systems needs to focus on their real-time existence and management. Real-time ‘high-reliability management’ creates relative (i.e. contextual) stability (or ‘low output variance’ in Emery’s language) by compensating variability in the environment (‘high input variance’) with variability in the processes of production (‘high process variance’). Policymakers and managers get caught in the mess paradox because of the conventional approach to control and variability, which by accepting only one state, ‘control/normal’, and defining crisis as its absence, treats all variability as problematic.
The panel had six presenters. Shinya Konaka (Shizuoka University, Japan), introduced the concept of ‘ontology of instability’ (or variability), based on his ethnography of material culture amongst internally displaced people (pastoralists) in East Africa. Sergio Magnani (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, France), described how pastoral mobility in the Senegal river valley has been made more variable and unpredictable as a consequence of the attempts to reduce it. More examples of the ways pastoralists engage positively with variability in the face of development efforts to replace it with stability were presented by Greta Semplici (Oxford University) and Nicolas Rasiulis (Ottawa University), based on ongoing Ph.D. programmes respectively with Turkana in northern Kenya, and reindeer herders in northern Mongolia.
The panel was closed by Shalima Talinbayi (Peking University, China), with an analysis of the widespread phenomenon of absentee livestock owners amongst Kazakhs in Northern Xinjiang, China, as a long-term outcome of the Rangeland Household Contract Policy introduced in the 1980s. CNP Chair Elliot Fratkin was ambushed to act as our discussant and graciously agreed. We had a great discussion, which for the panelists and those of the audience who could join us, carried on in the evening over dinner.
Overall, for an anthropology conference called ‘movement’, studies on pastoralism seemed remarkably absent. I counted four panels out of 105. On the bright side, the only other panel beside ours focusing on pastoralism — ‘Cultures of mobility in Inner Asia’, convened by Bumochir Dulam (National University of Mongolia) and Eric Thrift (University of Winnipeg) — was excellent. Using a ‘geography of absence’ approach, Ariell Ahearn (Oxford University) looked at pastoralists’ new dimensions of mobility, for example as triggered by splitting the household between bush and town, or associated to migrant labour. Eric tackled the theoretical implications of these new mobilities, finding that their analysis calls for an understanding of pastoral economies as constitutive parts of large complexes including non-pastoral realities such as urban centres, therefore outside the limits of merely ecological analysis. The third presentation, by Craig Janes (University of Waterloo), looked at the ways the combined action of climate change and neoliberal reforms has expanded patterns of or urban-rule mobility in contemporary Mongolia. The panel ended with a ‘grand final’ by Gaëlle Lacaze (Paris-Sorbonne), with a passionate but also refreshingly ‘non-sanitised’ look at social changes in Mongolia since the 1990s: including the explosion of alcoholism, the brain-drain of women, and (even there!) the burgeoning of nationalist/xenophobic ideology.
We left in the rain, just as when we arrived.