What can our increasingly mobile world learn from pastoralists?

A recent PASTRES seminar at the Robert Schuman Centre at the European University in Florence discussed mobility, and how lessons from pastoralists might be important for thinking about policy themes such as international migration and cross-border trade. An audio recording and slides are below.


Why are pastoralists’ experiences relevant in our mobile world?

Pastoralists’ perspectives challenge many ideas derived from a settled state perspective – dominated as they are by fixity, settlement, controlled migration, regulated movement, fences and borders.

In a world characterised by a global web that enables continuous and growing mobilisation of resources, flows and exchanges, a perspective that starts from pastoral experience suggests new ways of thinking about policy and practice in a range of different areas, and forces us to challenge assumptions that have informed science and policy making in recent decades.

How do pastoralists move, and why?

Herders and shepherds move seasonally in search of opportunities to take care of their animals and ensure their best performance. They do so by taking into account the medium- and longer-term needs of their herds, as well as those of the household and of the rangelands.

For pastoralists, avoiding fixity and crossing borders are vital for chasing resource availability and market opportunities, or to escape climatic extremes and dangers or diseases. This means that flexible movement in response to changing conditions is essential for pastoral livelihoods. This emerges through extended networks and adaptive forms of governance.

Pastoralists’ responses to uncertainties hinge on specific patterns of mobility. These are not the same everywhere: different patterns have been described, including nomadic, transhumant, semi-sedentary agro-pastoralism, and others. More recently, analysts have described a continuum, whereby herders and herds move or do not move opportunistically, according to the risks and chances posed by ecological, economic and/or social domains.

Livelihood strategies in pastoral areas are constantly engaged in playing differently with mobility. In the Sahel, in the Maghreb, on the Tibetan plateau or Mediterranean Europe, the principle of mobility is retained as central to the livelihood strategy of pastoralists, although the associated social practices and technologies change continuously. The emergence of migratory flows, mobile phones, mechanised transport and other factors have shaped new patterns of mobility in these regions.

These include patterns of ‘inverse mobility’ in the Maghreb and Mashreq, where livestock movement is limited. Administrative borders confine pastoralists’ movements, and only a part of the household and herd move seasonally. Instead, water and forage are brought to livestock through mechanised vehicles, or, alternatively, ‘substitutional’ herding occurs, where absentee landlords hire shepherds and pay them through remittances.

Mobility is central to our societies

To some people, the practice of scanning rangelands looking for ‘greener pastures’ may seem like an ineffective, old-fashioned practice, a remnant of a tradition just waiting to disappear. Pastoral mobility has made herding communities difficult to analyse for scientists, and hard to accept for politicians. This is a major reason why pastoralists have inhabited the ‘margins’ of science and policymaking in the past.

Yet in  societies that increasingly live through and bet on enhanced and expanded mobility, through the migration of people and the global trade of goods, and whose technological developments in the last centuries have enhanced the possibilities of mobility, ignoring these pastoral experiences of mobility is inappropriate.

Mobility is  increasingly central to our societies. Nomadic practices and networks that enhance mobility are synonymous with a fluid, flexible, mobile modernity, which is governed through a continuous and growing flow of people, resources, information, commodities and finances. Yet our policy narratives and institutional settings are poorly equipped to tackle accelerating patterns of mobility.

Perhaps, as discussed at the recent seminar, we can learn from pastoralists as the world becomes more and more mobile.

3 thoughts

  1. I apologize for the length of this comment, but your seminar was provocative. You may want to produce a transcript of the post-presentation Q&A session, as a number of insights were raised there as well, which I’m sure can generate productive thinking further on.

    To choose one such insight: the notion that there are different types of immobility. This for me is extraordinarily important, namely, immobility (more formally, non-mobility) has its own flux/es and dynamic/s, as one respondent put it.

    I’m not sure I understand what the presenter fully meant, but if I may take over the story of immobility for a moment and push it further.

    Yes, from one perspective, differentiation of types of mobility and now immobility supports that idea that we are dealing with a continuum of strategies, where resources and their management range from more or less mobile to more or less immobile. (Such a “continuum” would look more like 4-dimensional chess, but that’s another story!)

    Differentiation into “more or less,” however, begs two methodological questions: What, if anything, is both mobile and immobile at the same time? (For example, the resource—one of several water points—is fixed in its use at its site, precisely because usages at this and the other water points are managed together over time and/or space.)

    More challenging and rewarding is answering the other question, I think: What in any of this is neither mobile nor immobile? Do we find cases where neither term together provides a goodness-of-fit for what is being observed in herding systems? If so, how does this help us better understand the importance of “mobility” elsewhere?

    At a first impression—what is neither mobile nor immobile?—seems to be contrary to the very notion of pastoralism and the theme of the seminar.

    But it is not antithetical if pastoralism all along has been about “multiple settlement templates,” rather than assuming pastoralism was a “pre-settlement template” that got screwed up because of modernity and all those drivers we now say we know and don’t love.

    Once we free ourselves of pre-settlement notions of pastoralism, then answers to—What is neither mobile nor immobile in contemporary herding societies?—become many.

    My own favorite is that of thinking of contemporary herding behavior—those multiple settlement strategies—as their own infrastructures. Yes, electrons move in an electricity grid; but the grid is managed as a system by real-time adjustments in its systemwide control variables, like frequency and voltage, over the entire system. Yes, individual livestock, grazing/browsing sites, and/or water point usage shift over time and space; but the system as a livestock/grazing/browsing/water system is managed by real-time adjustments in……what? The cross-season grazing/browsing itineraries of the herd and herders (i.e., itinerary as a control variable), for example?

    Answering the “what”, case-by-case, is to me the big empirical question—and there is no reason to believe there is just one what, if there is one at all.

    For instance, in another settlement template, is the livestock/grazing/browsing/water system managed as a system through real-time adjustments in the “neither mobile nor immobile” livelihood regime called “remittances from off-site household members”? (Think here of globalized financial and monetary infrastructures and how adjusting the real-time transactions involving remittances affects livestock/grazing/ browsing/water practices and livelihoods, here and now before questions of mobility or immobility ensue, if such questions arise at all in this settlement template)?

    To be clear I don’t know the answers to these and like questions at the “neither-nor” node of analysis.

    What is clear—and this is the value of your comparative discussions starting from the side of contemporary pastoralisms—is that by first being open to and understanding that there are different types of mobility, and then seeing immobility itself is not static or homogenous, gets us to the point of having to ask and answer, what is both/and? what is neither/nor? It is such a pathway, I believe, that is sorely missing and needed in the obsessive fixation by Western decision-makers and media over “illegal migration” there.


  2. thank you for these inspiring thoughts Emery. indeed we could say that patterns of mobility often hinge on immobile infrastructure; these might be roads, antennas, transhumance corridors, water points (but even identity, as some colleagues what admit) – which in fact have been established to spur mobilities. So indeed the im/mobility relationships should be more critically understood.


  3. A reply posted on behalf of Natasha Maru:

    Dear Emery,

    Thank you for taking the time to go through the blog and audio and for your detailed comment. Indeed, there’s many things you raise that we could think about.

    I have tried to respond to your comments below, apologies for the even longer message 🙂

    From the “mobilities paradigm” in which I based my intervention, I gather that mobilities and immobilities coexist not as a continuum in which they could be, material or conceptual, absolutes, but rather in a yin-yang fashion – existing only in relation and co-constituting each other. Therefore, this view ruptures the continuum of nomadic to sedentary, as it is not only a matter of degree, of more or less mobile. Rather, it is a matter of perspective, experience and inter-relationships. Immobility is then only a type of mobility and one cannot exist without the other (hence the use of the expression (im)mobilities).

    Adey (2006) tries to further develop the relational politics of mobility and immobility highlighting their differences and contingent relatedness using the example of airports. He contends that the separation between mobility and immobility is an “illusion” and “appearance” created by this relatedness. Following in a similar vein, one can take the example of an electricity grid as you bring up: in one sense the grid is an immobile infrastructure through which electricity moves. In another sense – the grid may move locations, or change technology and form, but the electricity passing through it remains unchanged – remains immobile. The same way, pastoralists move along certain routes and are mobile, but are also immobile in the recurring and habitual passing along the same routes.

    The question you pose first – what is both mobile and immobile – is easily answered: everything. Whether something is mobile or immobile is determined by the question one asks and what one chooses to focus on – one’s own position. For example, people often have a hard time defining a household in a pastoral community. In my experience, the “household” is different during migration, in the home village, when it comes to matters of inheritance, when it comes to rituals and ceremonies. Therefore one must reconsider what they are trying to understand through the trope of “household” and in what context they want to base this understanding. Similarly, what is mobile and immobile is a matter of time, scale, perspective, context and the experience of those embodying these.

    The second question you ask – what is neither mobile nor immobile – is extremely interesting and provides scope for newer conceptualisations. It leads me to the concept of “moorings” in the mobilities paradigm. “Moorings” are conceived as those relative immobilities that “enable, produce or presuppose” mobilities, for example a fuel stop on a road trip. Such a stop is different than stopping the car to take in the view (although that might be part of the reason, the purpose of taking a road trip in the first place), but the fuel stop exists only to support mobility. While the fuelling station may be the immobile infrastructure (through which oil moves), the “event” of the fuel stop is what renders utility to the infrastructure and also allows for continued mobility. The “event” then is the mooing. Can we think of moorings of as neither mobile nor immobile (can we think of it as “reserved (I’m)mobility” or “potential (I’m)mobility” ?) What happens if we consider gender relations as moorings (the fact that women remain at home allow men to migrate, for example) – can we then think of “moorings” as neither mobile or immobile?

    Of course these are conceptual musings rather than methodological ones, and the question of how these play out on the ground and can be captured is both pertinent and unanswered.

    I am still trying to think through the ideas on settlement strategies you mention – mostly because I haven’t read much on this. But then I wonder if this concept of “settlement” brings us back to location from the more deterritorialized concepts we have been speaking about in our discussion of (im)mobilities. I like what you say about the real-time adjustments, and this is the very question I want to try to answer through my PhD. I think that the literature on pastoralism is far too focussed on the grid or the natural resource base through which mobility is taken-for-granted to flow. By studying the everyday experiences of mobility, I want to unveil this process of adjustment, the thoughts, imaginations, calculations, considerations and feelings that frame mobility at the granular level and how they are executed, enacted, and performed. These “adjustments” can then be seen as a process of “curation” – carefully choosing certain outcomes, not only for livelihood, but for lifestyle, wellbeing, pleasure, etc. Could such an understanding better inform how mobility evolves?

    Some references:
    Hannam, K., Sheller, M., and Urry, J. 2006. “Editorial: Mobilities, Immobilities and Moorings.” Mobilities 1(1):1–22.
    Adey, P. 2006. “If Mobility Is Everything Then It Is Nothing: Towards a Relational Politics of (Im)Mobilities.” Mobilities1(1):75–94.
    Söderström, O. et al. 2013 Introduction: Of mobilities and moorings: critical perspectives. In Söderström, O., Randeria, S., Ruedin, D., D’Amato, G. and Panese, F. (eds.) Critical Mobilities, London Routledge.”


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