Pastoral Mobilities Methodologies: Exploring Frameworks and Methods

Authors: Greta Semplici, Ariell Ahearn, Jill Blau, Linda Pappagallo, Natasha Maru and Giulia Gonzales

Between the 18th and the 21st of June 2019, the Adventist University of Friedensau in Germany welcomed twenty-one researchers from Italy, Germany, Oman, Namibia, the Netherlands, the USA, and Britain in their peaceful and wooded sanctuary for a writing workshop.


The workshop was organized by a group of six women, early academics, interested in exploring the challenge of representation of pastoral systems. They met for the first time at the Oxford Desert Conference in 2017 and have since grappled with an important gap in the pastoralism scholarship—one which leaves progress in the conceptual underpinnings of pastoral livelihoods and their environment unaccompanied by reflections on research methodologies, broadly understood as encompassing the philosophy, the ethics, and politics of knowledge production. Under the opinion that “new theory” and “old methodology” continue to produce problematic representations of pastoral systems, the six women launched the idea of a writing workshop with the goal to stimulate critical reflections on the shortcomings of our current methodological repertoire and align with theoretical developments as well as contemporary empirics of pastoral settings.

organisers and camel.jpg

Over four days, participants discussed, confronted, and shared their own experiences researching with nomadic people. Discussions focussed particularly on problematics of representation, data collection, and research design. Our meeting at Friedensau University was more than a standard writing workshop, in that its organisation was a bold attempt by the six organisers to move away from formalised academic structures towards creating alternative spaces such as open circles, documentary evenings, non-textual presentations, and individual writing to creatively and openly explore our hybrid experiences as researcher-activists-practitioners and create opportunities for the creation of a supportive network of scholars.




The workshop used the image of a camel as a heuristic framework to represent key methodological aspects. The intention was to visualise methodologies as the “whole body” of a camel, in motion, as a result of the joint action of its constituent parts: head, stomach, legs. The head represents conceptual and epistemological understanding of mobility as it underpins research design, the stomach represents processes through which methods are used to “digest” data depending on indicators, categorisations, and unit of analysis, and finally the legs represent the practicalities of how data is collected and produced during fieldwork.


Participants came to the workshop with working papers which ranged from the use of language, digital ethnography, and flexible and fuzzy epistemologies to different approaches to representing and understanding (im)mobility. The papers where divided into head, stomach and legs discussion-groups where experienced mentors provided extensive feedback on individual papers while facilitators kept track of internal dialogues and discussions amongst clustered topics. The following summarises the threads that were discussed in each of the groups:

  • The head group proposed various lenses to studying pastoral mobility—mobility as commons, as a socio-technical object, as a relational and affective experience. Discussions converged to understanding mobility as being politically governed, constantly made and unmade through the logics of power. While polythetic categories are implicitly practiced in everyday life, the politics of constructing dichotomies (mobility-immobility, mobile-sedentary) produce a static understanding of mobility, based on differences. The difficulty thus lies in reconciling different epistemologies and the need to legitimize ethnographic methods as informative to policy makers. In applied terms, differences in epistemologies translate into the choice of categories and units of analysis—a theme explored by the stomach group. Issues around representation were identified as emerging from the choice of variables in standard research, which predominantly focus on “discrete states” (i.e. average values) at the risk of ignoring relationships at wider and more dynamics scales, or from the systematic exclusion of segments of the population who’s data is the most difficult to capture or who’s reliability is the least recognised.
  • Discussing problems of categorisation, the stomach group proposed different ways of thinking about mobility—whether through emic categories and experiences of mobility articulated by the Turkana pastoralists, through the use of “metaphors” and polythetic categories as found among the Roma, or through local matrices of categorisation of types of migration as relevant in northern Namibia. The stomach group concurred that current ways of doing research, often through partnerships between practitioners and academic researchers, though an opportunity, also places an even greater responsibility for researchers to reflect on their role and positionality as activists or advocates where the “do not harm principle” is not enough. For example, several examples from Roma studies, and research in Mongolia were given to explain the politics of categories and how “constructed knowledge” can be appropriated in ambiguous ways, also as weapons of resistance by local groups. The fast-paced nature of research and the neoliberalisation of data collection reflects different sensitivities and objectives to “knowledge creation” between governments, researchers, development agencies, and private companies (oil, mining).
  • The legs group discussed research tools and methods that could be effectively deployed to capture more grounded data regarding pastoral systems. Issues of reciprocity, consent, outsider/insider relationships and power dynamics during fieldwork were discussed. Following people’s mobilities to learn how they navigate place, using language as a phenomenological tool to understand local concepts, and using ICT tools emerged as some useful methods. Nevertheless, major practical constraints were also discussed such as the limits of shadowing mobility in certain localities like Mali, and how mobilities impact our writings considering that quality of field notes is inversely related to field immersion and researchers own mobility.

All three groups expressed the need to pay close attention to the subjects’ own articulation and categorisation of mobility. This reflection was informed by reflection on researchers’ mobilities and how they may change over a career. PhD students may lack their own transport and have more opportunities to move alongside participants; later researchers may have more control over their own mobilities (i.e. with rented vehicles). Thus, discussions of mobility were multi-faceted and self-reflective as we examined how changing methods impact knowledge creation.  Ethnographic approaches emerged as a way to develop a deep understanding of mobility, by revealing the politics of ideas, narratives, and methods.  In all groups, we have found these reflections as crucial to bridging the divide between responding to the audience’s (especially policy makers) simple data needs and presenting a more sensitive, honest, and complex story as found in the field.

Although we recognised that each of the camel parts are linked and work together and can be separated only in the abstract, we still faced challenges in jumping from the discussions held in the three groups separately towards a dynamic understanding of “the whole” camel—which in its totality represents a methodological infrastructure different from the mere sum of its constituent parts. Difficulties rose from the process of passing from an understanding of methodology as a means of collecting data towards thinking about methodology as an approach, a lens, in which we look at the world. In this, the camel subdivision, which was initially felt too rigid, resulted in becoming a useful operational tool to organise our thoughts—however, looking forwards, we intuitively believe that understanding the “whole camel” reflects precisely the task ahead of us, but exactly how still remains unclear.

Pending questions emerged around the need to also include other parts of a camel body: how is it pulled from its ears and tail by an increasing number of external actors (regional and national governments, international community, private companies and industries) who are expanding their control over pastoral contexts historically otherwise marginalised? How is its hump used to store vital resources?—as a metaphor for a discussion on data protection in an increasingly digitalised world. And finally, we asked ourselves if mobility is a useful framework and analytical lens to discuss the methodological quandary we set up to challenge.

As we go on to discuss our ideas further through the IUAES inter-Congress in Poland in August 2019 and the Oxford Desert Conference in April 2020, we are compiling a special issue to share these initial reflections and contributions with a wider audience and build a growing consensus around the urge to update our research methodologies—as researchers of mobile pastoralism—upon the opinion that methodology is not neutral, and we should stand with the people whose lives we study and care for.


Greta Semplici: DPhil Candidate at Oxford Department at International Development

Ariell Ahearn: Departmental Lecturer, School of Geography, University of Oxford

Jill Blau: Lecturer in Development Studies, Adventist University of Friedensau

Linda Pappagallo: PhD Candidate, Sussex/IDS (PASTRES)

Natasha Maru: PhD Candidate, Sussex/IDS (PASTRES)

Giulia Gonzales: PhD Candidate in Anthropology, University of Turin


Saverio Krätli: Associate Research Fellow Germany Institute for Tropical and Sub-tropical Agriculture and also at Transdisciplinary and Socioecological Land Use Research Centre (Germany); Editor of Journal “Nomadic Peoples”

Dawn Chatty: Emeritus Professor in Anthropology and Forced Migration, University of Oxford

Marcel Rutten: Senior Researcher, African Study Centre, University of Leiden

Francesco Staro: Independent Researcher, Social Anthropologist

Clare Oxby: Research Affiliate, Institute if Social Anthropology, University of Bern

Ulrike Schultz: Professor in Development Sociology, Adventist University of Friedensau

Troy Sternberg: Senior Researcher, School of Geography, University of Oxford


Salah al-Mazrui: Anthropologist (Oman)

Allison Hahn: Assistant Professor in Department of Communication Studies, Briuch College CUNY

Stefania Pontrandolfo: Researcher of Socio-cultural Anthropology, Department of Human Sciences, University of Verona

Marco Solimene: Postdoc Researcher, Department of Anthropology, University of Island

Veenonukona Tjiseua: Master Student, University of Free States (South Africa)

Dylan Groves: PhD Candidate in Comparative Politics, Columbia University

Sergio Magnani: Researcher and adviser in pastoral development, Institute of Research and Application of Development Models (Montpellier)

Cory Rodgers: Pedro Arrupe Research Fellow, RSC, University of Oxford


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