Anthropological Quarterly 75.1 (2002) 217-220
[Access article in PDF]
This volume is a bold synthesis of original field material and theoretical reflections as applied to six political districts in a region known as Inner Asia. The central argument of the book is that the mobile use of pastoral resources should not be considered an outdated or threatened economic form. Instead the authors demonstrate the robustness of "mobile pastoralism" historically and in specific state socialist jurisdictions within Russia, China, and Mongolia. The authors use their data on the sustainable nature of mobile pastoralism to critique of a wide variety of anthropological and government literature that, they contend, affirms stereotypes of nomadic production as an unfocussed or undisciplined form of existence. Instead, they argue that if there is an "end to nomadism" in the region it will come from the irrational pressure of privatisation which forces rural producers to migrate to cities in search of other forms of work.
The material for this volume was generated by an ambitious five year project, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, which was based at the University of Cambridge from 1991 to 1995. The Project on Environmental and Cultural Conservation in Inner Asia recruited a team of local researchers from Siberian Russia, Northern China, and Mongolia, trained them in participatory research techniques, and then had them conduct extensive survey work in ten case-study [End Page 217] sites in their home regions. The resulting database is a compilation of rich new material on the culture and economy of the Mongolic and Turkic peoples of the region. The raw field material is available primarily in a series of unpublished reports collected by the Mongolia and Inner Asia Research Unit at the University of Cambridge and in two edited volumes (Humphrey & Sneath 1996a 1996b). The volume reviewed here represents a significant theoretical synthesis of the results of the project.
The central theoretical theme of the volume, a bold rethinking of the idea of nomadism, was presented for the first time as a panel session of the semi-annual conference of the Commission of Nomadic Peoples in Florence Italy in 1995. At that venue, one of the authors of this volume, David Sneath, and three colleagues (B. Dalal, C.Chou, D. Anderson), questioned whether nomadic peoples can be charactierized by features other than mobility. In this volume, this early discussion has been creatively theorised with a microeconomic model of labour efficiency within pastoral economies (p.297 figure 8.1). Here, mechanisation and industrial forms of labour organization are shown to apply successfully to two optimal combinations of labour and resources—one which involves mechanically harvesting hay and other forage to be transported back to the enclosures where animals are kept, and another in which vehicles can be used to expand the mobility of people and animals to physically move across the landscape. The authors make a powerful argument, backed up with ecological and statistical data from Mongolia and Tuva, that the latter strategy is not only equally viable but may in the long run be more ecologically sustainable than the alternatives.
As a synthesis of a larger project, the argument moves quickly across a number of levels of analysis. The analysis is supported with highly contextualized excerpts from the life stories of pastoralists, simple bar graphs showing the main economic and sociological differences between the regions, and very broad characterisations of the effect of the policies of different state administrations on pastoralists who share similar traditions, beliefs, and language. In some places, readers may want more details. For example, the authors do not provide enough material on how the ten cases discussed here are representative of the region (although these data can be found in the companion volumes). Additionally, some of the rich ethnographic differences between the regions are oversimplified. In some passages, one gets the impression that most of southern Siberia is characterised by the relation between...