Nomadic Pastoralism: A (Tentative) Definition

In the early days, research was all about establishing typologies. So also in the study of nomadic pastoralism, which was concerned with establishing typologies of “pure pastoralists or nomads” where the units of analysis were “ideal types”[1].

Tibetan pastoralists
Tibetan pastoralists

Pastoral and nomadic societies were classified according to how much of the “ideal types” they contained.

Not surprisingly, the concept of “pure pastoralists or nomads” is fictional; rather, nomadic pastoralism as an adaptation is characterized by variations[2].

The Norwegian anthropologist Fredrik Barth[3]  argued that we have to look for processes that produce social forms by seeing a society as patterns of human behaviour.

Following this line of thought, Dyson-Hudson and Dyson-Hudson[4] conceptualizes nomadic pastoralism as the coexistence of dependence on livestock with spatial mobility.

More specifically, Khazanov[5] presents five characteristics of nomadic pastoralism:

  1. Pastoralism is the predominant economic activity.
  2. Extensive – keeping herds of livestock all year round on a system of free-range grazing.
  3. Periodic mobility within the boundaries of specific grazing territories (as opposed to migrations).
  4. The participation in pastoral mobility of all or the majority of the population
  5. Production for subsistence.

Following this definition, nomadic pastoralism is a distinct form of food-producing economy, where mobile pastoralism is the dominant activity, and where the majority of the population undertakes seasonal movements.

There are many examples of societies being nomadic, but not pastoral, and pastoral societies that are not nomadic.

In addition, since it involves everyone in the various aspects of production, it distinguishes nomadic pastoralists from shepherds in Western Europe or the American cowboys who also make a living by herding animals.

As Barfield[6] states: Heidi is not the story of a Swiss nomad girl even though she herded cows and goats each summer”.

While the term “nomadism” has been applied to any society that is not settled in permanent dwellings, etymologically it implies a pastoral subsistence base[7].

The word ‘nomad’ is derived from the Greek word nemo, which roughly means, “to pasture” [8]. Although the word ‘nomad’ refers both to mobility and to a pastoral base of subsistence, it is common to distinguish between nomadism as referring to mobility, and pastoralism as a mode of subsistence[9].

The term mobility has to comprise both seasonal and daily movements along with who participates in the actual moving, making it possible to conceptually distinguish nomadic pastoralism from transhumance[10].

As indicated above, however, discussing movement patterns of nomadic pastoralists with reference to typologies like transhumance and semi-sedentary is an intellectual sterile enterprise.[11]

Movement patterns are empirically constituted, and one of the main reasons given for why pastoralists in Africa move is the seasonality of pastures, i.e. different pastures have different growing seasons and the nomads move accordingly[12].

This is, however, not necessarily the only explanation for pastoral movement, e.g. political and social factors are important contributing factors for moving[13].

Pastoralists fall into the category of food-producing economies, since they rely on domesticated animals controlled by the pastoralist and as a consequence

“[…] the sex and age composition of a herd is, ideally, an artifice of the pastoralists, who, at the same time, allocates different ‘tasks’ to his animals”.[14]

Pastoralists exert control over their animals based on their preferences for livestock’s products they make a living of either directly, or indirectly, through the usage of products from domesticated animals[15].

Directly in the form of meat, blood, milk, hair, wool and hides, usually referred to as primary pastoral products. Secondarily, (but nonetheless direct) pastoral products are butter, cheese, cloth and carpets.

Slaughter Milking

Indirect use of pastoral products refers to subsistence via trading and bartering, formal and informal markets.

Cashmere2 Cashmere1

More recently, the predominant subsistence aspect of being nomadic pastoralist (i.e. based mainly on animal products such as meat, milk, wool and hides) has been questioned[16].

While previously, any involvement in the commercialization of livestock and livestock products was viewed as a modern invention and not part of the “traditional” way of life, Marx[17]  argues that a new model/definition of nomadic pastoralism has come to terms with the fact that:

  1. Pastoralists produce, at least to some degree, for markets and therefore depend on the city and the state.
  2. Pastoralism cannot be treated as a self-contained or as only a subsistence economy.
  3. Pastoralists engage in a variety of occupations, the relative importance of which change according to economic changes.


[1] Dyson-Hudson, N. (1972). The Study of Nomads. In W. Irons and N. Dyson-Hudson (eds.), Perspectives on Nomadism, E. J. Brill, Leiden Netherlands, pp. 2-29.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Barth, F. (1966). Models of Social Organization. Vol. No. 23, Royal Anthropological Institute Occasional Paper  London.

[4] Dyson-Hudson, R., and Dyson-Hudson, N. (1980). Nomadic Pastoralism. Annual Review of Anthropology 9:15-61.

[5] Khazanov, A. M. (1994). Nomads and the outside world, 2nd edition, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.

[6] Barfield, T. J. (1993). The Nomadic Alternative, N.J., Prentice Hall, Engelwood Cliffs.

[7] Spooner, B. (1973). The cultural ecology of pastoral nomads. An Addison-Wesley module in anthropology; no. 45, Addison-Wesley Publishing, [Reading, Mass.].

[8] Seymour-Smith, C. (1986). Macmillan dictionary of anthropology, Macmillan, London.

[9] However, Humphrey & Sneath Humphrey, C., and Sneath, D. (1999). The end of Nomadism? Society, state, and the environment in Inner Asia, Duke University Press, Durham, NC. argues that the category nomadism is useless analytically, and prefers the term ’mobile pastoralism’, since “Mobility here is seen as a technique that is applicable in a range of institutions, rather than as a holistic lifestyle suggested by the word ‘nomad’.” However, my usage of the term ‘nomad’ here refers exactly to the aspect of mobility, as ways of moving spatially, i.e. as a strategy used in a way of making a living, and not to a value orientation Salzman, P. C., and Galaty, J. G. (1990). Nomads in a Changing World: Issues and Problems. In S. P.C and G. J.G (eds.), Nomads in a Changing World, Institute Universitario Orientale, Naples..

[10] According to Jones Jones, S. (1996). Tibetan nomads: environment, pastoral economy, and material culture. The Carlsberg Foundations Nomad Research Project, Rhodos, Copenhagen. transhumance refers to an economic system that is based on both agriculture and livestock herding, with a permanent “home base” occupied by all members during most of the year. Livestock herding and other agricultural activities are divided between the members of a household [defined as “[…] the smallest group of people which can take independent decisions over the allocation of its members’ domestic and herding labour, and over the use, allocation, and location of their livestock capital” Dahl, G. (1979). Suffering grass: subsistence and society of Waso Borana. Stockholm studies in social anthropology, Department of social anthropology University of Stockholm, Stockholm.] so that not all of the members are involved in the pastoral production.

[11] Dyson-Hudson, R., and Dyson-Hudson, N. (1980). Nomadic Pastoralism. Annual Review of Anthropology 9:15-61.

[12] Ibid.


[14] Paine, R. (1994). Herds of the Tundra: a portrait of Saami reindeer pastoralism. Smithsonian series in ethnographic inquiry, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington London.

[15]  Spooner, B. (1973). The cultural ecology of pastoral nomads. An Addison-Wesley module in anthropology ; no. 45, Addison-Wesley Publishing, [Reading, Mass.].

[16] Marx, E. (2006). The Political Economy of Middle Eastern and North African Pastoral Nomads. In D. Chatty (eds.), Nomadic societies in the Middle East and North Africa entering the 21st century, Brill, Leiden, pp. 78-97.

[17] Ibid.


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