Can political complexity evolve from small-scale cooperative herding groups?

Last week I was informed that my project proposal “From small-scale cooperative herding groups to nomadic empires – a cross-cultural approach (COMPLEXITY)” was funded through the ERC Consolidator Grant scheme.

Had to wait to announce it since it was not official until 12:00 17.03.2022 when ERC announces their press release with all the successful grants. The press release can be found here.

The overall aim of the Consolidator Grant is to “… support mid-career researchers and will help them consolidate their teams and conduct pioneering research on topics and with methods of their choosing” (from press release).

Central thesis

COMPLEXITY is situated at the intersection of anthropology and ecology and deals with the evolution of political complexity.

The prevalent view of the evolution of complex societies favours agriculture as the main factor.

How do we then explain the rise of nomadic empires?

One common explanation refers to conflict, and large-scale conflict with China has been presented as the central element in the rise of, for example, the Mongol Empire.

In 1242, Europe stood on the precipice of destruction. Based in Hungary and Serbia, the Mongol armies were poised for conquering the rest of Europe. Only the death of the Great Khan halted the Mongol advance, sparing Europe from the fate of an inevitable conquest. Twenty-five years after the withdrawal, the Mongol Empire reached its peak with the establishment of the Yuan dynasty – making it the largest land empire in history, stretching from the Sea of Japan to the Mediterranean Sea and the Carpathian Mountains.

Thus, pastoralists could only develop complex levels of organisation when facing strong agricultural neighbours.

But this cannot explain how pastoralists transitioned from small, kin-based groups to complex stratified societies.

COMPLEXITY’s central thesis is that before large-scale conflict is even possible, a level of within-group cooperation must be present.

Noteworthy, it is almost impossible for pastoralists to survive without cooperative labour investment and help from other households

By viewing cooperative herding groups as the building blocks of nomadic societies, COMPLEXITY aims to increase our understanding of the evolution of political complexity based on a new theoretical explanation of pastoral political organisation.

Structure

COMPLEXITY adds to state of the art through three steps.

While cooperative herding has been documented, previous studies have been based on single case studies.

The preliminary extent of cooperative herding groups.

Evidence is also fragmented, and little systematic attempts have been made to understand general patterns of pastoral cooperation.

The first step of COMPLEXITY is thus to cross-culturally analyse and document the prevalence of cooperative herding groups by using the existing ethnographic literature and a cross-cultural database

This will be used to select four field sites in Africa and Inner Asia: 

Study design where the overall starting point is to select two communities at two sites within each region. Arrows indicate levels of comparison undertaken in the project: between regions; between sites; and between communities. Coloured areas on the map indicate the already documented presence of herding groups while animal figures indicate the traditional Old World nomadic pastoral zones defined by the key cultural animal

Cooperation, performance and the rise of pastoral inequality

Understanding cross-cultural diversity and patterns in behaviour is a central goal of human behavioural ecology.

Nevertheless, the predominant view of cooperation is shaped by studies focusing on food sharing among foragers.

A conceptual overview of the domain, focus, problem, mechanisms and research load in evolutionary aspects of cooperation in anthropology. Food sharing has been a focus because it carries a cost for the giver: the giver must share parts of their food without knowing if the action will be reciprocated. Thus, sharing is a collective action dilemma, i.e., a situation where free-riders can thwart cooperation. Sharing labour is not riddled with the same dilemma: it is mutually beneficial and, thus, represent a coordination problem. Since individuals who share labour have common interests and share preferences, they always benefit from cooperation. Also referred to as mutualism, coordination has been argued to be a better representation for many situations of human cooperation. Nevertheless, they have been viewed as less interesting and trivial than collective action dilemmas: when everyone benefits from collective action, the cooperative solution should be obvious.

In contrast, less focus has been placed on cooperative production, the primary form of cooperation among pastoralists.

Consequently, COMPLEXITY’s second step is to use field studies to comparatively investigate to what degree pastoral cooperation is structured by evolutionary factors and investigate how cooperation affects pastoral performance.

The evolution of political complexity: from small-scale cooperative group to empires?

There is also a view that livestock, as the primary source of wealth, limits the development of inequalities, making pastoralism unable to support complex organisations.

However, the Gini coefficient for reindeer in Norway indicates that wealth in livestock is more unevenly distributed than for Norway in general (see this preprint https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/zv92t).   

Temporal trends in wealth inequality measured as reindeer numbers for (A) the Saami reindeer husbandry in Norway and (B) the Saami reindeer husbandry in the North and South (Fig 1.). The Gini coefficient ranges from 0 (perfect equality; everyone owns equally) to 1 (perfect inequality; one individual owns everything). Data for Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for Norway downloaded from Statistics of Norway (https://www.ssb.no/). See preprint https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/zv92t for details.

Since we cannot observe the history of nomadic empires, COMPLEXITY’ will model if, for example, livestock as wealth can generate inequalities resulting in hierarchical power structures.

The third step is thus to combine empirical data with Agent-Based Modelling, to investigate whether cooperative herding groups can be considered prototypes for more complex organisations.

The funding makes it possible to hire 2 postdocs and 2 Phds working alongside me in Tromsø!

So stay tuned for job openings!

A rant about grant rejections

As I wrote in my previous post, my recent grant application submitted earlier this year to the Norwegian Research Council was rejected.

I have no problem with a reject (well, I actually do since it is a kick-ass project!). I try to follow Paul J. Silvia’s advice in the book “How To write a Lot” concerning rejections:

To write a lot, you should rethink your mental models of rejections and publications. Rejections are like a sales tax on publications: The more papers you publish, the more rejections you receive (p. 100-101).

What I question this year is the application’s evaluation and what it entails concerning the referees (and thus the Research Council of Norway) views of “proper” anthropology.

While the project is hailed as promising and innovative due to its comparative approach, it fails because it uses a quantitative approach instead of participant observation. To quote the evaluation:

 …the lack of qualitative methods such as participant observation, for example, are major problems.

In effect, the evaluation seems to indicate that, in 2020, it is still not appropriate for anthropologists—at least for the panel evaluating the proposal—to collect quantitative data.

The proposal uses a methodological approach with demonstrable success in investigating cooperation—namely, experimental economic games and social network analysis.

Moreover, it is pointed out that the analyses stipulated are well thought through but:

Yet, it is not credible that the complexity of social relations – not to speak or norms, behavior and the relation between the two – can be explored through experiments and through statistical analysis with a limited number of variables

So what I actually think of as one of the significant strengths of quantitative analyses, i.e. the operationalising of critical variables and relationships based on specific research questions, is, in fact, a weakness because it simplifies the complexity of a given culture.

Yes, it does simplify complexity. This is not a shortcoming; it is a strength if your aim is to look at similarities and differences between and within societies and cultures.

Suppose you’re on the other hand, concerned with the underlying ideology, cosmology, beliefs, cultural understanding of cooperation. In that case, participant observation is a useful tool.

More to the point, a quantitive approach forces you to be precise with assumptions and research questions. A level of precision not necessary for a qualitative approach.

I have no problem with disagreeing with a choice of method. After all, methods should follow the research question(s).

What I object to is the kind of philosophical pre-commitment to a specific tool to be used by ALL anthropologists that the evaluation seems to imply.

While an n = 1 does not lend a lot of credibility to my position, this is precisely the point.  

My experience might not at all be representative.  

It does not tell a full story of how the research Council of Norway evaluates proposals because no similarities or variations can be gleaned from it.

But then again, this is precisely the kind of evidence participant observation is good at accessing, namely showing detailed, but yet anecdotal, information about any given topic.

From my point of view, this evaluation shows a cognitive bias often referred to as  Maslow’s hammer:

‘I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail’.

Research questions should guide the use of the method; you should not be limited by tacit understandings of a discipline’s “proper” technique. Anything else leads to imperfect science and shoddy scholarship.

Next deadline is the 10th of February. I might resubmit…

Or I might wait until the wind changes direction and numbers are not viewed as anathema to anthropology (if ever).

Because, the fundamental problem for me is that while rejections are the norm when doing science, IT is hard to see how to revise this proposal to give it a higher chance of success without changing the underlying idea!

However, I’ve managed to successfully secure 3 grants from the Norwegian Research Council before, so it is not out of reach.

Hopefully, 2021 will be better.

The pursuit of populations collapses: long-term dynamics of semi-domestic reindeer in Sweden

In Scandinavia there is a growing concern that the reindeer husbandry is in a state of crisis, but results from our recent study indicates that the Swedish reindeer husbandry is in fact in better condition now compared to the past (1945-1965).

By Bård-Jørgen Bårdsen & Marius Warg Næss

In Scandinavia there is a growing concern that the reindeer husbandry is in a state of crisis, but results from our recent study indicates that the Swedish reindeer husbandry is in better condition now compared to the past (1945-1965). Continue reading “The pursuit of populations collapses: long-term dynamics of semi-domestic reindeer in Sweden”

New research paper about cooperation in groups of Saami reindeer herders

The Tangled Woof of Fact

People rely on one another in fundamental ways, but cooperation in groups can be fragile. Every day, we face tensions between acting in a socially responsible manner and following our own self-interest. These situations are called social dilemmas and they come in varying shades of subtlety, from littering and eBay to overpopulation and climate change. Overcoming these dilemmas can make all the difference, especially for marginalised groups such as pastoralists – people who make their living from herding animals.

Pastoralists use about a quarter of the world’s land for grazing their herds. Nowadays, all over the world, governments are privatising many of their pastures, and so herders must work together in increasingly fragmented places.

We wanted to learn how groups of Saami reindeer herders living in Norway’s Arctic Circle worked together. Our study, just published in the journal Human Ecology, found that cooperation pivoted around the ‘siida’: a…

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Tibetan lives: Hunting

I’ve just got a paper accepted in Land Use Policy about nomadic pastoralists in Tibet and hunting. As we all know, space is limited in scientific journals, so here is additional text as well as pictures. Continue reading “Tibetan lives: Hunting”

Reindeer Husbandry in a Globalizing North – resilience, adaptations and pathways for Actions (ReiGN)

It’s the time of the year when we eagerly await the results from the year’s (many) research proposals.

Continue reading “Reindeer Husbandry in a Globalizing North – resilience, adaptations and pathways for Actions (ReiGN)”

Predatory or prey – the rise of nomadic empires

In 1227 Genghis Khan died leaving behind a legacy of conquest and the largest land empire in history, only fully realized by his Grandson Kubhlai Khan with the establishment of the Yuan Dynasty in 1267 (Chaliand 2004). Continue reading “Predatory or prey – the rise of nomadic empires”

Market economy vs. risk management: how do nomadic pastoralists respond to increasing meat prices?

Just got paper published in Human Ecology that looks at the old question of what exactly motivates nomadic pastoralists. Continue reading “Market economy vs. risk management: how do nomadic pastoralists respond to increasing meat prices?”

Workshop in Tromsø February 18

In connection with the project “The Erosion of Cooperative Networks and the Evolution of Social Hierarchies: A Comparative Approach” and NIKU‘s 20th anniversary,  a workshop will be arranged on Wednesday 18th of February in Tromsø, Norway.

Time: Wednesday February 18 12:30-16:00 Continue reading “Workshop in Tromsø February 18”