Collaborative foundations of herding: The formation of cooperative groups among Tibetan pastoralists

Just got a paper published in Journal of Arid Environments on cooperation among Tibetan pastoralists.

You can read the paper here, it’s open access.

Luckily, the paper got published on the same day as I got grant applications rejected from the Research Council of Norway.

Why bring that up? Because the paper and one of the grant applications have some obvious parallels.

The paper documents why cooperation is vital for Tibetan pastoralists: it increases control of herds, reduces individual household’s labour demand and increases the potential for economic diversification.

Tibetan herder bring a subset of the herd back to camp for the night. Photo (C) Marius Warg Næss

The grant application extends this aspect: it wants to comparatively investigate pastoral cooperation by taking as its starting point that cooperative herding groups are a necessary component of pastoral life.

The paradox is that while it is almost impossible for pastoral households to maintain production without cooperative labour investment and mutual help from other households, a comparative perspective of cooperative herding group formation is currently lacking.

Moreover, while cooperation is widely documented, it is treated in a somewhat ad hoc fashion. For example, it has been used as an explanation for why there is no relationship between household labour investment and pastoral production (see this paper).

Furthermore, herding groups have been described as fluid: changing composition from year to year and between seasons. Thus, they have been viewed as less important than more extensive and more political, groupings.

My personal point of view that despite the instability of herding units, they represent an essential building block of nomadic societies because they are concerned with daily cooperation.

More to the point, we know relatively little about them: what evidence we have represent a snapshot in time. We lack longitudinal data as well as data concerning how cooperation is changing as a consequence of changes in land tenure.

While getting grant rejections sucks, I still think this is a worthwhile project that I’ll pursue.

Anyone interested in collaborating on such a project is welcome to contact me.

Cultural group selection and the evolution of reindeer herding in Norway

The debate about reindeer husbandry in Norway is characterised by two contrasting views.

On one hand is the prevailing view of overstocking and rangeland degradation.

On the other hand, is the view that overstocking and overuse represents a misreading of the Arctic landscape that perpetuates a dominant crisis narrative that functions as “… an enduring ‘social fact’, whose narrative reality is in large part decoupled from its supposed scientific basis” (Benjaminsen et al. 2015:228).

While the overstocking perspective is based on a presumed ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, the other perspective argue that reindeer herding is characterised as a non-equilibrium system

“…where herbivore populations fluctuate randomly according to external influences, [and] the concepts of carrying capacity and overgrazing have no discernible meaning” (ibid.:223).

In my new paper, Cultural Group Selection and the Evolution of Reindeer Herding in Norway, I argue differently.

Through a comparative historical analysis, I argue that herding is better viewed as an assurance game with two different strategies for minimising risk:

  1. maximising quantity (i.e., increasing livestock numbers or herd size)
  2. maximising livestock quality (i.e., increasing livestock body mass)

I demonstrate that intra-group competition has led to the
adoption of (1) in the Northern parts of Norway, while inter-group competition has led to the adoption of (2) in the Southern parts.

Read the full paper here.