Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Nomadism

Writing this post after reading my last post, I hope I'm not making a reputation for myself as a tactless iconoclast. Rather, I would like to challenge some of the common concepts and ideologies that I have encountered during my education. This is not to say that I perceive a deeper knowledge inside my own brain than exists in the outside world, but only that one should be able to throw certain logical queries at the accepted notions of academia from time to time. In the case of my previous post on Orientalism, I certainly concede that the popularity of Said's remarks is based in some part on the attractiveness of the argument and its perceived suitability to the purposes of other thinkers. However, I see the infrastructure of the argument as  irreparably flawed in its basic assumptions.

Nomadism as a concept seems somewhat similar to me. Semantically, it serves as short-hand to identify and explain certain characteristics. The nomad is differentiated from the non-nomad, in other words. The non-nomad is much less often the target of a blanket definition, but when such occurs, the term used tends to be sedentary, or some synonym of the same.

I have the unfortunate hobby of etymology lodged in my consciousness. For that reason I will share the following data:


  • The word nomad is attested in the English language from the 16th century, coming from Latin via French. In Latin the term was Nomas in the nominative and Nomadis in the genitive - hence we have the word nomad from misunderstood Latin grammar; alternatively, it could be blamed on poor Greek, which followed the same (nomas in the nominative, nomados in the genitive, nomades in the plural). The term in Greek is given the definition "roaming, roving, wandering" and connected to reconstructed Proto-Indo-European *nem-, meaning to divide, allot, or distribute. This is important as the word originally included the conception of ownership, division, and the importance of land; this in contrast to later characterizations that nomads had no connection to the land.
  • The word sedentary is similarly attested from the 16th century in English, coming again from Latin via French. In Latin the term sedentarius (sitting/remaining in one place) is easily connected to the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European *sed-, meaning to sit.
  • Modern Kazakh generally uses the word koshpendi (Көшпендi) to translate the English word nomad, a practice that predates claims that Kazakh had no word for the concept. I do not know how long the Kazakh language has had this word in its lexicon, but the root meaning is clearly old. In fact, the root (көш/коч) also gives the Russian word for nomad, kochevnik (Кочевник). The verb in question (көшеу/кўчмок) appears in dictionaries as "to move, to migrate, to relocate." The word is similar in Uzbek: ko'chmanchi.
Etymology is a fun aside, but the deeper problem is what we are attempting to explain with the terminology. From a scientific perspective, the term has been replaced with more specific terminology not yet in common public use; these terms tend to explicitly describe the primary economic occupation of some critical mass within the defined population. In other words, while some percentage of those people previously labeled as nomads did indeed practice a specific type of economy generally requiring frequent shifting of camp to renew the pastureland of livestock, the economies of the people involved were much more complex. Moreover, the various economies of nomadic people differed the point of the word not adequately explaining differences between nomadic populations in different geographic areas. In other words, the nomads of the Sahara Desert are not similar enough to the historical nomadic populations of the Volga region to truly warrant using the same term for both.

Another issue is what, exactly, the term is supposed to tell us about the people thus labeled. Are nomads possessed of a different life outlook in a uniform way different from that of non-nomadic people? History has shown again and again that sedentary people are just as likely to pull up and migrate to new locations; similarly, nomads in various locations are characterized by the regular return to family-owned pasture locations. In addition, many nomadic people have historically been involved in non-livestock herding economies, providing labor for fishing, mining, trading, and other endeavors within their vicinity.

What, then, does calling a people "nomadic" achieve for the historian? Will this explain their actions in a useful way? Are nomadic people blood-thirsty savages that do not share a similar level of civilization (however that might be ascertained) with their sedentary neighbors? Many gallons of ink have been spilled in the cause of just such assumptions, but such crude characterizations of "exotic" populations have become less common. Other assumptions have lasted longer due to their sophistication. For example, that nomads are uninterested in land rights, or at least less so than non-nomads. Similarly, nomads have specific gender-norms that are different from those of sedentary people. Again, nomads practice religion in ways inherently different from non-nomads. 

I would challenge any such assumption and would rather we remove the term "nomad" from all but the most general of characterizations to imply regular movement of people. Let us know that knowing this little fact about the changing of addresses will explain the intricacies of their societies. Nomads need not have inherently different political systems: a "nomad" king is different how, exactly, from a "sedentary" king? A "nomadic"democracy is different how, exactly, from a "sedentary" democracy? 

Let us challenge such terms the moment they appear.