Anthropologies

Edmund Leach

  • Nomads and the Outside World by A.M. Khazanov, translated by Julia Crookenden
    Cambridge, 369 pp, £37.50, February 1984, ISBN 0 521 23813 7
  • The House of Si Abd Allah: The Oral History of a Moroccan Family edited by Henry Munson
    Yale, 320 pp, £17.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 300 03084 3
  • Ruth Benedict: Patterns of a Life by Judith Modell
    Chatto, 255 pp, £15.00, February 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2771 6

Khazanov’s global comparative study of pastoral nomadism is unique. The level of erudition may be indicated by the bare statistic that the bibliography runs to 48 closely printed pages of which 23 refer exclusively to works in Russian. For those who are not specialists in the field at this level of intensity, and perhaps even for those who are, the 16 pages of Ernest Gellner’s ‘Foreword’ provide essential reading. Khazanov’s book takes for granted a general framework of Russian Marxist ideas which will be unfamiliar to most English readers. Within that framework it makes a contribution to a long-standing theoretical debate about whether or not Pastoral Nomadism rates as a form of Feudalism, or of the Asiatic Mode of Production, or of something quite other. Gellner explains all this with great skill and warns the reader of some of the pitfalls that may be encountered in Khazanov’s terminology. Gellner himself steers clear of the controversy but is an interested party since he claims that Khazanov, and more particularly his older colleague G.E. Markov, have arrived independently at a view of nomadism which is closely related to that of Gellner’s own sociological hero, Ibn Khaldun.

In British social anthropology the dominant academic ideology during most of the last fifty years has been that of Functionalism, which, following Durkheim, assumed that human societies are more or less discrete, closed ‘organisms’ in homeostatic equilibrium, in that any disturbance to ‘normality’ will automatically generate social forces which will tend to bring things back again to a state very similar to that prevailing at the outset. The problem for the Functionalists has always been, therefore, that empirical history is mostly concerned with social change rather than with social stability.

Marxist anthropologists are faced with a converse problem. Dogma assures them that ‘in the Beginning’ there was an idyllic stage of primitive society in which land and property were communally-owned, but that thereafter the dialectical processes of history have repeatedly generated contradictions in the social fabric which result in social change. How then should they account for empirical social systems which appear to be in homeostatic equilibrium? Pastoral nomadism, at any rate in the view of some authorities, has this changeless quality, and Russian anthropologists have long disputed among themselves with almost religious fervour about how such a pattern of social organisation is to be fitted to the standard Marxist categories of stages in human social evolution.

The societies discussed by Khazanov are distributed over much of Eurasia, Arabia and Africa, and for a non-Marxist such as myself it is far from obvious why the single cultural characteristic which they share, their ‘pastoral nomadism’, should lead to their being considered societies of a single type when in most other respects they are entirely different. Khazanov is alert to the possibility of such a comment and justifies his classification by the following interesting, though somewhat unexpected thesis: ‘the gradually diminishing specific significance of pastoralism in the general food-producing economy of traditional societies forms the basis of the classification proposed. I attach much greater importance to the ratio of pastoralism and agriculture in an economic system than, for example, to degree of mobility for the very reason that apart from mobile pastoralism, there are mobile forms of agriculture.’

You are not logged in