Work Programme

Leading Perspectives

(excerpts from the research proposal)

The following four central and leading perspectives (center/periphery, space/place, resources/securing of existence, representation/discourse) remain, at present, necessarily abstract. They position our work within wider academic structures and, at times, go well beyond the research of nomadism. These notions will be made more concrete during the implementation of the following primary questions and their instigation within part projects, project areas and working groups.

Center and Periphery

Significant here are the changing center and periphery relations between nomads and settled peoples in the longue durée, which still have consequences for contemporary societal formations. Examined will be the societal understanding of space and territory, from early state forms, large empires, modern nation-states, as well as trans-national blocks. Of vital significance is the question regarding, to what extent, relations of economic inequality, asymmetrical power relations and (constructed) cultural difference configures the interaction between nomads and settled peoples, overwhelms the structure creating outline of societal formation and produces new contemporary - territorially fragmented - peripheries.

In this context the following will serve as leading questions:

  1. How are asymmetrical power relations along the nomad-settled divide constructed and materialized, what societal form do they take and to what extent may ambiguities and contradictions be seen as structuring long term possibilities of negotiation?
  2. How is nomad-settled community interaction - upon various agency levels - embedded within unequal economic transactional relations, how are these reproduced, transformed or intimately questioned and at what points in time and in what places do economic exchange based linkages take place?
  3. To what extent do notions of center and periphery allow for an extension of the explanation and analysis of the interchanging relations between nomadic and settled peoples in the context of new spatial theoretical reflections and the spatial and cultural turn?


Space and Place

The significance of space for the Collaborative Research Center relates to the discussion regarding the ontological character of spatial units. The spatial turn places the societal constructed space, as the arena and stage of historical occurrences and as a product of negotiation, at the center of analysis. This thinking has since pervaded various disciplines. In the context of historically profoundly influential events, which are generative of society and alter the relations of local and global, one must re-think the constitution of the ‘local’. The concept is no longer related to a territorial unit (at a ‘there’), nor does it constitute a periphery in the sense that the ‘local’, in relation to societal power relations, represents the margin (poverty ‘there’) (Gertel 2007a). The ‘local’ depicts, rather, the every day multiplicity of agency, which defines itself - at the center of power and, at the same time, at different places - through networks of social relationships, which arise from, in essence, the imagining of subjects in their materialist physicality. Social interaction is seen as represented by events that occur beyond territorial borders, and even in new social spaces (such as the nomadic Diaspora), so that within a territorially elongated agency chain the conditions of poverty, exploitation and social exclusion can be fundamentally and causally connected to prosperity and security.

From here the following questions are developed for discussion by the Collaborative Research Center:

  1. What form of spatial creating practices are context specific and especially significant for the interaction of nomads and settled peoples? How are ‘nomadic’ and ‘settled’ spaces generated by military incursions, processes of economic exchange, changing political consequences, linguistic signification and personal appropriation in everyday life? How, when and where do conflicts arrive, how are these negotiated and what spatial expression does it take? What, of the aforementioned phenomena, is to be seen in the source material?
  2. How are places, as territorially inflexible spaces and in the sense of de-territorialized localities, embedded in discourse? How are they produced, given meaning and how do they become symbolically loaded? Who is in the position to define what a place is? How do these spatial structuring discourses manifest themselves in relation to the allocation of resources, the construction of a sense of belonging and the creation of (social) landscapes?
  3. How are spatially constructive meanings in texts, maps and plans utilized as, e.g., a method of examination, a mechanism of representation or as an instrument of dominance? How are corresponding practical aspects entrenched within the interaction of nomads and settled people? To what extent do they strengthen asymmetrical power relations and legitimize certain decisions?


Resources and the Securing of Existence

Resources represent the basic prerequisite for trading and negotiation. The access to and availability of resources make trade and interaction possible. In the context of the changing relations between nomads and settled peoples, therefore, resources are of optimal importance as an object of societal action. They do not simply exist in themselves, but, rather, as much as they are incorporated into and even constitute human labor (see: Bordieu 1983). Resources are used either in a group specific way by nomads and settled people or may be utilized in a type of labor sharing between groups (Franz 2005a). Economic, political and cultural reference to resources cannot be completely isolated in practice. Livestock, grasslands and sources of drinking water represent, for nomads, a certain amount of economic independence. The trading of commodities, the selling of labor and the granting of rights of passage characterize exchange with other groupings. As a rule nomadic groups attempt to diversify economically and gain simultaneous access to numerous resources. The aim of their actions is the reduction of dependence and the control of risk. Resources are differentiated and linked to strategies of acquirement, such as through spatial mobility, mass looting and engagement in war.

This may be connected to contemporary development research, which has dealt intensively with resources and the securing of existence. In relation to resources, capital and property three concepts have been chiefly discussed in the last two decades: approaches relating to survival economics (Evers 1987, Schmidt-Wulffen 1987), casualties (Watts/Bohle 1993) and leading to the concept of livelihood (Chambers/Conway 1991, Carney 1998, Krüger/Macamo 2003, Bohle 2005). Principally, two central questions emerge, which are also incorporated into our research program: What strategies do nomads follow above all in situations of uncertainty, in order to maintain their existence? What role do what resources play in this situation?

For the analysis of the securing of existence in relation to the interaction between nomads and settled people three theoretical points of approach are central: the theory of structuration and its concept of agency (Giddens 1995), furthered concepts of capital (Bourdieu 1983, Dörfler et al. 2003) and law based approaches to access (Sen 1981). At the center of the work of the research project lies the combination and bringing together of these perspectives in relation to specific case study examples (Gertel 2007b, Breuer 2007 a). From here three overriding questions follow:

  1. What capital and resource facilities are accessible to nomads? To what extent does this constitute a coming together of material resources, knowledge based capabilities (indigenous knowledge) and group specific norms and rules by the acquirement, access and use of resources?
  2. What strategies do nomads utilize, in their interaction with settled people, in relation to the securing of their existence and controlling risk, in various political, economic and ecological situations? Of special significance here is the question of resulting conflicts and how these are resolved.
  3. To what extent do overriding societal structures, allowing for the contribution of resources, constitute trans-group agency? How is the micro-level of existence security linked to the macro-level of the center-periphery relationship? At what time points and in what places do technological innovations and structure breakages have a societal forming effect upon the interchanging relationship between nomads and settled people?


Representation and Discourse

It has become a standard element of the dynamics of academic criticism that the self-imaginings of a subject are examined, their genesis, function and underlying interests explained and, perhaps, revised. For our study this necessitates the investigation of statements concerning nomads in settled contexts (nomads may also be involved in their coming about), and statements from nomads directed towards a settled context, which may be understood as answers to attributes deemed to be widely held. The nomadic level is, for the historian and the anthropologist, to be understood as the result of a long exchange process between different forms of life. In the case of historical sources, nomads remain largely ‘silent’ and hidden under a ‘blanket’ of traditional and self-interest oriented perspectives and must, therefore, be dug up and rooted out from under this laden context. The understanding of the subject (interaction between nomads and settled people) as a discursive construct suggests a relativist outlook, which strives to eliminate unreflective essentialisms.

The research project concerns itself in this context with cultural practices and looks at the interrelationship between language, knowledge and representation. Here the emphasis is upon societal processes of differentiation and integration and also acknowledges the necessity of representing the ‘other’ in a reflective fashion. Elucidated will be, with regard to this background, the consequences arising from the concrete as well as fictional meeting of nomads and settled people and their discursive allocation of meaning. Therefore, this constitutes the recursive coupling of (everyday) experience and (textual) knowledge, in which differentiation and demarcation processes, as well as assimilation and integration processes, are embedded. Outside perspectives will be analyzed, when depictions and images of nomads (the construction of the ‘exotic’) can be transformed as an act of agency for or against nomads and may materialize in interventions. Self-images will also be investigated, when a sense of imagined community feeds into identity, indigenousness is postulated and used to legitimize access to sources.

There are here, thus, two overriding complex of questions:

  1. What concrete, as well as fictitious, meetings of nomads and settled peoples are discursively important? What structures of representation are effective? To what extent does the construction of the stranger, regarding nomad-settled relations, have extensive historical roots and represents a grand narrative of otherness and strangeness?
  2. Through what procedures are, in reverse, nomadic identities produced and utilized ‘from the inside’, from nomads? How is access to resources in this way legitimized? In this context what significance must be given to imagined communities, constructed genealogies and postulated indigenousness?



These four guiding perspectives structure the theoretical approach of the research project in the third phase, without, however, intending to exclude alternative approaches, which may appear as particularly useful in specific instances. Complementary to these theoretical building blocks we also have the four content-based central themes (hegemony, mobility, representation and disasters), which will be tackled in a problem oriented fashion and should be examined, guided by the aforementioned theoretical approach, in a paradigmatic building manner in the part projects, as well as in the working groups. For example, to explain the notion of “hegemony” in its differing nomad-settled construction it would, perhaps, make sense to combine a center-periphery approach with spatial theoretical reflections, or, indeed, in order to elucidate aspects of resources and the securing of existence, it may prove helpful to examine the discursive mechanisms of (power) representation. These guidelines represent the conceptual frame of reference for the whole Collaborative Research Center and especially for the work undertaken within the aforementioned working groups.