Keeping up with pastoralists: A case for “Multiplatform Pastoralism” (longer read)

If I were compelled to describe in one word the complex infrastructures I’ve studied, it’d be: labyrinth. It’s a platform for action that has no linear pathway to get from start to finish. Also, labyrinths are typically grouped in two useful ways for our purposes: unicursal (below on the right) and multicursal (on the left).

Unlike pastoralist projects that are unicursal platforms (the one way, albeit circuitous, to arrive at the stated goal), really-existing pastoralist activities are a multicursal complex with multiple pathways to outputs, albeit with uncertainty at every turn and setbacks along the way.

To telegraph ahead, the argument below is threefold: pastoralists are usefully depicted from a multimedia platform; pastoral areas are usefully understood as platforms for contact and meeting points; and pastoralism is usefully thought of as a platform for multiple pastoralisms. Each platform is already maze-like. The term, platform, triggers negative connotations today, as in “platform capitalism” (though capitalism is more multicursally complex than some think).

Here, however, I’m asking you to think of platforms as infrastructure, and the notion of—for want of a better phrase, “multiplatform pastoralism”—enables us to appreciate the twists-and-turns ahead and what capitalizing on them would look like for pro-pastoralist policy and management.

Below are the shorthand versions of the three prongs of the argument, followed by major implications for policy and management. Seeing the multicursal for what it is suggests, I argue, that one pro-pastoralist intervention would be multipurpose digital and online mechanisms to advance real-time decisionmaking in government projects, programs and policymakers


  1. Pastoralists are intermedial.

Where pastoralist activities resist fuller point-in-time description, then:

  • Not only is more longitudinal study appropriate, e.g., to see at work a pastoralist’s multiple roles—herder, livestock marketer, youth/elder, etc.
  • Multiple media are also needed to capture the multicursal diversity, e.g., media ranging from participatory mapping to documentaries, with other representational modes in between and beyond.
  • The aim would be to create an intermedial composite of pastoralist activities over time.

Why “intermedial pastoralist”?

  • A composite depiction questions reduced-form development narratives while at the same time calls for more complex ones on which to proceed.
  • A limitation with the current (written/verbal) medium is that if you mention something positive about pastoralist practice, like “managing uncertainty better,” someone—even a colleague who knows you—feels compelled to counter, “But you also have to foreground all the threats to pastoralists. . .”
  • An intermedial depiction can usefully complicate any tit-negative for tat-positive interchange.

To rely on fewer media of representation, as in conventional research (even with the occasional photo), risks studying not pastoralists, but pastoralists, a trace marker or spoor in the sand for what eludes us.

  • And what’s the urgency?
  • Answer: Pastoralist are multidimensionally, demonstrably complex—just as are some policy types who disparage them.

  1. Pastoral areas are platforms for meeting and contact in spatially and temporally distributed networks.

It isn’t just that pastoralist households have off-site activities with household members elsewhere who contribute from there to on-site pastoralist activities.

Rather: It’s more appropriate to say that in some cases a good deal of the pastoralism is done off-site, just as what was once platform trading on the floor of a stock exchange is now done elsewhere on a different platform (e.g., the Hong Kong Stock Exchange).

  • Traders may meet from time to time in the physical headquarters of the stock exchange, but face-to-face trading on the floor no longer dominates.
  • Livestock trades at home sites give way to (more) buying and selling at off-site platforms, like central livestock markets.

Or to shift the analogy: If one were writing up a history of pastoral activities at the home site, it would be like writing the history of the UK Parliament isolated to the labyrinthine structure on the Thames.

  • It’s more accurate to say the UK Parliament is a meeting platform or contact zone for members whose parliamentary activities are importantly dispersed.
  • More, what was once the parliament building for all manner of private legislation by members has now become the contact platform for members who focus on other legislation.

  1. Pastoralism is pastoralisms.

Any whiggish temptation is to be resisted when assessing pastoralist systems, i.e., “they have evolved to this point for the better—no, for the worse!”

  • If researchers and observers have a hard time keeping up with pastoralist differentiation, then evaluative terms like “better” or “worse” are premature unless caveated.
  • The caveats? “Better” and “worse” need to be made explicit with respect to the provisionality of pastoralists as intermedial composites networked with changing pastoral sites as hubs for contingent interaction.[1]
  • [And we expect policy types to keep up with the changes and differentiation that even we have a hard time with?]

But “more effective” and “less effective” are unavoidable in ordinary descriptions of pastoralist systems. One thing this means is that extra-care is needed to reflect the fuller set of actually-existing practices that follow from recasting pastoralist areas as meeting platforms and pastoralists as intermedia. How so?

  • I’m not sure everyone would agree that pastoralist better practices (“better” as defined in the high reliability framework) include all those unofficial (read: clandestine) networks that sub-Saharan migrants to Europe and elsewhere rely on to resist surveillance and capture.
  • The practices have included encrypted communications, secret locations and multiplicity of efforts to counter the informatics of domination and the technologies of coercion.
  • Note the practices fit in—uncomfortably—with the reduced form narratives of national policy types that resident pastoralists are “outside the state’s control.”

A way government can rely on the three platforms: Using for its real-time decisionmaking an authoritative website, tentatively

An authoritative website provides sought-after, up-to-date and linked knowledge so quickly and reliably that it is continuously browsed by increasing numbers of users who click on the website early and often in their search for on-point information, in this case about all things pastoralism.

  • These websites do not pretend to provide final or definitive information, but rather seek to assure and ensure the quality of the topical information continually up-dated.
  • The website serves as a clearinghouse that encourages cross-checking and tailoring of information on, e.g., pastoral development, while also acting as a springboard for future information search and exchange. It is popular because it shortens the number of steps to search for salient information.

In our scenario, the policy type, analyst or manager starts her analysis on pastoralist development by searching [2]

  • She goes to this website on the well-established better practice that information becomes increasingly policy or management relevant when the people gathering the information are the ones who actually use that information.
  • That is, the authoritative website is constructed and maintained as a platform to make real-time searching and browsing easier for the policy type, not least of whom are project and program managers in the field and at the senior- and middle-levels in the center.
  • It is authoritative because it is: (1) online, that is, can be kept up-to-date in ways other media can’t; multicursal, in searching from one link to another; and (2) digital, that is, can be curated for salient multimedia, including different mixes of: video, podcast, reports, articles, chatrooms, graphics-rich tutorials, advice line (“ask the professionals”), up-to-date bibliographies, YouTube channel and blog, among others.

This is to say, online + multicursal + digital produce a bespoke platform for policy types to better grasp and reflect the intermedial, networked and plurality of dimensions in pastoralisms, right now. [3]

Who funds, provides content, and curates [4] such a website is, of course, the question, e.g., a consortium of researchers, centers, journals and foundations. . . But the broader point I’m making here remains the same:


I’d like to think the three perspectives sketched above constellate around something like “multiplatform pastoralism.” From this vantage point, pastoralisms are platforms—read, infrastructural arrays and portfolios—and not single-purpose entities devoid of infrastructure’s socio-technical dimensions.


[1] Apologies for the length of this digression, but it’s here where “pastoralist network(s)” need more thinking from a platform (infrastructure) perspective.

The site from where remittances are sent for the purpose of, say, livestock improvements in pastoral areas must be a hub of sorts in the broader pastoralist network, right? Both for remittance sender and remittance receiver, their sites of respective residence/occupation look like hubs of mobility (resources moving from or to) and immobility (can’t pick up and leave immediately in either case), right?

This notion that multiple network hubs—each a platform of (im)mobility—implies the network concerned has no real “outposts.” Now that’s an interesting formulation of a “network.” I wonder if another way of thinking about this is the notion of cross-loading (much talked about as informal coalition-making among EU members as distinct from the formal EU coordination and concertation mechanisms).

Cross-loading—I’m adapting the framework of a major article on the EU topic—is the mutual influence of pastoralist household members and close relations on each other, separate from those governed by state policies and regulations. Cross-loading captures better the sense of pastoralists looking sideways to each other and reacting, where each is co-present and their relations co-constitutive. Cross-loading on this shared platform does not deny that the pastoralists adapt their behavior to state policies and regulations (so-called “downloading” through formal hierarchies) nor does it deny that pastoralists seek to project their own views onto and thereby influence state policies and regulations (so-called “uploading”). Uploading and downloading may have their own (more vertical) networks, separate from or overlapping with those for (more horizontal) networks.

Cross-loading is very much more a “multilateral” platform than center-periphery networks (with hubs and outposts).

[2] Such authoritative websites may already exist on a regional, cooperative, or site/livestock specific basis, though I’d have to wonder to what extent the websites are linked and curated together (i.e., analogous to meta-analyses of variously published research findings).

[3] We’re routinely told that Africa is run by gerontocracies but has 80% of the population 30 years of age and under. But that’s a Good Position to be in, at least for people—the future policy elite—who are already relying on internet websites to know more about an issue, right?

[4] The curation is no incidental matter. There will be the ongoing problem of linkrot and content drift, i.e., responding to links that disappear from the archived material or material whose links now lead to different matter than originally referenced (e.g., updating a ministry’s organizational chart).

Related reading

E. Roe (2020). A New Policy Narrative for Pastoralism? Pastoralists as Reliability Professionals and Pastoralist Systems as Infrastructure, STEPS Working Paper 113, STEPS Centre: Brighton, UK (available online at

Blog entries for: “Pastoralists and Pastoralisms (longer read),” “Pastoralists as avant-garde”

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