Interconnected granularity as a key methodological challenge in representing pastoralists and pastoralism

Ask yourself what it means when it’s easier to identify a dominant development narrative or social imaginary about pastoralism—all you have to doe is read the critical literature—than it is to formulate plausible failure scenarios for a proposed pastoralist intervention?

The issue isn’t just “the devil is in the details.” It’s also about identifying and describing the interconnections between and among the details of a failure scenario in ways not possible with the less granular representations of development narratives and pastoralist imaginaries. (I focus on scenarios of failure because pastoral development narratives and imaginaries are typically pessimistic representations.)

To illustrate, take the obvious example: We know performance along the project/program cycle from formulation through design onto approval into implementation and later evaluation/redesign (if any) depend on different details at different stages for different scenarios, including those for failure. Less recognized but equally evident, I argue, is that once interconnections between the details are brought to the fore, you’ve established a very effective critique of anything like a “project or program cycle.”

This is because identifying and representing latent and manifest interconnectivities is methodologically the best way to highlight the role of contingencies—chance, happenstance, the unexpected or the hitherto unimagined—in unmaking even the best-intended project or program. The very notion of something as distinct as “implementation” is shown to be its own reduced-form development narrative in the face of really-existing fits and starts, mishaps and sudden delays, ruptures or other discontinuities.

Details are themselves representations, such that representations are themselves interconnected through narratives, imaginaries and scenarios. The clearest difference between the representations in failure scenarios and those in pastoralist development narratives and is the former’s with-respect-to granularity. Not only are failure scenarios typically more complex, they are often detailed with respect to better anticipating (that is, predicting and preparing for): “What happens next?”

There are many key policy questions, ranging from the Romans’ Cui bono? (Who benefits?) to Lenin’s What is to be done? “What happens next?,” though, has special prominence. For it has been long recognized that the chief limitation with development narratives (and by extension Castoriadis-like social imaginaries) is their inability to tell us, “What happens next according to these narratives and imaginaries? Better yet: What happens next because of these narratives and imaginaries?”

If policymakers and politicians, along with bureaucrats and functionaries, actually act on the basis of this development narrative or from inside that social imaginary, what then can we expect them to do in the steps ahead?

“More of the same” is hardly an answer, when “the same” has rarely been describe in any specificity as to be plausible for right here, now and a bit on. I for one can’t think of a question more policy relevant than this one about connecting a complex present to what is just ahead tomorrow, over the upcoming fortnight, or during the few next months.

Are detailed failure scenarios, in contrast to reduced-form development narratives, guaranteed to answer the What-Next question? Surely not. There are any number of emergency playbooks, disaster protocols and failure response handbooks whose step-by-steps exist on paper or screen only. But here too what’s often missing in the documentation are the contingent interconnectivities represented as latent, or emerging, or having become manifest, as details and events are said to unfold in this place and duration. That said, the level of granularity found in failure scenarios is, in my experience, often not found in development narratives and social imaginaries.

Three concluding features about this level of granularity in development narratives and pastoralist imaginaries are noteworthy. One, it appears you can become an expert in development narratives and social imaginaries by reading the literature or parroting similar-minded critics without ever having undertaken your own field work or practice.

Two, some common property counternarratives also fail to answer the What-Next question for widely diverse sets of pastoralisms and pastoralists. Think most recently the Dasgupta Review’s formal model for managing common pool resources.

Three, globalization, marketization and commodification have indeed set into play path dependencies. But the answer to What-Happens-Next in path dependencies is: well, continued path dependence. Different path dependencies are also represented via different levels of granularity, and it is not clear why the path dependencies of globalization, marketization and commodification and such are to end in versions of degranularization. How is it that differentiated pastoralist behavior is best represented as dead-end coping, differentiated pastoralist landscapes are best represented as depastoralized, differentiated livelihood strategies are best represented as vulnerabilities all, and differentiated herders are best represented as poor, not-equal and that woman with five goats and less?

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