Understanding of the Economics of Pastoralism

Characteristic features of the Basseri of Iran. Its first part will identify and classify “pastoralism” as the Basseri culture’s primary mode of subsistence. He second part will show that “tribal chiefship” is underlies the organization of the Basseri society. Furthermore it will show that agriculture and trading determine the Basseri economic organization. Finally, as regards to gender relations, the paper will point out that the importance of the male contribution to subsistence in sheep herding leads to an emphasis on male social roles and patrilineality

Identify and classify the selected culture’s primary mode of subsistence

The Basseri are a prime example of a pastoral tribe that is not self-sufficient (Pastoralism, p. 2). They are a tribe of nomads who inhabit the Iranian province of Fars and migrate along the steppes and mountains near the town of Shiraz (Johnson (1996), p. 1). In general, societies specializing in animal husbandry requiring periodic movement are called pastoral nomads (Barfield (1984), p. 1. Nomadic pastoral societies can be classified as those in which animal husbandry is viewed as an ideal way of making a living and in which movement of all or part of the society is considered a normal and natural part of life (Barfield (1984), p. 2).

Pastoralists maintain herds of animals and use their products to support themselves directly and to exchange with other civilizations. It is especially associated with such terrain as steppes, rolling hills. Grasslands, and the like-areas of low rainfall where cultivation is difficult without irrigation, but where grasses are plentiful enough to support herds of animals. Pastoralism was originally founded in the old world. Pastoralists are generally nomadic and follow their herds in search of food and water (Pastoralism, p. 1).

The Basseri nomad pastoralists raise sheep, goats, donkeys, and camels, and dogs. The sheep are a special breed adapted to this migratory life, less adapted to climate extremes than either those living the year round on mountains or plain, but larger than either, and more productive. If these sheep are not moved twice a year, 70% to 80% will die (see Coon (1962), p. 636). T he donkeys are for transport and riding (mainly by women and children) and draft work. Camels are for heavy transport and wool, and dogs for keeping watch in camp. Poultry are sometimes kept as a source of meat, but not for eggs. Cattle are not herded because of the long migrations and the rocky terrain (Johnson (1996),

p. 2). The donkeys and camels are employed for draft work, and the wealthier men have horses for riding. The Basseri have a specified route and schedule that they follow. The route refers to the localities in the order they are visited and follows the existing passes and lines of communication. Along these routes it is considered the right of a tribesman to graze his flocks in uncultivated lands and draw water from all but private wells (Traditional pastoral societies, p. 10). The schedule regulates the length of time each location will be occupied and depends on the maturation of different pastures and the movements of other tribes (Pastoralism, p. 2).

Explain the impact that the primary mode of subsistence has on at least three of the following aspects of culture

I have chosen to focus on the following three aspects of Basseri culture: Social organization, economic organization, and gender relations.

Social Organization

The primary social unit of Basseri society is the group of people who share a tent. The Basseri keep a count of their numbers and describe their camp groups in terms of “tents” (sing, khune, “house”). Each tent is occupied by an independent household, typically consistent of a nuclear family. The individual in Basseri society is not what we may consider an individual to be by Western standards. An individual is no one person, but the elementary family unit that lives together in a common tent (Traditional pastoral societies, p. 11). Tents are units of production and consumption. Each is represented by its male head (Johnson (1996, p. 2). The head deals with the formal officers of the tribe, villagers, and other strangers. The head is usually the husband of the family, but can also be the senior male. The authority of headmen is derived from agnatic kinship in a ramifying descent system, as well as from matrilateral and affinal relations (Johnson (1996), p. 3). A woman may only be regarded as head if she is widowed and there are no males present, but even in that case, the woman must have a male relative represent her (Johnson (1996), p. 2). Tent residents hold rights over all moveable property including flocks, and they can act as independent units for political purposes. For purposes of more efficient herding, these households combine in small herding units, the composition of which depends on expediency rather than kinship or other basic principles of organization (Johnson (1996), p. 2). In winter, groups of two to five tents associated in herding units make up local camps separated by 3 or 4 kilometers from the next group. At all other times of the year, camps are larger — usually numbering ten to forty tents. These camps are in a very real sense the primary communities of nomadic Basseri society. The members of a camp are a clearly bounded group (Johnson (1996), p. 2). Their relations to each other as continuing neighbors are relatively constant, whereas all other contacts are passing, ephemeral and governed by chance (Johnson (1996), p. 3). The maintenance of a camp as a social unit requires daily unanimous agreement on questions of migration, the selection of campsites, and all other economically vital considerations (Johnson (1996), p. 3). Where no headman resides in camp, informal leaders (sing, riz safid, lit., “white beard”), by common consent are recognized to represent their camp in the same way as a headman does but without the formal recognition of the Basseri chief (Johnson (1996), p. 3).

The central authority that enforces and organizes the migratory routes is based around a chief. This chief is the embodiment of what is known the corporate body of the Basseri. A chief holds a unique position among the Basseri as being the only member of the tribe that makes decisions beyond what concerns his tent (Traditional Pastoral Societies, p. 10). The relations between the tribesmen and the outside world are both political and economic. The chief takes care of the political ones, but economic exchanges and disputes, as over crop damage by migrating animals, are the affairs of the individuals involved (see Coon (1962), p. 637).

The Basseri chief is the head of a very strongly centralized political system and has immense authority over all members of the Basseri tribe. The authority of the Basseri chief is exercised regularly in three fields: Allotting pastures and coordinating the migrations of the tribe; settling the disputes that are brought to him; and representing the tribe or any of its members in politically important dealings with sedentary authorities (see Salzman (2000), p. 51). There are not any institutions of coercion available to the chief, no tribal police or military unit under his control (see Salzman ibid). He is able to maintain his position due to the fact that the ordinary Basseri tribesmen — the commoners who make up the great bulk of the pastoral nomads — are socially, economically, and politically fragmented, effectively leaderless at the local level, and are thus unable to unite in common political purpose to oppose their chief, to whom they consequently remain subordinate and obedient. The omnipotent chief, drawing upon his wealth, status, and contacts with outsiders, commands his tribesmen in an authoritative and autocratic fashion (see Salzman, p. 52).

The chief, in his dealing with the headmen, draws on their power and influence but does not delegate any of his own power back to them. Some material goods — mostly gifts of some economic and prestige value, such as riding horses and weapons — flow from the chief to the headmen. A headman is a politically convenient position: He can communicate much more freely with the chief than any other tribesmen, and thus can bring up cases that are to his own advantage and, to some extent, block or delay the discussion of matters detrimental to his own interests. Nonetheless, the political power that a headman derives from the chief is very limited (Johnson (1996), p. 2). He holds the right to administer taxation and regulate land use. Below this executive position there are headmen, which represent the different oulads that make up the tribe. The headmen can be equated to a camp leader in his camp, but is also responsible for the other camps designated within his oulad. The actual communities the Basseri live in though are the level of separate camps, differing components of an oulad. An individual’s membership in his respective oulas is a result of his patrilineal decent and gives him right to land allotted by the chief. This right is however limited only to that tribesman’s assigned migration route and time. He may not graze freely, preventing different sections from utilizing the same location at the same time (Traditional Pastoral Societies, p. 11). While land of the Basseri can be considered a corporate entity, the livestock can be considered an individual possession (Traditional pastoral societies (2003) ibid).

The structure of the Basseri tribe maintains both order and flexibility to efficiently utilize their land. At a macro view, the Basseri are controlled by the corporate body that manages the land properly. The ecology of the land only allows for a limited utilization that cannot be sustained over time. The power of the corporate body regulates land usage to ensure that it is not over exploited. On a smaller scale, the Basseri operate on their own managing livestock in the way they see fit within the bounds of their oulad. Through the management of the corporate body, the individuals avoid the tragedy of the commons. If allowed to move freely with their livestock, the individual tents will only act in their own interest and the resources at their disposal will be depleted (Traditional pastoral societies, pp. 12f.).

Economic Organization

Agriculture and trading are a very important aspect to the lives of the Basseri.

Agriculture is the main essence of the Basseri population. The tribe depends on extensive use of seasonal pastures (George (2003), p. 1). The necessity of an exchange relationship between pastoralists and their settled neighbors is an essential characteristic of pastoralism (see Bradburd (1996), p. 1). Although the Basseri keep a variety of domesticated animals, sheep and goats have the greatest economic importance. Sheep and goats provide mil, meat, wool, and hides. Camels provide only wool. These products are consumed immediately, stored for later consumption, or traded (Johnson (1996), p. 2). The nomads’ most important products are milk, lambskins, and wool in that order. The Basseri spin, weave wool, and goat-hair, and make their own tent poles, pack-saddles, and cordage. The rest of their equipment is bought from townsmen and gypsies, their vegetable food from villagers. Some of the (wealthier) Basseri own village lands from which they receive their share of crops (See Coon (1962), p. 636). The livestock owned by the members of the tent produces the food and economic capital the family uses for subsistence (Traditional pastoral societies, p. 11). The economic unit is the tent, usually containing a husband, wife, and children plus or minus other dependents. The tent owns about 100 sheep and ten donkeys, and the sheep are tended by a boy, either a member of the household or a hired herdsman (see Coon (1962), p. 636).

Basseri practice agriculture indirectly. However, most tribesman most obtain through trade the necessities and luxury items that are not produced within the community. The staple items they sell are butter, wool, lambskins, rope, and occasionally livestock. If they do not raise vegetables or some type of food they will usually acquire them through trade (Pastoralism, p. 2). Hunting and gathering play no major role in their economy though hunting is a popular sport among the men (Pastoralism, p. 2).

Gender Relations

Labor in a tent is divided among the household members by sex and age, but few tasks are rigidly allotted to only one sex or one age. There are three categories of tasks: Domestic work, daily cycle of migration, and the tending and herding of animals. Domestic tasks are mainly done by woman and girls. They prepare the food, wash and mend the clothes, and do the spinning and weaving. The men and boys provide the wood and water. Of primary importance is the male contribution to subsistence in sheep herding, since the animals need to be carried around and protected against wolves. The importance of the male contribution to sheep herding leads to an emphasis on male social roles and patrilineality (Pastoralists, p. 57). Males sometimes participate in preparing food, and washing their clothes, but are ridiculed for even pursuing in spinning and weaving. They also do most of the repairs of the equipment and tent (George (2003),

p. 2).

A marriage is a transaction between kin groups constituting whole households, and not merely between contracting spouses. The head of a household, or tent, holds the authority to make marriage contracts for the members of his household. A married man may arrange subsequent marriages for himself, whereas all women and unmarried boys are subject to the authority of a marriage guardian, who is the head of their household. The marriage contract is often drawn up and written by a nontribal ritual specialist, or holy man. It stipulates certain bride-payments for the girl and the domestic equipment she is expected to bring, and the divorce or widow insurance, which is a prearranged share of the husband’s estate, payable upon divorce or in the event of death. Marriage occurs between the age of sixteen and twenty years for females, but males may be much older than that. The father of the bride usually equips his daughter with a number of household items. Where a household was established by marriage, the groom’s father gave the household an “anticipatory inheritance” — the groom received from his father’s herd the arithmetic fraction that he would receive as an heir if his father were to die at that moment. From then on, the new household was on its own. If its herds failed, it received no second inheritance, nor was it lent animals to help it maintain itself (Johnson (1996), p. 4). The mothers of the couple usually get together and weave the tent in which they are to live in. The woman joins her husband in the tent and an independent economic unit is formed. Inside the household, distribution of authority between men and women is nearly equal. They share the responsibility of making decisions that will greatly affect the family in the domestic domain and in that aspect. The average number of children a couple has varies from three to five. Herbal medicines may be utilized as birth control, but only if a woman has had many children (George (2003), p. 2).

As is commonly the case in the Middle East, the agnatic lines of the Basseri are predominantly in matters of succession. The son of a Basseri is regarded as Basseri even though his mother may be from another tribe or village. On the other hand, when a Basseri woman marries outside the tribe she transmits no rights in the tribe to her offspring. Although patrilineal kinship unites larger kin-based groups, bonds of solidarity also tie matrikin together. For example, the relation between a mother’s brother and a sister’s child is an indulgent one among the Basseri. Affinal relations are also regarded as relations of solidarity and kinship. They appear to be most effective in establishing political bonds between tents (Basseri, p. 2).


The paper has shown that the Basseri culture is one of pastoral nomads who inhabit the Southern part of Iran. It has pointed out that “tribal chiefship” is the organizational base of the Basseri society. It has furthermore shown that rather than being subsistence producing, livestock lovers, sheep-herding Basseri are market-oriented and instrumentally-minded in their pastoral production. Finally, it has illustrated that Basseri gender relations are characterized by an emphasis on male social roles and patrilineality.

List of References

Barfield, T. (1984). Nomads: Stopped in their tracks? 1-5. Accessed 2 October 2011.Cached — Similar


Basseri. 1-3. Accessed 2 October 2011.


Bradburd, D.A. (1996). Toward an understanding of the economics of pastoralism: the balance of exchange between pastoralist and non-pastoralist in West-Iran 1815-1975.

1-3. Article from: Human Ecology: An Interdisciplinary Journal | March 1, 1996.

Accessed 2 October 2011.Cached – Similar


Coon, C.S. (1962). Book Review of Barth, F. (1961): Nomads of South Persia: The Basseri Tribe of the Kkamseh Confederacy. 637-638. Universitets Etnografiske Museum, Oslo, Bulletin No. 8.) Oslo, Norway: Oslo University Press.

Accessed 2 October 2011.


George, J. (2003). Basseri. Derived 2 October 2011.


Johnson, Ronald. (1996). “Basseri.” Encyclopedia of World Cultures.

Encyclopedia.com. Accessed 2 Oct. 2011


Pastoralists. 57-60. Accessed 2 October 2011.


Pastoralism .1-3. Accessed 2 October 2011.


Salzman, P.C. (2000). Hierarchical Image and Reality: The Construction of a Tribal chiefship. Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Jan., 2000),

pp. 49-66. Accessed 2 October 2011.


Traditional pastoral societies and their impact on the environment 82. 1-16. Accessed 2 October 2011.

… > Cultural Customs and Traditions>

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