Characteristic Features of the Basseri of Iran Research Paper

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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…[continue]

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