New Book: Pastures of Change, by Gillian Tan: Resilient Nomads


Pastures of Change: Contemporary Adaptations and Transformations among Nomadic Pastoralists of Eastern Tibet, Gillian Tan.

Springer International Publishing, 2018 (Studies in Human Ecology and Adaptation).


Tan’s latest book can be read along with her engaging In The Circle of White Stones, which offers a rich and lively ethnographic description of life among Minyak Tibetan pastoralists (Western Sichuan). Tan’s experience of following the seasonal movements of a group of nomads on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau allows her to grasp how their spatial and temporal mobility is paralleled by other types of continuities and discontinuities. It is a more in-depth and theoretical engagement with this issue of change that distinguishes Pasture of Change from Tan’s previous book, and makes it a remarkable contribution not only to the anthropology of Tibetan pastoralism but more broadly to methodological approaches to social change.

One of the important points Tan makes is that pastoralist life is by definition―so to speak―made up of change and that pastoralists are not marginalized communities living a by default lifestyle. These communities forever on the move have long proven their ability to adapt to change. Sweeping reforms recently introduced in the People’s Republic of China, which have led to increased control and the fencing of pastures, gradual sedentarization and the like may sound the death knell for Tibetan pastoralists.[1] While documenting these historic changes, however, Tan aptly focuses on pastoralists’ agency and shows how it entails a more nuanced understanding of these changes.

There is significant literature on pastoralism, including on the Tibetan plateau, and Tan contributes fresh ethnography about people and locations that had not yet found their place in written records. The book’s contribution to studies of pastoralism is of great interest, but for this necessarily brief review I would like to draw particular attention to the author’s interpretive and conceptual framework. The challenge is to analyse the multi-directionality of these changes and the complexity of the transformations. The purpose of the book is to provide a framework to render this analysis possible and that is what I would like to focus on here.

Our vision of change often depends on how we think in terms of stability. Inspired by Bateson’s work,[2] Tan takes an opposite starting point by considering that change is the primary given and what the analyst can do is therefore to try to order the different kinds of change. To push this approach one step further, Tan relies on Dwyer and Minnegal’s recent theorisation[3]  and looks at particular processes of change (such as adaptation or transformation) and products of change (material manifestations of change) while also analysing how relations between variables are affected. For example, how human-animal (namely yaks) relations are transformed in the context of increasing commoditisation, the changes in relations being indicative of a change in the cultural values that inform these relations in the first place. This framework for analysis therefore implies a particular understanding of value(s) as an analytical notion.

I regard Tan’s intervention therefore as an effort to analyse dynamics that characterise how, through change, a society (community) ensures its reproduction. She seeks to offer a more nuanced approach that does justice to the complexity of real life. Central to her analytical framework is the notion of relationship, and its particular meaning in this cultural context. She therefore builds upon the vernacular notion of relationships as drelwa, which connotes relations of nurture and mutual need, linked to past and future actions within the cosmological framework of karma and interdependency (tendrel) (see for example p. 42-43).

One line of argument is that, as a diachronic perspective demonstrates, nomadic pastoral communities’ dynamics and resilience feed on change and, in spite of recent heavy-handed state policies that have far-reaching repercussions on people’s daily lives, they continue to adapt. And when transformations that take place are more fundamental, affecting the very system of values that conditions the maintenance of various relationships, the way these are affected and evolve can still be viewed as integrated into a kind of structure of change. Structure emerges as a pattern of relationships, and relationships may be reproduced in new ways, with new variables.

Some changes (variables) are easier to accommodate than others. Some products—signs of “modernity”—can be integrated into everyday practices, which alter them in some ways but without challenging underlying relationships and values. Other changes may trigger shifts in relationships, sometimes only in terms of the degree, but also with a more transformative outcome when shifts lead to question the actual kinds of relationships.

While Tan does not explicitly theorise resilience (a brief discussion is to be found on p. 53), it ultimately becomes clear that her approach to change through interdependent relationships is akin to the notion of (ecological and social) resilience; as she states in the conclusion: “Transitioning from one state to another is how the system operates; and the theory behind this is resilience.” (173)[4]

More than sedentarisation, the fencing of pastures, the commoditisation of cattle, or boarding schools, it is the caterpillar fungus economy that has had, in Tan’s view, the most significant impact. Sales of caterpillar fungus have generated enormous amounts of cash income, thereby affecting local communities’ interrelations and leading to heightened disparities in wealth between households. More significantly, the caterpillar fungus economy and the emergence of this commodity value overrides other values and comes at the expense of relationships with others (human and non-human alike) that made it possible in the first place.

Under these conditions one begins to wonder, in light of the theoretical framework posited by Tan that lays emphasis on the centrality of change (as adaptation or transformation), how to qualify those moments, or conjunctures, which have made the social edifice vacillate. Then I came to ask myself, can we say that what we are facing is no longer social change but a change in society?

[1] See also the recent special issue by E. Yeh and C. Makley (2018). Urbanization, education, and the politics of space on the Tibetan Plateau. Critical Asian Studies. DOI: 10.1080/14672715.2018.1555484

[2] Bateson, G. (1991). Orders of change. In G. Bateson (ed.), A sacred unity: Further steps to an ecology of mind (pp. 283–289). New York: Harper Collins. (Original work published in 1976)

[3] Dwyer, P. D., and M. Minnegal (2010). Theorizing social change. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 16(3): 626–645.

[4] For a discussion, see T. Blumenfield (2014). Resilience in Mountainous Southwest China: Adopting a Socio-Ecological Approach to Community Change. In “Des mondes en devenir: Interethnicité et production du sens en Chine du Sud-Ouest. Worlds in the making: Interethnicity and the processes of generating meaning in Southwestern China”, ed. Stéphane Gros. Special issue, Cahiers d’Extrême Asie 23: 281-300.

Stéphane Gros

Stéphane Gros is a social anthropologist at the CNRS (France), Centre for Himalayan Studies. He is the author of a monograph on the Drung of Northwest Yunnan province in China (La Part manquante, 2012), and has written numerous articles and book chapters on issues of interethnic relations and representations of ethnic minorities, poverty and categorization, as well as rituals and cosmology. He has edited or co-edited four collections of relevance to ethnographic theory, Chinese studies, and area studies. For 2012-2016, he was the Principal Investigator for a collaborative project titled "Territories, Communities, and Exchanges in the Kham Sino-Tibetan Borderlands", funded by a ERC (European Research Council) Starting Grant. More recently, his personal research investigates aspects of kinship and social organization, conversion to Christianity, as well as heritage politics and environmental discourses. He is currently a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.

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