The Basseri of Iran: The Impact of Pastoralism on Kinship, Social Organisation and Political Organisation

Published: 2019/12/05 Number of words: 2639

The Basseri of Southern Iran are traditionally a nomadic, tent-dwelling people, descended from Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and gypsy ancestors. Amanolahi (2003) informs us that now, however, the Basseri have been detribalised and integrated into the Iranian state. Traditionally, their primary mode of subsistence had been pastoral; herding sheep and goats. They numbered about 16,000 in the 1950s, when research for the classic ethnography, Nomads of South Persia by Frederik Barth was conducted (Amanolahi, 2003). Anthropologists have long observed connections between the primary mode of subsistence and aspects of culture such as kinship, social organisation, and political organisation. The case is no different with the Basseri. This paper will explore some of those connections as outlined in published ethnographic work.

Pastoralists have ‘pre-state’ societies and therefore do not have a state, as commonly defined in anthropology (see Scupin, 1995). They are, instead, organised through tribal kinship relations, encompassing, often, thousands of persons. The Basseri were divided into 13 tirehs, with each tireh further subdivided into several oulads.

For most pastoralists, descent is traced through the male (‘patrilinial’) unlike horticulturalists, where matrilineal or matrilocal kinship patterns are common (Nowak & Laird, 2010). The Basseri follow this pattern; membership in an oulad is determined by descent through the male line, and the structure of the tireh is based on connections of descent in the male line (Keesing, 1981). This type of tribal kinship pattern is typical of a segmentary lineage system, in which sub-groups were ideally arranged in a complex structure of complementary opposition and alliances by various groups and sub-groups, though real life often strayed from this ideal (Lindholm, 1986). This tribal kinship organisation, rather than any state-like institution, was used to manage the collective use of land and other resources by the Basseri in their pastoral mode of subsistence. The entire social organisation, in fact, was based upon these tribal kin relationships.

Social Organisation
The Basseri migrated seasonally through a strip of land some 300 miles long; an area of about 2,000 square miles. They settled in one pasture area during summer, when they would also grow some wheat, and were more nomadic during winter (Keesing, 1981). This pattern, with thousands of people moving frequently required, of necessity, a society and social organisation that was flexible and mobile.

Family groups were conceived of as ‘tents’ and were the main units of production and consumption. These tent groups were represented by male heads and held full rights over property. They sometimes acted as independent political units, according to Barth (cited in Keesing, 1981, p. 138). When the group migrated, all of the property of the tent groups – tents, bedding, and cooking equipment – was moved along with the herds. An average family would have 6 to 12 donkeys and somewhat fewer than 100 sheep and goats. In winter, the families separated into small clusters of two to five tents, associated as herding units. The rest of the year, larger camps of 10 to 40 tents moved together. Members of these camps comprised solidary communities, but because of their mobile patterns, quarrelling would sometimes lead to temporary or even permanent fission (Keesing, 1981).

Nowak & Laird (2010) have noted that the Basseri, living in camps of 30 to 50 tents, would strike camp and move every three to four days. The animal herder, a young boy or girl, would leave early in the morning with the herd, while the adults broke camp, loaded their possessions onto pack animals, moved to the new camp, set it up, and prepared for the herds, which would need to be milked upon their arrival.

According to Murdock’s (1967) cross-cultural tabulations (cited in Scupin, 1995, p. 171), pastoralists have a median size of 2,000 people, but in large regions, where villages are tied through economic, social, and political relationships, some tribal populations have denser populations. This indeed appears to be the case for the Basseri as, for thousands of years, they engaged in extensive interaction with surrounding villages and wider state authorities, forming strong trade and political relationships (Keesing, 1981; Amanolahi, 2003). We can see, therefore, that the pastoral mode of subsistence, and the Basseri’s economic and political relations with other societies, had an impact on the size of their society.

At higher levels, the Basseri were divided into 13 tireh, or sections, which were structurally equal, though each tireh might differ significantly in size. Most tireh were divided into ‘families’ or oulads (as many as six), each with a headman, and with a particular grazing area and migration route. Oulads of the same tireh had closely linked migration routes and schedules (Keesing, 1981; Amanolahi, 2003). This illustrates the importance of the kinship and social structure with regard to the needs of the pastoral mode of subsistence.

One aspect of the Basseri social organisation that has been debated is the institution of private property. Barth argued that in pastoral societies generally – including the Basseri – there existed a unique set of relationships between populations of men, the animals off of which they lived, and the habitat which the men and their herds collectively exploited, which promoted cultural patterns of ascribing animals to individual men as private property (as cited in Dowling, 1975, p. 419).

Barth argued that a pastoral population could only reach a stable level if other effective population controls intervened before those of starvation and the death-rate. The first requirement in such an adaptation was the presence of the patterns of private ownership of herds, and individual economic responsibility for each household. The institution of private property caused the population to become fragmented with respect to economic activities, and economic factors could strike differentially, eliminating some members of the population without affecting other members of the same population. This would be impossible if the corporate organisation with respect to political life and pasture rights was also made relevant to economic responsibility and survival, he argued (as cited in Dowling 1975, p. 419).

Dowling (1975), on the other hand, argued that the Basseri’s view of private property was not as a result of the pastoral mode of subsistence particularly, but rather a response to participation in a wider external market and exchange of goods with people in the villages and other communities, urban and peasant (see Amanolahi, 2003). He notes that the ethnographic data from many non-market pastoral societies show that animals are usually not considered to be private property, and that Barth’s theory fits some gardening societies better than the Basseri. Dowling (1975), therefore, argues against assertions that the Basseri’s primary mode of subsistence – pastoralism – impacted this aspect of its social structure, and rather that Basseri participation in an external market impacted the development of the social institution of private property, which resulted in significant wealth differences among different sections of Basseri society. As an example of these wealth differences, for instance, Nowak & Laird (2010) note that successful Basseri built up their herds, accumulating hundreds or thousands of animals. Fearful of losing their wealth to disease and the vulnerabilities of nature, herders converted this capital into an alternative form of wealth, such as land in local villages. The land was cultivated by villagers as tenant farmers, including unsuccessful Basseri who lost their herds and ended up as agricultural labourers.

Political Organisation
Though the Basseri were a ‘pre-state society’ (see Scupin, 1995), they did have a fairly centralised political system, with a khan or kalantar acting as the central, autocratic leader of the entire Basseri tribe (Keesing, 1981; Salzman, 2000; Amanolahi, 2003). Barth describes the khan as ‘the central, autocratic leader of the tribe’ who had ‘great power and privilege’ (cited in Salzman, 200, p. 50). This power was conceived of as emanating from the khan, rather than delegated to him by his subjects. The monopoly held by the chief of the right to command was a fundamental abstract principle of the Basseri social structure and was like the other nomadic tribes of south Persia who were led by an omnipotent khan or chief, argues Barth. Indeed, although the Basseri had diverse ancestral origins, it was their common allegiance to the chief which constituted them into a single tribe in the Persian sense (cited by Salzman, 2000, p. 50).

The authority of the Basseri chief was exercised regularly in three areas: allotting pastures and co-ordinating the migrations of the tribe, settling the disputes that were brought to him, and representing the tribe or any of its members in politically important dealings with sedentary authorities (Salzman, 2000).

However, despite Barth’s characterisation of the khan as being omnipotent and all-powerful, Salzman (2000) has argued that, because of the nature of the pastoral mode of subsistence, this was only an image, but not the reality of power and politics in Basseri society. The Basseri, after all, were made up from collectives of free tribesmen who constituted a mobile, ready-made cavalry force. Many Basseri owned horses for riding, and hunting was a popular sport. Firearms were esteemed, and the tribesmen were skilled in their use. This suggests that Basseri tribesmen were capable, at least as individuals or small groups, of applying armed coercion against the khan. Indeed, Salzman (2000, p. 53) quotes a member of the powerful Qashqai tribal confederacy who noted that, because nomads are armed and of strong character, tyranny is impossible among them.

In addition, Basseri tribesmen had the universal capacity to remove themselves from the authority of their chief through their almost absolute capability for spatial mobility that came from their pastoral mode of subsistence. Their established nomadism rested on a technology of portable housing and production equipment, and their capital resources – livestock – were both spatially mobile and, thanks to the urban marketplace, financially liquid. Tribesmen could have literally walked or ridden away from their chief if they wished (Salzman, 2000).

Also, on occasions when it was feared that the khan might use his authority to expropriate the herds of rival tribesmen, some large herd owners sold their livestock, bought agricultural land and settled in villages as landowners (Salzman, 2000). Furthermore, notwithstanding Barth’s argument that Basseri tribesmen could not organise themselves independently of the chief, large groups of tribesmen had settled as units in compact villages in their traditional summer pastures. Furthermore, large groups of tribesmen, acting as units, would sometimes leave the Basseri entirely to join other tribes or form new ones. The abandonment of the Basseri by these large groups of tribesmen would result from tribesmen’s rejection of their tribal chief, notes Salzman (2000).

In other words, because of the pastoral mode of production, a tribal chief in Fars Province (where the Basseri were situated) did not have a monopoly of leadership over his tribesmen. The presence of neighbouring tribes and their chiefs presented alternative leadership options to common tribesmen. Weak and ineffective chiefs could lose their tribesmen to competing chiefs from other tribes. If tribesmen believed that their interests would be better served by the chief of a neighbouring tribe, they would have switched allegiance. Passive refusal or the threat of violent attack was also possible. A tribal chief was thus in constant, if implicit, competition with neighbouring chiefs for the loyalty of his tribesmen. (Salzman, 2000)

Salzman (2000) also argued that even though the Basseri had certain features of a tributary chiefdom (where the chief and his circle appropriated surplus from the rest of the tribe), the Basseri had more of a kin-based chiefdom, which institutionalised its political power upon the management of consensus among clusters of participants, rather than coercive force. To paraphrase Eric Wolf (cited in Salzman, 2000, p. 64), the relative egalitarianism of the pastoral mode of subsistence made the chief as much a prisoner of the kin-order as he was its ruler.

However, because of the complex and plural social environment in which the Basseri found themselves, nothing served the Basseri better than the collectively ‘manufactured’ picture of a solidary and unified tribe unquestionably following the commands of its strong and unchallenged ruler, argues Salzman (2000). Salzman forwards the argument that among pastoral nomadic societies like the Basseri, hierarchical political institutions are generated only by external political relations with state societies, and never develop as a result of the internal dynamics of such societies. Simply put, the pastoral mode of subsistence, by itself, generates more egalitarian political organisations rather than hierarchical structures. The Basseri’s political structure of working by tribal consensus, but producing an image of chiefly omnipotence, was generated by its long-standing interactions with other societies.

The Basseri’s pastoral mode of subsistence impacted Basseri culture in very specific ways. As has been observed by Murdock (cited in Scupin, 2000, p. 171), the pastoral mode of subsistence supports a population of a few thousand people, compared to the smaller forager societies of a few hundred, or the larger agricultural societies which would number in the tens of thousands. This requires a tribal kinship structure situated between the small, kin-based egalitarian bands and the large, tributary chiefdoms and agricultural states. The Basseri kinship tribal structure was organised through its 13 tireh (sections) and many more oulad sub-sections, ideally arranged in relations of complementary opposition (Lindholm, 1986). Also, like most other pastoral societies, the Basseri were patrilineal.

With regard to the social institution of private property, the issue appears to remain unresolved. Dowling (1975) has argued that because the Basseri have lived for thousands of years with other tribes, states, urban populations, and peasants, they have developed market relations with these groups, which have given rise to private property. Barth, on the other hand, has argued that private property came from the nature of the pastoral mode of subsistence itself (cited in Dowling, 1975).

Finally, with regard to political organisation, Salzman (2000) has argued that the relatively egalitarian nature of the pastoral mode of subsistence, where ordinary tribesmen had the capability and means to resist, ignore, flee, or otherwise not comply with or accept the authority of a khan, made the image of a centralised chiefdom a mere illusion, which was useful to maintain for the outside world, but did not reflect the nature of social and political relations within a pastoralist society like that of the Basseri.

In conclusion, the ethnographic material on the Basseri helps to illustrate the complex and interesting relationships between a society’s mode of subsistence and important aspects of its culture.

Amanolahi, S. (2003). Socio-political changes among the Basseri of south Iran. Iran & the Caucasus, 7(1/2), 261-277.

Dowling, J. H. (1975). Property relations and productive strategies in pastoral societies. American ethnologist, 2(3), 419-426.

Keesing, R. M. (1981). Cultural anthropology: a comparative perspective (2nd ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Lindholm, C. (1986). Kinship structure and political authority: the Middle East and Central Asia. Comparative studies in society and History, 28(2), 334-355.

Nowak, B., & Laird, P. (2010). Cultural anthropology. Ashford University Discovery Series. San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education. Retrieved from

Salzman, P. C. (2000). Hierarchical image and reality: the construction of a tribal chiefship. Comparative studies in society and history, 42(1), 49-66.

Scupin, R. (1995). Cultural anthropology: a global perspective (2nd ed.). New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

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