The Decision to Move: Being Mobile and Being Rational in Comparative Anthropological Perspective

Thomas Widlok

Small Places, Big Issues

Looking at the relationship between rationality and action in the domain of space, anthropologists first think of actions such as walking and the related decision to move or to stay. Walking may be considered the prototypical human action in a spatial setting. Correspondingly, the decision to move is the prototypical challenge to human practical reasoning in the context of moving through space. I wish to contribute to the topic of rationality and action by reviewing cases of human mobility and human orientation in space in some detail. This chapter is based on ethnographic work I have carried out with various groups of mobile hunters and gatherers over the years, particularly in southern Africa and Australia. Do these remote foragers have anything to offer to understanding decisions that matter most in the current world (regarding the current refugee and migration crisis, for instance)? I propose the following considerations with regard to this question. First, bringing in examples from far away is a key element in combating the common bias that “there is no alternative” (see Widlok, 2009a). A case study exemplifying a very different mode of engaging rationality with action underlines that alternatives always exist and that it is worthwhile to spell them out clearly and develop them creatively. Second, the forager decision to move occupies the opposite end of the spectrum of human possibilities in that it focuses on rationality and action in a basic face-to-face setting without being confounded by effects of larger institutional frameworks. Third, the major global crises always come down to numerous smaller dilemmas and questions that social agents need to solve and that preoccupy them. For most agents the

T. Widlok (*)

African Studies Institute, University of Cologne, Cologne, Germany

Department of Anthropology and Development Studies,

Radboud University, Nijmegen , The Netherlands e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

P. Meusburger et al. (eds.), Knowledge and Action, Knowledge and Space 9, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-44588-5_14

large issues become problematic only when they translate into everyday decisions such as whether or not to relocate. In this chapter I therefore adopt the general anthropological strategy of tackling big issues in small places: I study the relation between rationality and action as exemplified by foragers in the Namibian bush.

Although the decision to move may be thought of as basic, many differences between various foraging groups are ignored in this chapter for the sake of the general argument. One uniting feature of forager mobility stands out from the diversity of cases, climatic zones, and points in time: All foragers clearly have more than just ecological reasons for relocating. Granted, when social agents justify a relocation they often mention environmental factors, especially the accumulating dirt at a certain place and the anticipated ripening of a desired fruit at another, distant place, but a variety of motives can lead individuals or groups to pick up and move. Ethnographic evidence leaves no doubt that reference to environmental conditions is in fact usually a pretext to cover up either actual or imminent social conflict that people want to escape or prevent (Kent, 1989; Widlok, 1999). Moving is the main strategy for solving disputes. When ill-feelings or social tensions occur in these societies, the dominant strategy is to split up and move apart. Hence, there are many more moves than the natural environment alone necessitates. Even in situations where people are more or less settled, they move their hut within the settlement for purposes of dispute resolution, altering spatial closeness and distance in order to manage social closeness and distance. Out of 89 huts in a settlement that I stayed in, less than 18 % remained in the same place in the course of a single year (Widlok, 1999, p. 10). The challenge is to understand this mobility and these decisions to move, to place them in the larger framework about theories connecting rationality and action. What is the rationality behind these moves? Is it a special kind of rationality geared specifically to the action at hand? What general lessons about the social embeddedness of decision-making can be drawn?

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