Border Crossing with Peter Little, bringing politics and ecology to anthropology

Peter Little, Samuel Candler Dobbs professor of anthropology and director of the Emory Program in Global Development Studies, was one of the first anthropologists to study the political ecology of pastoralism in Africa, a new field that combines insights from political economy and ecology. His current research focuses on a range of topics but most importantly the anthropology of development and globalization, particularly as they impact vulnerable communities in East Africa.

On the evolution of his work as a pioneer of political ecology

As an undergraduate I was in involved in something called the Tulane Scholars Program that allowed considerable flexibility in curriculum programming. Very early on Tulane had environmental sciences because of its proximity to the Delta – they’d been doing work in the Delta and along the Mississippi River. I was lucky to attend a semester abroad in Kenya, about five months, through a program where other universities were involved. That experience sparked my interested in anthropology and Africa. That was my junior year. So, when I came back, I wanted to do ecological and economic anthropology. I went specifically to graduate school at Indiana University to work in these fields and in African studies. It had strengths in all of them.

Most of your economists at that time – and a lot of them still do – were concerned with national level, macro-economics and not actually talking to farmers and pastoralists about how they make economic decisions and related issues.  What are the social factors that affect resource allocations, and the cultural factors that influence economics, and related issues? The ways in which people make decisions and allocate resources, sell things, and so on comprises economic anthropology, a large field now within anthropology. The person I worked with was one of the early pioneers in the field. So, in graduate school I did a lot of economics along with anthropology and African Studies.

Because of working in drought-prone, dry areas, ecology was inscribed in the daily life of the communities I studied and impacted what one observed. You had to know the ecology of the area because it was just so critical to how people were making decisions and how they adapted to them. For pastoralists, they move to where the water and pastures are. So that was an easy bridge to make between ecology and anthropology in my work. In terms of the politics, I realized as I was writing my thesis and in later work that politics had a big influence on where African pastoralists could move, how they were identified, what rights they received from the state, all these kinds of important issues – how they could cross borders or not cross borders internationally. The politics of it made me realize that within ecology there was this whole element missing. Scholars of pastoralism would talk about adaptation without looking at the fact that mobility was as much about politics as it was the availability of grazing and other resources; it often was because herders politically had to move. It was because the state just put a national park there or took another action that constrained mobility and local access to land and other resources. That’s how I became involved in this kind of research, and my discipline, anthropology, allows this kind of crossing of disciplinary borders. I’ve been working on this and related topics in the region for more than 30 years.

On finding the right partners for a recent collaborative study of the effects of climate variability on mobile pastoral populations in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya

For this project, I collaborated with Uriel Kitron, [Goodrich C. White professor of environmental studies and a noted eco-epidemiologist], one of his post docs, and Carla Roncoli [associate director of the Emory Master’s in Development Practice Program]. We also worked with students here at Emory, and in Africa, we collaborated with Addis Ababa University, with an economist (Workneh Negatu) there and with two Ethiopian post docs that were based in the country.  There are lots of advantages of working with local scholars, and the intellectual and personal rewards are very high. It is another kind of border crossing that I have pursued. One of our post-docs (Waktole Tiki) was an ecologist, and one was an anthropologist (Dejene Negassa Debsu) who had been a PhD student of mine at the University of Kentucky where I worked prior to coming to Emory. That three-year project is over, but we’re still writing up the materials and engaged with our Ethiopian partners.

One note on interdisciplinary research because it is a current ‘buzz word’ and people frequently ask me about it: Let me explain how I came to the interdisciplinary nature of my work. As I mentioned, I have considerable training in economics. In ecology, I’ve also done a lot of work, and I worked with an ecological anthropologist in graduate school who had a very strong background in the ecological sciences. I’ve also worked with a number of dryland ecologists from around the world. I think for interdisciplinary work, the questions have always been for me: can you agree on a common research question; is there mutual respect for the methods of the different disciplines, and are the intellectual and, possibly, policy gains greater in a collective enterprise than on your own? Another question for me is where do you push your own knowledge boundaries or work with somebody who may already have that knowledge? You make a decision: am I going to collaborate with a really good economist or ecologist or can I address the problem with my own knowledge of economics or ecology.  For more complicated and exciting new research problems, I increasingly hedge toward the former, and that’s where I decide to collaborate with scholars like Uriel.

Uriel did much of the GIS (Geographic Information Systems) work on the project, including training our Ethiopian counterparts. Mobile populations are very special in their use of space and the environment, so he really added a lot to [the project]. He went to the field with me three times in southern Ethiopia and ran a GIS training workshop at Addis Ababa University, which went over really well – a three-day workshop. He’s very good in the field and a great travel companion.

I went to Uriel because I wanted to scale up the spatial/mapping part since mobile pastoralists use enormous territories that often traverse international borders. We also wanted to understand how the animal disease ecology of southern Ethiopia/northern Kenya affected pastoralist markets, livelihoods, and mobility, and Uriel had done a lot of mapping of diseases in East Africa that was relevant to the project. Mobile pastoral populations are very vulnerable to animal disease vectors. So, I went to him for that skill set and it worked out really well. We’ve been able present our work at different workshops and co-author articles with a former Emory graduate student (Sarah Guagliardo, who is currently employed at the CDC) and our Ethiopian partners.

On what excites him about his work

There are so many problems and changes worldwide that challenge our disciplinary theories and skill sets. For example, we published an article on mobile phones and their impact on pastoralism, a topic that I could hardly fathom writing even 10 years ago. Theoretically, the stuff on borders is fascinating, because you have all these different layers of borders (political, social, and environmental), which have meaning to the people who live in these areas and to us as researchers. I’ve been working with these populations for 30-plus years – so to study and try to understand the impacts of this kind of change, like the use of mobile phones or formal education, is really exciting stuff.

The downside is the environmental aspect, the climate change realities, I mean literally I can see it.  And, of course, local communities have to live with and adapt to them. Where I really see it is in the deserts, the dry areas, in what’s happened with the so-called mist line and ground water. A lot of these areas don’t receive a lot of rainfall, but certain cool times of the year, their hills will get mist, and it will support vegetation and water for human consumption, and that mist line is continually retreating to higher elevations. Rivers and streams that were perennial, permanent, are now more seasonal. It’s exciting from a research point of view because you’re able to document these changes over time, but it’s a little on the scary side, some of that stuff, especially for vulnerable communities.

The exciting thing is the training, working with post docs, including Emory students. It’s been fabulous. Emory really engages its students and for its PhD students it provides travel and other support that helps them to work internationally. As a faculty member, it facilitates our work with them and allows us to engage them in exciting new ideas and projects. These activities hopefully will improve their careers and, perhaps, the human communities they study.