Award Holder: Konstantina Isidoros
University: University of Oxford
Title of Research: Social transformation among Sahrawi desert nomads

My research examines social transformation among the Sahrawi nomads of the hassaniya linguistic group in the western Sahara desert. The purpose of my fieldwork has been to live among Sahrawi desert nomads and learn how they adapt to a diverse array of social transformations that the region itself faces. To understand social transformation among the Sahrāwī as refugees today, my focus is to understand how their highly mobile social system itself responds to social change.

The development of my research led me to challenge mainstream ‘vertical’ and short-term ‘snapshot’ analyses of the Sahrawi nomads that may “read the landscape backwards” (Horst 2006; Fairhead and Leach 1996). As a result, my methodology has avoided a ‘parachute’ interview-style of data gathering, in favour of taking a more diachronic approach through participant observation and engagement in daily life in the Sahara over long timeframes. My approach has been to let go of overly rigid pre-planning, and just let myself follow the field site, to let it take me through its rhythms with minimal intervention. This has meant recognising and appreciating that it is being shared with me, and that the inhabitants of this geography are my teachers, guides and often, support system in terms of my own emotional and physical wellbeing.

Honing in on social relationships has been a useful way of gaining insights into nomadic communities, and illuminated a hidden logic of how and why this tribal nomadic pastoralists’ social system has persistently survived millennia as a powerful and adaptive system of human social behaviour and organisation into the contemporary era. In an attempt to construct a compassionate and diachronic reading of the Sahrawi social landscape, my doctoral research uses comparative analysis of both theoretical frameworks and ethnographic data. As a result, cross-disciplinary fields such as human adaptation and survival, climate change, history, political economy, geography, refugee theory and international law are a crucial part of my research.

Very often, first-time observations can easily be over-exaggerated and out of context. Yet, over time they become normalised, invisible through familiarisation. Keeping detailed field-notes over long timeframes and navigating with accurate contextual background, helps prevent the dangers of essentialism and sensationalism. Nevertheless, there is the constant pursuit of balance where over-familiarisation can mean not noticing events that have become ‘normal’ or missing meanings and connections.

My fieldwork also involved living in refugee camps, a space in which paradoxical assumptions and observations can be confusing to analyse. This is an example of where cross-disciplinary comparative analysis can often help to make sense of the best path to take. By reading widely in the discipline of refugee theory, I was able to locate those authors with long-term experience whose wisdom guided me on how to interpret human behaviour and social structures.

As a long-term field researcher one is the Constant Guest, forming close relationships with host families which can develop into deep friendships and emotional dependencies, thus blurring temporality and space. These bring reflective dilemmas, such as when one has become so much part of a family that one barely notices crossing through family spaces where one used to do so tentatively. Vice versa, how others may begin to ‘un-notice’ me over time, in the comfortability of familiarity or disagreement. Embarrassing faux pas are part of the life and once one stops being red faced, they can become occasions of insight in hindsight.

What is often not discussed by anthropologists is the private journey of the Self. We are in the field to undertake our ‘work’, but this involves very personal journeys between knowns and unknowns. So too do we make many sacrifices in our own lives during these research periods. For my part, I certainly experienced such a range of transformations, Self-learning and sacrifice, yet I could not have lived through them without the emotional support from those whom I live with.

Deserts are often thought of and described as ‘vast and inhospitable’ and ‘empty quarters’. My experience in the western Sahara has been quite the opposite: across this highly cognitive geographical landscape are far-spun and vibrant webs of social relationships and economic links. Long-term daily life is full of human contact; this style of ethnographic research has enabled me to travel along dynamic channels of human webs which span far beyond the desert itself. Two things have particularly struck me during the course of my fieldwork. Firstly, the deeply intuitive and symbolic love that the Sahrawi nomads have for their geography and camel herds, and the importance of family, as three vital elements in this desert’s economies of affection. Secondly, that there is often a tendency to assume that female researchers will be entering highly patriarchal societies and to prepare for research entry into a ‘mans’ world’ where they are the gatekeepers. My experience is quite the opposite, that it can in fact be mutually matriarchal and patriarchal – co-existing and complementarily interweaving. Thus I have needed to learn to be socially mobile myself to be able to pass through these various spheres.

As applied research, I hope my work will have practical implications for humanitarian and development agencies to better inform future interventions to the refugee experience, as well as advocacy concerns for indigenous populations and ecologies. At the macro-level, the findings of this research may have wider relevance to the region. The Sahara’s geo-significance in climate change debates and untapped resources remains off the mainstream media radar, alongside low-visibility resource-related conflicts that have the potential for high-impact indigenous conflicts in the future. My research could contribute to scholarship on indigenous conceptions of security in a world accepted as insecure, as opposed to a modern ‘fear’ of insecurity in a world presumed to be secure, by demonstrating how traditional indigenous coping mechanisms can stimulate and revitalise socio-ecological security.