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William Irons

Ethnographer of Yomut Turkmen and Anthropologist of Nomadic Peoples: 
Winner of the IUAES Commission on Nomadic Peoples Lifetime Achievement Award 
by Philip Carl Salzman

"Everything I thought I knew at the end of my first year of fieldwork was wrong," William Irons said to me when first I met him in Tehran, at the British Institute of Persian Studies, in 1967. Irons was in course of his second stint of research among the Yomut Turkmen of the Gorgon Plain, to the east of the Caspian Sea, having after his first stint of fieldwork taken a study break of several months at the University of London. I had just arrived to Iran to begin my fieldwork in Baluchistan, and I was impressed by Irons' observation. As in so many other things, Irons proved to be correct, at least as measured by my experience in Baluchistan.

Irons' reports of his findings among the Turkmen are striking, both because of the interest of his discoveries, and the clarity and persuasiveness of his accounts. Here are several of his arguments:

Yomut nomadism as politics

The Turkmen were resolutely nomadic, living in yurts the year round, but their nomadism was not primarily an adaptation to the physio-biotic environment. For the small number of Turkmen charwa pastoralists in arid north of the Gorgon Plain, seasonal migration was useful; for the great majority of Turkmen, who were grain cultivators, chomur, living in the rainy south of the Gorgon Plain, there was no productive need to be mobile, and they moved very little. Thus Irons argues that nomadism, for the Yomut Turkmen, was not ecological or productive, but was a political adaptation (Irons 1974, 1975). The Turkmen lived on the edge of the Persian Empire and had to contend with the Persian Crown. Turkmen took it as their right to extort payments from their Persian neighbors, to slave raid among more distant Persians and then sell the Persian captives in Central Asian markets, and to raid Persian caravans. However, these activities were a challenge and threat to the Persian Crown, which believed it had an exclusive right to extort from its subjects. From time to time the Persian Crown sent off an army on a punitive campaign against the Turkmen. The Turkmen, for their part, simply parted, packing up their yurts and heading across the Kara Kum desert to visit their Khiva Turkmen relatives while the Royal Army sat on the Gorgon Plain and ate up the Crown treasury. When the Royal Army was recalled, the Yomut returned. Thus for the Turkmen nomadism was not primarily regular movement of the household or community in the course of production, but mobility that could be called on to guarantee political independence and liberty, and the opportunities and benefits that followed from these. Nomadism as mobility allowed the Yomut to remain independent tribes by using rapid retreat as a tactic to avoid control by the Persian state.

Why Yomut Turkmen and Basseri social policies differ

Nomadic tribes can be strikingly different from one another, as Irons (1972) shows in his comparison between the Yomut Turkmen and the Basseri (Barth 1961). One remarkable contrast is the social and economic independence of Basseri households in comparison to the social and economic interdependence of Turkmen households. The nomadic Basseri tribe consisted of families with substantial but not very large herds, giving the tribe a rather homogeneous economic profile. This famously resulted from a sloughing off of both rich and poor families, the former becoming landowners, the latter agricultural labourers or sharecroppers (Barth 1961: Ch. VIII). The Yomut tribes instead maintained membership of rich, medium, and poor families alike. Poor families had the options of working as shepherds for wealthy families or taking up agriculture in the chomur section of the tribe. Wealthy families had the option of farming out their herds to poor families.

What accounts for the differences between the exclusive Basseri and the inclusive Yomut? We might say that the Basseri were economic nomads, while the Yomut were political nomads. Irons (1972) points out that both the internal and external security systems of the Yomut were based on military confrontation. Internally, the Yomut depended upon the balanced opposition of a segmentary lineage system; externally, the Yomut presented a military force for offensive raiding and defensive battles. Both internally and externally the measure of power was the number of fighting men. Segmentary solidarity for the Yomut was not only a norm, it was a direct interest. The more fighting men, whether from rich or poor families, retained by a lineage and tribe, the stronger it was. In contrast, the Basseri lived amidst Persian cities and peasant villages, watched by Persian Crown officials as well as by other tribes. For the Basseri, internally organized hierarchically under an administrating chief, khan, who also represented the tribe to the government officials, landowners, tribal chiefs of the regional elite, raiding and extortion-sources of major income for the Yomut-were not viable. Basseri success depended upon a good economic balance between population and resources, efficient livestock production, and good relations with the urban market. Households that were not succeeding were a drag on everyone else and not a resource to be supported. Thus, as Irons shows, political interests drove Yomut internal social policy, while economic interests drove Basseri internal social policy.

Why do tribes have chiefs?

The Yomut Turkmen tribes (Irons 1975, 1979a) were relentlessly egalitarian in their politics. They had no chiefs; they had no political hierarchies; there were no permanent offices (other than saqlau, "protector," the tribal collectors of tribute from Persian villages). Political relations were organized by patrilineal descent, and order was maintained by the balanced opposition of corporate lineages (Irons 1975: Ch. III).

Irons (1979a) attributes Yomut political egalitarianism to two ecological characteristics common in nomadic societies: low population density, and ease of geographic mobility. Under these circumstances, in which small groups can manage their own affairs and disputes can be solved through mobility, "the development of an institutionalized political hierarchy [is] improbable" (Irons 1979a: 362).

" How then can we account for the presence of political hierarchies, chiefs, and great power differentiation in some nomadic tribes? Irons (1979a: 362) offers an hypothesis: Among pastoral nomadic societies, hierarchical political institutions are generated only by external political relations with state societies, and never develop purely as a result of the internal dynamics of such societies.

Irons (1979a: 366) suggests that "chiefly office among pastoralists is concerned primarily with armed conflict and its alternative, peaceful negotiation and adjudication backed up by the possibility of armed conflict." In other words, hierarchical political institutions develop among nomadic pastoralists when there is close contact and a loose balance of power between the tribe and state authorities, and the tribal chief can effectively negotiate for the tribe with the state.

Iron's general argument is supported by his material on variation in political stratification among the Yomut and other Turkmen (Irons 1971). Various Turkmen groups had different degrees of contact with Persian sedentary peasant populations and with Persian government officials: Charwa pastoralists had little contact with either peasants or government; chomur cultivators were active "protecting" peasants for a fee; and those chomur closest to centers of Persian administration, such as the city of Asterabad, had some dealings with Persian officials.

Those Yomut with greater contact with outsiders were involved in more developed political hierarchies. The charwa operated mainly with an egalitarian lineage system; the chomur regulated their protection racket through the formal, hierarchical role of saqlau, generally taken by the most potent raider; and those chomur close to Persian cities found themselves embroiled with Persian officials, sarkardeh, responsible for recruiting conscripts and collecting taxes. Furthermore, the Goklan Turkmen, to the east of the Yomut, and within the influence of the city of Bojnurd, found themselves incorporated into administration by the government hierarchy. The more contact the Turkmen had with Persian officials, the more taxes they paid and the more men were conscripted.

Effective control by the Persian government over the Yomut, both immediately before and not long after WWII, increased the incorporation of the tribes into Persian administration. Amongst the Yomut themselves, the office of saqlau was lost, but rich Yomut, urban dwelling and educated, who were effective in associating with the Persian elite, became patrons for Yomut in the countryside, thus establishing an informal but real political stratification among the Yomut.

Irons (1971: 155) sums up this account with the generalization, "an increase in interaction with sedentary society is associated with an increase in political stratification."

Life chances among the Yomut

Does cultural success result in biological success? Do individuals who achieve culturally specified goals have greater success in passing their genes to the next generation? This is the questions that Irons (1979b: 258) explores using quantitative data from the second phase of his Yomut research.

For Turkmen individuals, economic success is maximizing wealth (Irons 1979b: 260). If some Turkmen succeed in building wealth relative to other Turkmen, does this have any effect on their fertility and mortality, which taken together is a measure of Darwinian inclusive fitness? Irons pursues this question by ranking 566 Yomut households by amount of capital wealth, including livestock and land, and comparing the wealthier and poorer halves of the sample.

What Irons has found is that both survivorship and fertility is higher, especially for men, among the wealthier half of the population. On average, wealthy men can expect to have 4.4 sons and 3.7 daughters, while poor men can expect to have 2.4 sons and 2.3 daughters. This is how Irons (1979b: 267) explains these remarkable results:

Wealthier individuals of both sexes enjoy better diets and medical care and devote less time to forms of labor which are strenuous or involve high risks. This in turn affects survivorship rates. Wealthier males have higher fertility because their families can afford to acquire brides for them at an earlier-than-average age, because they remarry more quickly after a wife dies, and because they are more frequently polygynous.

From these results Irons (1979b: 272) is able to conclude that "emic success among the Turkmen makes a high inclusive fitness more probable."

Do the rich always get richer among the Yomut?

Some Yomut families were very well to do, with hundreds and even thousands of livestock, or many acres under cultivation, while other Yomut families were poor, with only a few head of livestock or small patches of cultivation. Yet there was no economic stratification; there were no symbolic markers of economic status among the Yomut.

Irons (1994: 189) argues that While there is a very unequal distribution of wealth, the place of each family in this distribution is not permanent. ... Over a period of years, many households move from one of the economic categories to another. This was the view that they [the Yomut] always expressed about their own society. There were vast differences in wealth, but the wealth of individual families could be expected to change. For the wealthy to become poor or the poor to become wealthy was not unusual. Irons (1994) demonstrates statistically this volatility of wealth by comparing rank according to current wealth with rank according to inheritance. His (1994: 192) findings are that "the actual amount of change is about 75 percent of what would be expected if patrimony rank and current wealth rank were randomly related." A similar result is found in relation between patrimonies received by men and those given to sons; the change in wealth is about 81 percent of what one would expect from a random relationship. In short, who is well-to-do among the Turkmen has little to do with how wealthy his parents were, and will have little effect on how well off his son is. This is why differences in wealth among the Yomut do not lead to social inequalities.

These and other contributions to the understanding of nomadic peoples by Irons have influenced and clarified the thoughts of many students of nomadic life. For more than a few of us, Irons' work has been enlightening and inspiring. It is for this reason that the Awards Panel of the IUAES Commission on Nomadic Peoples determined to present William Irons with its Lifetime Achievement Award.


References Cited

Barth, Fredrik 
1961 Nomads of South Persia. Oslo: Oslo University Press.

Irons, William 
1971 "Variation in Political Stratification among the Yomut Turkmen," Anthropological Quarterly 44 (3): 143-156. 1972 "Variation in      Economic Organization: A Comparison of the Pastoral Yomut and the Basseri," in Perspectives on Nomadism, Wm. Irons and      N. Dyson-Hudson, editors.

Leiden: Brill. 
1974 "Nomadism as a Political Adaptation: The Case of the Yomut Turkmen", American Ethnologist 1: 635-658. 
1975 The Yomut Turkmen: A Study of Social Organization Among a Central Asian Turkic Speaking Population. Anthropological      Paper Number 58, Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan. 
1979a "Political Stratification among Pastoral Nomads," in Pastoral Production and Society, L'Equipe Ècologie et anthropologie des      sociétés pastorale, editors. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
1979b "Cultural and Biological Success," in Evolutionary Biology and Human Social Behavior: An Anthropological Perspective, N. A.      Chagnon and Wm. Irons, editors. North Scituate, MA: Duxbury. 
1994 "Why Are the Yomut Not More Stratified?" in Pastoralists at the Periphery: Herders in a Capitalist World, C. Chang and H. A. Koster, editors. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.