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New Internationalist

Editor’s Letter

April 1995



As an editor here one of the first puzzles any of us face is to try and figure out exactly what we’ll include in an issue of New Internationalist. How widely (or how narrowly) should we cast the net? It’s an obvious problem when a theme is especially diffuse: ‘Democracy’, say, or ‘Trade’. You have to sharpen the focus pretty quickly or there’s a danger of sprawling all over the place. But it can be tricky, too, when subjects already seem quite precise.

Wayne Ellwood Take this issue on ‘Nomads’ for example. It seemed logical to me when I started my research that anthropologists ‘in-the-know’ should be my first reference stop. I had a series of conversations with a handful of academic ‘experts’ and they were generous with their time in a way that I still find amazing. As usual this was extremely useful (it’s always more efficient initially to buttonhole someone than it is to attack the local library). Except that the more experts I spoke with the wider my conceptual net seemed to extend.

I found out quickly that ‘nomad’ is a noun. What I should have been concerned with more accurately was the adjective. Just because people were ‘nomadic’ didn’t mean they were ‘nomads’. The more correct terms I learned were ‘pastoralists’ and ‘hunter-gatherers’. In both cases ‘nomadism’ (ie mobility) was used to greater or lesser degrees as a survival strategy. Another argument said that pastoralists with their herds of cattle or camels were the only ‘true’ nomads: that nomadism is a technique for keeping animals alive and hunting a technique for killing them. Fair point I thought. But by now the need for further definition was losing its appeal. The ‘nomadism as survival strategy’ argument seemed to make sense to me so I set out to build this issue around that core.

The next step was to see if there were ways of connecting the theme more directly to you, the reader. We actually try to do this in every issue. Our assumption, rightly or wrongly, is that Western readers (that’s about 90 per cent of you) need to feel that an issue really affects their lives in order to engage their interest. That’s not to say that you can’t feel empathy for the struggles of Mongol herders in Inner Mongolia or Barabaig pastoralists in Tanzania. Just that empathy has its limits.

Anyway, with that in mind the net started to widen further. I began to read about how the nomadic spirit manifests itself in our own lives – and to think more broadly still about how we react to the challenge of cultural difference. Because if nothing else nomads challenge our sense of who we are and what we want from life.

Having reached this metaphysical juncture I decided my conceptual net was wide enough. Time to call it quits. A good thing too: I was seriously toying with the idea of an article on the migratory habits of wealthy pensioners.

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Wayne Ellwood
for the New Internationalist Co-operative

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

This feature was published in the April 1995 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 266

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