Call for papers: Contesting the “Emptiness” of Space: Towards an Anthropology of Deserts


Tilman Musch
Bayreuth University, Germany

Rami Wadelnour
Bayreuth University, Germany

Contemporary spatial anthropology generally agrees that space is not fixed or self-contained, but made, claimed, appropriated, contested and negotiated. However, when space is investigated, anthropologists tend to focus on populated places like cities, villages or houses. In this panel, we would like to explore spaces that are commonly associated with the absence of humans rather than with their presence: deserts. In fact, due to their aridity and to extreme high or low temperatures, deserts are characterized by their hostility to many forms of life. They are mostly uninhabited, and the presence of people there seems to be rather ephemeral. Travelers, for example, when crossing deserts, have to do it as rapidly as possible. Furthermore, desert borderlands or some no-man’s-land-like desert regions often depict open spaces far from the reach of states. One could thus presume that deserts present only disinterest for anthropology.

Our panel aims to contest this presumption by re-conceptualizing the desert as a space of human activity such as migration, transport of goods, smuggling, warfare, mining, tourism, hunting, etc. These activities represent fleeting claims of space that are expressed by being on the move more than by lingering in one place. Such “ephemerity” presents a challenge for contemporary anthropology, which has to overcome and re-imagine conventional “boundaries” linked to concepts, methods and disciplines. Thus, concepts of space may be revisited and probably widened. The question if single-sited methods are still sufficient in a context of continuous mobility which relates the “local” to the “global” may also be asked. Finally, interdisciplinary approaches including sociology, geography, economics or politics become more and more important when investigating territories, which are, due to the supposed absence of men, not representing a classical field of research in anthropology. In our panel, we would like to address these challenges by looking into how communities are realizing and displaying their presence in the desert and how desert-space is shaped by human action.