Human-animal “joint commitment” in a reindeer herding system

Charles Stépanoff


This study explores the grounds and paradoxes of cooperative interaction in a reindeer herding system in Southern Siberia. While the majority of human activities are joint activities where goals or actions of participants require transparency and common knowledge, this article asks to what extent is it possible to build a cooperative interaction with minimal shared knowledge and poor means of communication. The article shows how, despite a lack of a clearly shared plans of action, herders are able to induce reindeer to come back spontaneously to the camps through nonverbal communication, even though reindeer graze freely and autonomously most of the time. Herders come to rely on reindeer’s cognitive skills and desires and, more generally, on animal autonomy in order to keep their herd engaged with them. Paradoxically, humans can domesticate reindeer only if they keep them wild. Yet, in spite of a relation marked by communicational opacity and radical asymmetry, reindeer and men are able to maintain an ongoing cooperative context that allows them to carry out extremely complex joint activities, such as riding.

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau2.2.015