Roads in Anthropology: Some Thoughts

Roads are more than channels for traffic; they are filled with social life, stories and the flows of ideas and cultures. The discussion of mobility in anthropology is a relatively recent topic of study: Taking the example of roads, this editorial provides this anthropological perspective. Social scientists are now more aware of how important is ‘the move’ and ‘the mobility’, in understanding ‘the transition of societies’.   Based on work in remotest Siberia, this paper allows the transport specialist to take a step back and withdraw from a habitual way of perceiving the issue. The social significance of roads cannot be detached from the lives of people who live along them.

01. Roads and Roadlessness

The experience of long-distance truck drivers in Russia is very demonstrative of the current state of mobility in Russia. Even The theme of roads has inspired many scholars to carry out research and provided fruitful material to write about. Yet there is still a puzzle for some: “Roads? In anthropology?” How can anthropology approach the study of roads? What light does an anthropological perspective give to the study of roads? And what does such a study of roads give to anthropology as a discipline?

The discussion of mobility in anthropology is a relatively recent topic of study. The lack of sustained research of movements and mobilities could be explained by the fact that cultures and ethnic groups were viewed as self-contained and self-bounded entities. And while anthropology studied nomadic and migrating cultures, their movements and migrations, too, were considered within certain enclosed areas.  

It is really not so distant changes in the political situation in countries all over the world, their economies, environments, social lives of communities that has created multiple ripple effects and made people move in search of employment, migrate from divided countries, escape conflict zones, and also made social scientists more aware of how important is the move, the mobility, and the transition.   

Learning from road users in Siberia, a vast region remote from any European setting, might provide a different perspective from which one can understand more about roads. This is predominantly because roads have a crucial importance in the north of Russia. Transport in this isolated region is a complex issue, both for delivering vital supplies to the region and for exporting rich resources in various directions, predominantly to China and Japan, both hungry for raw materials. Long distances, harsh climatic conditions in winter and permafrost present continuous engineering and logistical problems. Remote settlements in the Arctic depend on deliveries by truck, although air transportation operates throughout the year, it is not always a cost-effective way and deliveries by water are restricted to a short summer season. Some remote communities depend on critical truck deliveries; up to 90 per cent of goods are brought in by the trucks within four months when the roads are stable. The significance of roads, as the only reliable all-year transportation in this region, cannot be overstated.

The anthropological study of roads in the North can contribute to the broad corpus of literature that shapes our knowledge of mobility but which centres on the Western perspective. Such a different geographical perspective will broaden our understanding of roads and add comparisons to help us understand that roads are a complex social phenomenon.

more so is the experience of drivers who travel long distances to remote settlements in the Arctic areas along the so-called winter roads (Rus. zimniki). Zimnik is a road and part of a seasonal infrastructure that exists only in winter months.

There is seemingly a rather blurred distinction between roads and non-roads in Siberia. Truck drivers, as people with great experience of using both all-year roads and winter roads, operate within clear categories; more than anybody they are concerned with road surfacing and road grading. The Building Norms and Rules (SNiP 1997), a corpus of normative acts used by administrative authorities and agencies, distinguishes five basic categories of roads in Russia.1

However, truck drivers, informally and between themselves, distinguish three main categories of roads: 1) hard surface roads; 2) gravel roads; and 3) roads with no artificial surfacing. Winter roads are included in category 3 as they are used only during cold periods and are not traversable in summer. Such roads are carved out of snow and ice with the help of graders and tractors. Ice roads (frozen river surfaces) or winter river crossings also belong to category 3 and are built by spraying water on to the frozen river to make an even surface for passing vehicles.

The often used phrase: “there are no roads in the North, only directions” possibly sums up the volatility of the climatic conditions and environmental challenges. Unlike permanent hard surfaced roads, which offer the opportunity for movement all year round, winter roads exist only for a certain period over the winter season.

Roadlessness (Rus. bezdorozh’e) is a familiar concept for many people in Russia, and in Siberia in particular. People often refer to roads affected by rainwater or the spring melt as a state of roadlessness; the overall paucity of roads is often also described as roadlessness (Siegelbaum 2008).  Weather often plays a role in the durability of tracks and winter roads, since strong winds and blizzards can easily cover tracks so next time the road would have to be laid anew. The climatic and environmental conditions cannot be reliably predicted and fluctuations can lead to accidents. The statement ‘no roads, only directions’ does not deny the existence of the roads altogether, neither does it diminish the roads’ importance or significance. By this statement the truck drivers emphasise that roads lack permanence, and the fact that the roads are always in the making.

Thus it seems that roads and roadlessness are two conditions that always interchange. Roadlessness presents the inability to travel; it is the lack of the physical possibility or opportunity to pass and progress on the route. Roadlessness is a lack of movement or movement that is halted. It can be argued then that roadlessness is a lack of opportunities or reduced opportunities to physically pass, to establish contact, to get in touch, or to reach the desired target. This reading of roadlessness steps out from a circumscribed geographical zone, it stops being a specific Siberian phenomenon and becomes easily applicable anywhere else, whether in the Arctic tundra, African desert or European migration routes.

Roadlessness is a fluid notion, such a notion can interchange and depends on perspectives; for some it might not be presented as roadlessness at all. Roadlessness thus is not a fixed state but a fluctuating one that can shift between the impossibility to progress along the route and a sought-for possibility for movement, between the halting or arresting of movement on one hand and the efforts made towards building a road on the other.  

Such distinction between roads and roadlessness calls for a more nuanced definition between roads and tracks or trails (Wilson 2004: 526). The definition of informal and formal routes proposed by Charles D. Trombold is a good start (1991:3). Informal routes require minimal or zero application of labour and can fluctuate. Roads, however, belong to formal routes as they need to be planned, maintained, require engineering and high levels of investment and organisation (Wilson 2004: 526). Although these definitions are appropriate, they imply a certain degree of prescription and fixity, as do most definitions. This definition of roads is based on their technical characteristics, such as type of surfacing, width, quality, etc. And while technical characteristics are important, because they affect our travel, they are not always accurate.  The northern communities in Siberia adopt a different notion of what roads are.

02. Roads as Social Phenomena

In some indigenous communities in Siberia, the hierarchy of roads is understood in connection with the economic or social significance that a particular road has. Thus, a road to a pasture will be less important than a road to a market that presents multiple economic opportunities. Despite the fact that both are dirt roads, one of them will be more important than the other and one therefore will be designated as a  big road, whereas the other may be referred to simply as a path. One particular road in an indigenous community led from a small community to a church in a different village hundreds of kilometres away, for its importance this road was often referred to as ‘the highway’. Thus, the notion of a road is based on the role that road plays within a community.  A definition of roads that is based on the social significance and importance of the roads is more accurate and accommodating. Such definition does not prejudice other non-Western societies that might not have the same level of economic progress and it avoids the evolutionary approach built in the distinction into formal and informal routes (Argounova-Low 2012).

The social significance of roads cannot be detached from the lives of people who live along them. The roads were laid and developed by people who invested their time and labour to shape them. The existence of a road is entangled with the lives of people. It seems appropriate therefore to think about roads by drawing on notions of biography. A biographical approach to studying roads is a good way to highlight their social and human dimension. Such an approach can assist in revealing the social significance of roads that goes beyond the straightforward study of their functionality and technical characteristics.

03.A Biographical Approach to the Study of Roads

The theme of roads has attracted many writers, historians and publicists; a great corpus of literature reveals the historical significance of roads in certain regions and where roads feature as major historical arteries along which flowed tea, silk and goods. These roads were not only passages but also catalysts of trade, development, politics, influence and subsequent changes in economic areas. Many roads can serve as a reflection of history.

There are no objective histories. Rather histories are written by the victors. Thus, in dominant authoritarian regimes histories reflect ideological prescriptions and it is for this reason a biographical approach makes sense because it takes attention away from the meta-narratives written from the perspective of the state and authority. Moreover, the concept of biography rather than an historical account would be especially apt here because attention to the particular, individual, and private is a direction in which to escape from the historical encapsulations and portrayals that are consequential to ideological limitations and restrictions that are characteristic, particularly for totalitarian regimes.

Biography is about life writing and following different threads of encounters, entanglements, combinations and departures. A biographical approach in our case helps to bring the life of people to that of the road and will generate a broader analysis and understanding of what roads are. This approach will highlight an historical perspective and concurrently reveal the complexity of economic, political and social engagements and interactions between people and the road. The concept of biography will help to bring together temporal, economic, cultural and social aspects of the road.

Such inspiration comes from the biographical approach to objects developed by Igor Kopytoff (1986: 64-91). The potential of biographies and of telling biographies is huge; it is more than some dates put together; biographies ‘can make salient what otherwise remains obscure’ (Kopytoff, 1986: 67). This approach also suggests that people and roads, like objects, ‘gather time, movement and change, they are constantly transformed, and these transformations of person and objects are tied up with each other’ (Gosden and Marshall, 1999: 169).

Roads, as cultural products of societies, have the ability to accumulate histories, they have multiple layers of significance, past and present, which cumulatively constitute the life-story of a road. Some historical epochs in the life of a road can become more prominent than others; such stages become a characteristic feature and therefore a major profile in a road’s biography: for example, the Tea Road, the Silk Road, and the Road of Bones.

04.Roads as Narrative

Another aspect that anthropology can highlight in approaching the study of roads is that narratives and roads share common characteristics. These characteristics make roads and narratives akin. Is it not why roads elicit narratives, and, why so many narratives are about roads and journeys? Is it not why road narratives are the oldest form of epic narration? “There is a resemblance…between every path and every story” (Solnit 2002: 72).

A narrative is a story about things that took place over some period of time, and which has a sequence of events; a narrative is a way of learning about the world and a way of passing on to others what has been learned (Berger 1997: 4-10). As such a narrative is a recapitulation of past experience by “matching a verbal sequence of clauses to the sequence of events that actually occurred” (Labov and Waletsky 1967: 20). Narrative is a kind of travel, a kind of road then that takes us into the past punctuated by, like road signs, certain events.

Many stories that are narrated in the communities in the north are related to roads and are about movements. A road for indigenous people in Siberia is a map, highlighted by milestones and significant markers. For migrating reindeer herders memory is condensed, their life narrative is presented in memorial stones marking the grave of an elder or a marked tree to identify a place of birth. Life would end and start on these roads.

In the past a road for these people was their home, their migrations between the pastures and long distance travels on reindeer, called podriad, meant that they spent up to three months on the road in harsh temperatures in the winter months, when the roads were navigable. Each of the stops on these roads, particularly the points that were connected to some events or camp sites, would entail narratives.

In these narratives the road flows through important and significant physical points on the landscape, e.g. the place where a grandfather was buried, the place where a brother was born. The road thus becomes a sequence of memory points and, indeed, memorials to people’s lives and deaths. The road in these narratives features as the lived experience that is transient as it implies movement, yet one that is immersed and absorbed at the same time. The road becomes akin to a life experience that is flowing and does not stand in the same place. This is precisely the metaphor that is often implied in these narratives, the road as a course of life and fate.

In his seminal work on historical poetics Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1975) demonstrates the importance of the narrative role of the road in the history of the novel. Bakhtin stresses that many historical novels are set on journeys along roads, where the road determines the plot of the story. The road becomes a place where events start and take place. Here, on the road, Bakhtin points out, time flows into the space and flows along it (making roads). A story becomes one long journey along the road, and not surprisingly becomes a metaphor for the life itself (Bakhtin 1975: 392).

For many indigenous people who are used to migrating and a nomadic life style, the story of their life is the story of moving along roads and routes from one place to another. Pintupi mythology, for instance, is a narrative of various beings travelling along roads from one place to another (Myers 1991: 59). For the Walbiri people, myth narratives are all about journeys and camping stops that are recounted by men and elaborated graphically as drawings on sand. Women narrate these journeys with the help of gestures and song-like patter (Munn 1962: 973). In the Khanty language, the word ‘story’ actually means ‘a way’ (Novikova 2002: 83). The road and journey is often retold, narrated, even sung like a song and drawn on sand. Roads and narratives are akin. It is a sequence, the most characteristic feature of both a narrative and a road, which allows us to make a connection between the two.

These are not exhaustive themes for discussing roads, mobility and movement in anthropology, but this is sufficient for the time being to withdraw from a habitual way of perception and take a different perspective on roads. Roads that are filled with social life and stories.

Category la refers to motorways of federal significance (including international connections) with up to 7,000 vehicles per day; categories Ib and II refer to motorways of federal, republic and district significance with a capacity between 3,000–7,000 vehicles per day; category III includes roads of district and local significance with a  capacity of 1,000–3,000 vehicles per day; category IV is roads of district and local use with 100–1,000 cars per day; and category V includes roads of local use with 100–200 cars per day (SNiP 1997).

Dr. Tanya Argounova – Low

Address: Anthropology, School of Social Science,University of Aberdeen,Dunbar street, Aberdeen, AB24 3QY, United Kingdom

Dr Tatiana Argounova-Low is Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen, United Kingdom. Her research focuses on mobility and movement, driving and transport. She conducts her fieldwork in the northern regions of Russia, as well as Scotland. Her recent publications highlight the role of roads in anthropology.

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