Identity as a lens on livelihoods: insights from Turkana, Kenya
Livelihood surveys often categorise pastoralist households by economic activity and material assets, using measures such as herd ownership, extent of mobility and the degree of reliance on livestock vs other sources of subsistence and income. However, in contexts of high variability and uncertainty, such objective classifications may inadvertently perpetrate two distortions. First, they stabilise highly fluid economic landscapes, over-looking the ways in which people draw opportunistically from an array of livelihood strategies or move between them over time. Second, they may flatten the social field, overlooking the ways that class and kinship structure and constrain people's livelihood options. This paper argues for greater attention to subjective assessments of livelihood, such as the labels by which people self-identify or distinguish themselves from others. Drawing on over twenty months of anthropological fieldwork, I describe the notion of raiya, a polysemous identity construct that has become a salient part of everyday discourse in Turkana County, Kenya. While raiya connotes an array of conventional dichotomies – including rural/urban, traditional/modern and nomadic/sedentary – attention to the uses of this term in 'speech acts' reveals how it is used to manage relationships and access opportunities across these apparent divisions. This example demonstrates how research on identity practices can inform the study of livelihoods, not only because self-identification indicates a commitment to certain cultural values (Moritz 2012), but also because identity labels highlight the messy processes of boundary-shifting and boundary-crossing that characterise social and economic life under conditions of high variability.