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Nathan Light
Senior Research Fellow (Former Staff)

Nathan Light

Making Economy and Ritual in Kyrgyzstan

In northwestern Kyrgyzstan, economic life and rituals have changed in many ways since the socialist period: the planned economy, large political rituals, and small family rituals have given way to more decentralized activities, through which people build and draw upon social networks that help them participate in community life. Work, socializing, and life cycle rituals involve a variety of institutionalized ties: patrilineal kin groups (uruu), affines and allies (jekjaat), while school classmates (klassdash) and neighborhood associations (jamaat) are expanding in importance. Society is more stratified and ritual life is more elaborate, with more gifts, more cooperative work by kin, and more redistribution.
Kinship and exchange alliances have become the dominant ways to organize many social relations: teachers who were Soviet authority figures nurturing their students to benefit society are now the guests of honor at parties and are given gifts to show appreciation by parents. Likewise, classmates organize reunions and honor their teachers of 10 and 20 years before with gifts. The male classmates organize the event as if they were a patrilineal kin group and the women are treated as the invited allies who support the event with contributions.
village economies are now generally based in household crop and animal production. Close kin are often involved in cooperative planting and harvesting, and animals can be tended in summer pastures by groups of kin, or by families who specialize in herding. Since much work takes place within family and kin-based groups, reciprocity and payment in kind have supplanted socialist-era paid labor. Only a few professional, political, and administrative occupations still receive salaries, and many people move to the city or abroad for better pay. At the same time, most villagers also appreciate the advantages of village life and visit often, or at least benefit from ties through which they can get cheaper produce.
Local produce is exchanged through barter, while staples are bought in town and local shops provide daily necessities and gifts of clothing and treats used for visiting and rituals such as funerals. Most crops are grown for cash, particularly for export through local middlemen, and the commodity prices have a strong impact on local economic development. People in northwestern Kyrgyzstan have increased their income in recent years through expanded export to Kazakhstan and Turkey.
Reciprocity in social relations has become important in the postsocialist economy because these offer access to information and work opportunities, and support cooperative activities such as market trade, and provide financial contributions for projects and ritual events. In the socialist context, economic and ritual cooperation were regulated, but most of the expanded networks are based in relations that were also important in the Soviet period. Because economic activities and rituals have expanded, these ties are now more useful. Additionally, the re-organization of villages along kinship lines leads to greater hierarchy and power differentiation, so personal networks provide alternative access to resources: kinship can help create economic ties, but not everyone in the kin group is included in the benefits.
These complex changes raise the issue of how they are understood, negotiated, and responded to by local participants. When do people feel they have created new practices themselves, and when do they feel these were thrust upon them? Villagers rarely describe social and economic changes in a systematic way, but instead focus on the particular production and marketing practices, social relations, and ritual events through which they make their lives. Thus they seem to be making practical decisions about social relations, but they are also reinventing and elaborating these relations in systematic ways, with an underlying sense that expanded ritual and social ties are beneficial. The current project will examine the ways local actors represent economic and social interactions in discourse and shared activities, and how these are connected to the expansion and transformation of rituals. Are rituals and social practices emerging in response to changing economic experiences? Are social ideologies promoting changes that are seen in opposition to or separate from economic practices? When do people reconceive social relations to seek strategic benefits for themselves? How do people share their ideological and conceptual models, and how are these shaped by media, politics, schooling, religious activities, and so on? What ritual and other social venues promote such thinking about society?

 
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