Working Title: Bishkek after or before the Revolution? Integration, Conflict, and Identification among Youth in a post-Soviet Urban Context

The Kyrgyz “Tulip Revolution” of March 2005 ended the fifteen years’ presidency of Askar Akaev and initially brought the tandem of Kurmanbek Bakiev and Feliks Kulov atop the political administration. High expectations were attached to this move – to reconcile the North-South divide being a major one of them –, but as we approach its second anniversary, the “revolution” obviously did not bring about significant improvements for the majority of the Kyrgyz. The overall performance of the state structures still is weak and the severe challenges in the political, economic, cultural and social domains remain insufficiently addressed. Furthermore, the continuous struggles on the national political level – about a new constitution and concerning the recent resignation of Kulov as Prime Minister – so far leave little hope for a serious turnaround in the near future.
So currently, at least from a macro-level perspective, Kyrgyzstan finds itself in a “liminal” situation (Turner 1969). After the – also highly ritualistic – breach with a first post-Soviet period full of privations, it seems that now is the time of anti-structure, a concomitance of contingent potentiality and temporary disorder.

Especially in critical situations as the one just described, the youth is perceived to be at once a virtual and decisive but also a vulnerable and “instrumentalizable” part of the society. Again, the case of the “Tulip Revolution” exemplifies this. Undisputedly, youths played a vital role in the recent political upheavals and thereby generally proved their capacity to impact on social change. In the meantime however, confidence in the new leadership is declining; many of its young supporters have grown disappointed, and some political actives also started to join the ranks of a growing opposition. This development constitutes only the latest of the post-Soviet frustrations, ultimately adding up to a more general disillusionment and societal perception of moral and legal “chaos” (Nazpary 2002) – a feeling which not only arises from the so far little advancements in politics and economy, but also from structural experiences of corruption, nepotism, and arbitrariness.

Against this background I want to examine the everyday social processes of integration, exclusion, conflict and identification among youths in Bishkek.

Choosing Bishkek as the site of my fieldwork allows me to relate my findings to other anthropological studies focusing either on urbanity and youth in post-Soviet times or on patterns of social organization in rural areas. In addition, Bishkek is a highly “dynamic” setting and the locus of major NGOs, media outlets, universities, migration movements and cash flows. It therefore can be considered the main “arena” for intensive situational, symbolic and ritual interaction and the articulation of identities.

Working Title: Bishkek after or before the Revolution? Integration, Conflict, and Identification among Youth in a post-Soviet Urban Context

Theoretically, my project starts from a New Institutional Economic (NIE) approach. In my view, the elements gathered within this framework are especially useful in terms of “activating”, structuring and organizing anthropological data concerning the aforementioned social dynamics.
Following NIE-theory, institutions basically are referred to as the “rules of the game” (North 1990). More concretely they can be termed as “patterns of behaviour”: evolving, consolidating, and changing according to the repeated social interaction of individuals and groups. Institutions can take various forms from “everyday norms of conduct and conventions to highly formalized systems of rules, such as a market economy, property rights, kinship structures, religious systems, or the state” (Finke 2005).

Concerning the relationship of agency and structure, a NIE-perspective takes a moderate position. It suggests that, on the one side, social action and cognitive dispositions are channelled by institutions, just as, on the other side, the institutional environment is altered by the actors’ behaviour and their perceptions and ideologies. Accordingly, social action can be characterized as “embedded” (Elwert et al. 1999) within vibrant institutional frameworks. Specifically, this means that both integration – on the basis of reciprocal trust and prolonged cooperation over time – and conflict – as an incompatibility of interests and intentions among persons or groups – are perceived to be regulated by the patterns of behaviour established by specific institutions. A change of these patterns is dependent on the leverage that actors with differing interests can exercise on existing institutional designs. Identities are part of the institutional frameworks and serve as the principal points of reference for social action. The rhetorical handling of social categories with the help of identity markers (e.g. language, religion, descent, accent, skin colour, clothes etc.) lies at the heart of specific strategies of inclusion and exclusion, and plays a crucial role when examining the internal and external dynamics of social groups (Schlee 2004).

As of yet, I feel that single actors’ ways and views are underrepresented in anthropological studies applying an NIE-approach. To complement this, in my project I want to compile and compare a rather small number of case studies in which I will try to capture institutional frameworks: individually – i.e. from the single actors’ perspective – and holistically.

The main research questions in this respect are:

  • Which institutional frameworks are present in the everyday lives of youths in Bishkek? How do they facilitate or constrain social action and thereby play into individual and collective processes of decision-making and strategic interaction?
  • How do Bishkek youths integrate through varying kinds of social networks (among family members, kinsmen, neighbours, friends etc.), through the participation in different rituals, in private celebrations and public events?
  • Which identities do youths in Bishkek refer to and how are these (re-)constructed to include some and exclude others?


Elwert, Georg; Feuchtwang, Stephan; Neubert, Dieter (Eds.) 1999. Dynamics of Violence. Processes of Escalation and De-Escalation in Violent Group Conflicts. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.

Finke, Peter 2005. Variations on Uzbek Identity. Concepts, Constraints, and Local Configurations. Habilitationsschrift. Universität Leipzig.

Nazpary, Joma 2002. Post-Soviet Chaos. Violence and Dispossession in Kazakhstan. London: Pluto Press.

North, Douglass C. 1990. Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Cambridge.

Schlee, Günther 2004. Taking Sides and Constructing Identities: Reflections on Conflict Theory. In: Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 10, 135-156.

Turner, Victor W. 1969. The ritual process: structure and anti-structure. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

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