CASCA Workshop Report – Ideas and Practices: Exploring Economic and Social Transformation in Central Asia

November 22, 2018

The workshop “Ideas and Practices: Exploring Economic and Social Transformation in Central Asia” on 11–13 October 2018 at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology brought together about forty scholars working on Central Asia. Over two-and-a-half days, the participants reflected on the rapid social change brought about by the economic and political transformations in the region during the last decade.

The event opened with a pre-workshop that enabled the new generation of anthropologists to share their research in progress and learn about each other’s work. Noticeably, there are an increasing number of anthropologists with a Central Asian background who are currently doing research in Central Asia. PhD students of CASCA – the Halle-Zurich Centre for Anthropological Studies on Central Asia –and other European universities working on Central Asia presented their projects on topics that included agriculture and development, economic transformation and religion in post-Soviet countries, and pastoralism in Nepal.

Picking up this theme about assessing the current state of the anthropology of Central Asia, the second day of the workshop started with a roundtable on the question ‘Where we are in Central Asian Anthropology’.

The remainder of the workshop was dedicated to individual papers, which revealed a number of common themes that resulted from the ongoing transformation process in the region.

While post-socialist development has followed different paths in each country, the rise of ethnic nationalism is a recurring topic in the emergence of former Soviet Republics as independent nation-states. Thus, one of the panels was dedicated to the adaptation strategies of ethnic minorities, namely Uzbeks in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Another panel considered the implications of return migration in Kazakhstan, where nation-building efforts have focused on increasing the number of ethnic Kazakhs. A migration wave of Kazakhs from abroad and outmigration of its Slavic population changed the country’s ethnic composition dramatically. New settlements by a new group of people called oralman, or returnees, have appeared across the country.

Economically, a key change has been the shift towards a market economy and privatisation in post-Soviet countries. In addition, China’s New Silk Road initiative and new economic and trade relations established in the framework of market economy have a huge effect on people’s livelihood strategies, especially on those who live along the road and border. Presenters discussed how the economic change has affected pastoral land use and pastoralism practices, as well as the conduct of life cycle ceremonies, namely weddings and commemoration.  

The role of women was another recurring theme. One presentation examined the difficulties encountered by female labour migrants returning from Russia and their struggles to reintegrate in their own society. Other presentations considered expectations about what a proper woman should be like and women’s education and occupations in a changing society.

An important aspect of the workshop was the use of anthropological investigation to reflect on social life in Central Asian countries from a bottom-up perspective.

CASCA is the largest Europe-based research centre on Central Asia with some twenty scholars including PhD students as members. It was created out of a cooperation between the Department ‘Integration and Conflict’ (Prof. Schlee) at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology and the Department of Anthropology of the University of Zurich (Prof. Finke).  This workshop was planned as one of a series of events in this ongoing cooperation.

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