Philipp Schröder receives Forschungspreis Ethnographie

May 13, 2019

Philipp Schröder, a former research fellow (2006–2011) in the Department ‘Integration and Conflict’, has been named the honouree of the Forschungspreis Ethnographie of the Department of Social and Cultural Studies of Fulda University of Applied Sciences for his book Bishkek Boys: Neighbourhood Youth and Urban Change in Kyrgyzstan’s Capital. The prize will be awarded during the 7th Fuldaer Feldarbeitstage on 5 July 2019.

The award-winning book Bishkek Boys is based on Schröder’s dissertation, which was written during his fellowship at the MPI. His dissertation supervisor, Prof. Günther Schlee, comments: “I think it is great that this award for ethnographic research exists. The ethnographic monograph has long been the most important genre in our discipline. A common feature of the classics of ethnography is their detailed and multi-faceted material which has secured their long-term academic relevance. Theoretical approaches change and terminological pseudo-innovations that pretend to be theories quickly become out-dated. An in-depth ethnography, by contrast, offers material for reflection and discussion of diverse questions from many different theoretical perspectives. Philipp Schröder’s book is exactly this type of rich ethnography.”

In their announcement, the jury of the 2019 Forschungspreis Ethnographie praised Schröder’s study as “an exceptionally multi-faceted, sensitive, and at the same time analytic snapshot of a social ‘tipping point’ among the neighbourhood youth of a district of Bishkek based on his 18-month (existential) participation, from which questions arise regarding the disposition of Kyrgyz society in the post-Soviet upheaval”.

Prior to the award ceremony, we interviewed Philipp Schröder about his book:

Dr. Schröder, first of all, congratulations on winning the Forschungspreis Ethnographie for your book Bishkek Boys. Can you tell us a bit more about this study?
It is primarily about a group of young men in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. These men are united by a youth spent in the same neighbourhood, a prefabricated housing development from the Soviet period. The chapters of the book then aim to sketch a panorama of the social ties and identifications among these young men. Recurring themes are the importance of “one’s own yard”, friendship, and solidarity, but also dynamics of social exclusion, generational hierarchies, and youth violence.

And what was the outcome of your analysis of their social relations?
It reveals a transformation that was taking place in the neighbourhood during the period of my field research in 2007/2008. Due to heavy migration to Bishkek from rural areas of Kyrgyzstan as well as a changing youth culture, the neighbourhood gradually lost its significance as a resource for social integration and identification. Some of the young men were still caught in a nostalgia about the “good old days of our neighbourhood”. But even for them, the orientation had already shifted: away from the very local level of the neighbourhood and towards the broader question of who in Bishkek was a “genuine urbanite” and who was a “rural newcomer”.

How did you become interested in Bishkek?
Since my first visit there in 2002, I have been fascinated by Bishkek’s urban youth. During the Soviet period, when the city was still called Frunze, Russian was the main language used in public and the majority of residents were ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, and other so-called “Europeans”. After the country’s independence in 1991 and the onset of the aforementioned rural-urban migration, life in the city changed considerably. Within less than 15 years, the population of Bishkek had doubled, the Kyrgyz had become the majority group, and also Russian had lost its prominence as the language spoken in this city.

What were the consequences of these changes for the city?
Following the transformation to a free market economy, new settlements appeared alongside the Socialist-era architecture: the elite houses of the “new rich” on the one hand, and slums on the outskirts of the city without electricity, gas, or running water on the other. Russia remained relevant for Kyrgyzstan in many sectors, but there was also an opening towards the “West”. This not only resulted in the highest density of NGOs in Central Asia, but also affected the consumption of music, film, and other culture products. In addition, there was increased interest in various forms of Islam, and the growing influence of the giant eastern neighbour – China – was tangible everywhere. This period was also politicized in an exceptional way. After the previous government was removed from power in 2005, there were major questions about the political future: would the hoped-for changes actually come to pass under the new government, or would the population once again be disappointed by the elites? I wanted to learn more about how young men and women oriented themselves in such a diverse and dynamic environment, and how they shaped their everyday lives.

When did you begin investigating this topic?
One could say that my intellectual immersion evolved from this initial fascination in 2002. However, the main part of the ethnographic work took place during stationary fieldwork in 2007 and 2008.

Are you still in contact with the men whom you wrote about in your book?
Yes, I still travel to Kyrgyzstan several times a year, and thus have never lost touch with the young men from this neighbourhood. I continue to follow their lives, only now I do so more as a friend than as an anthropologist. Today nearly all of them are married, most of them have several children – and of course they have moved on from the lifeworlds of their youth during the 12 years since we became acquainted.

What was the academic context in which the book was created?
The crucial institutional context was the work on my dissertation in the Department ‘Integration and Conflict’ at the MPI for Social Anthropology starting in 2006. In terms of the content, there weren’t many other colleagues at this time who were explicitly engaged in anthropological study of urban Central Asia. There was a similar lack of social anthropological research on youth, although Kyrgyzstan had just started to attract academic interest in this area. But after the change of government in 2005, this was focused mostly on the youth as a possible political force and their participation in social upheavals. In contrast, I was interested in the “non-revolutionary” everyday life of young people.

What new insights do you present in the book?
One of my major concerns was ensuring that my ethnographic descriptions capture the complexity of the social ties existing between these young men and the underlying principles by which they organized their lives.

Can you give an example of this?
For example, young Kyrgyz men distinguished themselves according to “neighbourhood generations”, even if their actual age difference was only two years. They then referred to anyone outside their own generation as younger or older brothers – and their social exchange was guided by the notions of “showing respect” and “taking responsibility”. These brotherhoods proved to be reliable ties when dealing with minor and major challenges, and thus provided these young men with an attractive alternative to the groups of same-aged friends or one’s own kin.

Does your description and analysis focus only on the micro-level of the neighbourhood relationships, or do you also look at the bigger picture?
Throughout the chapters, the descriptions come together to create a history of Bishkek, told by the long-term inhabitants of one neighbourhood. In that way, the lines of connection to the ‘larger developments’ in Kyrgyzstan become visible as well. The heavy migration from rural areas, for example, meant that long-established families moved away from the neighbourhood, while the “newcomers” did not strive to establish a connection to this specific locality and its history. At the same time, Kyrgyzstan’s moderate economic upturn and the availability of new electronic media enabled the subsequent generation of youth to regularly visit computer and internet clubs. But this brought with it a loss of interest in direct, non-virtual interaction in one’s own neighbourhood yard.

For whom is the book likely to be of interest – who should read it?
I would say the book is particularly relevant for anyone interested in life practices and perspectives of young people in Kyrgyzstan, and how they position themselves within the urban culture and environment of Bishkek. Additionally, it is of interest for those who want to understand how the overall societal developments in Kyrgyzstan changed the established social fabric of its capital, how new discourses emerged from this, and how previously common lines of conflict and integration were shifted. The audience of the book is primarily anthropologists and scholars of other disciplines with a regional interest in Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia, or the post-Soviet area. But it also offers insights that may be useful for practitioners working in development cooperation or local politics.

What are you working on now?
I am working on a monograph on the topic of commerce and entrepreneurship in Eurasia, based on fieldwork I have been conducting since 2013 in Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and China. More specifically, I study Kyrgyz bazaar traders in Siberia, Kyrgyz middlemen in south China, and young entrepreneurs in Kyrgyzstan. I am particularly interested in how the first “capitalist generation” after the demise of the Soviet Union has adjusted over time to the various regional forms of economic exchange, and how these representatives of a “new middle class” link their business success with mobility, ethnicity, social embedding, and other non-material factors. In a present shaped by transregional state initiatives like China’s New Silk Road or the Russia-led “Eurasian Economic Union”, I think it is essential to take a closer look at those actors who, in spite of belonging to a “smaller nation”, should not so quickly be categorized as marginal.

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