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How does it feel to be studied? A Central Asian perspective

Central Asian researchers often feel like second-class participants in the global knowledge economy. Academic exchange and engagement needs to become more equitable.

Syinat Sultanalieva
8 October 2019
Welcome to our new series on how academic research is conducted in Central Asia
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BY NC ND 2.0 Flickr / Kirk Siang. Some rights reserved

We are sitting in a large university auditorium. People are slowly filling the seats. In a few minutes, a Best Book award ceremony will start, celebrating the contributions of various scholars focusing on the vast lands of Eurasia. Around me, I see familiar faces of doctoral and master students from my own country and its neighbours: some I have met at conferences, others I have known from before. We are quite excited about the ceremony, as it is our first Eurasian studies conference abroad.

Suddenly the chatter dies down. The speakers on the podium take the microphone and the ceremony starts. After some pleasantries, the book awards are announced: one after the other, the winners rise to the podium to give a short speech, thanking the many people who helped their research. And one after the other, the names we hear are all non-Eurasian names. Instead, they are the “Robert K. Smiths” and “Wendy B. Moores” of Central Eurasian studies: Slavists or Asianists, mostly graduates of North American universities with years of teaching under their belts.

At this point, some readers may think that I am being ungrateful for the opportunities I have been given. After all, the conference organisers had allocated a travel grant that allowed me to participate. What gives me the moral right to criticise the proceedings? In this article, however, I aim to unsettle precisely this mindset, as well as the normalisation of coloniality in knowledge production, where we, the Central Asians, are the source material, the “field”, the very fuel that feeds the production of knowledge about us, but not for us.

Once the “Best Books” ceremony is over, I ask my colleagues from Central Asia about the requirements for consideration and nomination to a prize, and discover that books need to be written in English. Moreover, the potential nominees should have connections with a recognised university press to publish their work. Last but not least, they should have had access to a system of paid sabbaticals to be given the time and money to write a book in the first place. While there is no lack of good research and publications by scholars from the region about the region, most are in Russian and do not have the necessary standing with Western academia to be considered for any significant book prizes.

Non-western scholars in the global market of knowledge production

The microcosm of academia reflects the macrocosm of global political economy and the domination of the neoliberal “free market”: every scholar on and for her own, fighting for greater cite-ability, increasing their h-index, publishing more and more journal articles and/or books just to stay afloat. This is affecting Western academic institutions, too, but non-Western scholars are at a bigger disadvantage to begin with. At the same conference I met a Central Asian scholar in her 50s who had to learn English to be able to continue teaching at her university, which changed its language of instruction from Russian to English in a bid for greater incorporation in the global academic market.

She was surprised to learn that it was not required to pay to have one’s article published in a peer-reviewed journal. She thought that one had to pay 500-600 USD to a publisher for them to accept a submission. This partly reflects the fact that her work may not be on a par with standards in respected peer-reviewed journals. From this perspective, she dealt with sub-par predatory commercial journals in order to survive within her own university that wants to emulate the Western system in order to remain competitive. But this may also be partly the result of Western academic standards being forced upon all universities around the world, without regard for their cultural, historical, political, economic backgrounds and contexts.

As Central Asians, we are invited to participate in academic conferences and symposia, but rarely are we celebrated as experts of our own “field”

While it has become an established norm in Western academia to prove one’s scholarly worth by publishing in academic journals, this has not been the case in non-Western academic cultures. For example, this Central Asian scholar came from a tradition of publishing monographs and books in Russian. hen her university decided to follow Western academic standards as universal standards, she had absolutely no experience in discerning between authentic and predatory journal publishers. For all she knew, in the capitalist West everybody must be paying those fees for publication.

As Central Asians, we are invited to participate in academic conferences and symposia, but rarely are we celebrated as experts of our own “field”. Our research is mostly seen as significantly dependent on Western theoretical frameworks and methodologies, and as such, iterative to them and redundant, to a point where our work is seen as becoming “watered down copies” of Western originals as a result of intellectual mimicry. And how could it possibly be otherwise? To be recognised internationally, we must master English, and even then, we are told that it is good practice to hire a native speaker to review our texts. Any attempt at originality and developing a specific writing style is taken as a sign of lack of academic culture. Any attempt to highlight the work of our regional writers to the detriment of well-established Western scholars is brushed off as inconsequential or “ethnic”, at best.

While learning based on exchange of opinions is a virtue, it is the lack of reciprocity that is of concern, as the exchange is unidirectional: east- and southwards. This usually means employing the argument of universality, which implies that certain values and concepts - such as those concerning gender and sexuality - are universal to humanity. In Orientalism, however, Edward Said shows how the claim to universality is but an “analytic bifurcation” of the world into “Western/Good” and “Other/Bad”, as well as an omission of this bifurcation from the discourse. This allows the Western intellectual to allege the “universality” of his projections, while simultaneously removing the “Other” from the production of modernity, where “history”, as Gurminder K Bhambra quips, is the product of the West in its actions upon others.

Changing the status quo would require a whole new political economy, which might prove difficult. Just as many other of the currently urgent global issues, the question of coloniality in knowledge production may not be in the interests of those with power to address it - let alone change it.

Privilege is very easy to get used to and stop noticing or reflecting on, so to many of my Western academic peers my musings may seem unfounded or even imagined. After all, they are writing so many articles and books about Central Asia and Central Asians, and some of these publications are even winning the Best Book awards - how is this not a contribution to greater visibility of the region in the world?

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