oDR: Opinion

Towards a more equal field in Central Asia research

New initiatives are seeking to challenge imbalances of power in researching Central Asia - a field long dominated by Western scholars.

Erica Marat Zhibek Aisarina
8 January 2021, 12.01am
CC BY NC 2.0 Ewan McIntosh / Flickr. Some rights reserved

Over a year ago, a series of articles by feminist scholars from Central Asia exposed the deep inequalities in knowledge production in Central Asian area studies.

Academic discourse on the region has long been dominated by Western scholars who produce knowledge for Western audiences, while routinely ignoring rich contributions by their Central Asian counterparts. Local scholars have often lacked the resources and skills to publish in Western outlets - but even when publicising their work, they have been denied recognition. “[W]e, the Central Asians, are the source material, the ‘field,’ the very fuel that feeds the production of knowledge about us, but not for us,” Syinat Sultanalieva summed up.

Last month, two major initiatives responded to the need to create a more equitable field for Western and Central Asian scholars.

First, the newly formed Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs has undertaken the enormous task of setting up a digital database of books authored by scholars from Central Asia. Regularly updated, it includes some 174 titles in English, Russian, and local languages. A third are authored by women. Along with books published by recognised university presses, Oxus has identified a myriad of local publishers as well. Strikingly, it also includes volumes by Uyghur scholars.

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The books cover an array of topics. Most look at post-Soviet identity, state- and nation-building, and historic memory. There are also titles on regional integration, modernisation, globalisation, regime transition, and international relations. More recent publications focus on sustainable energy, e-governance, open data, business, and gender issues.

The database makes it hard to ignore that rich sources of knowledge are not located just in the West and produced by Western scholars. It gives easy access to a range of theoretical frameworks offered by local scholarship – a boon for academics who have long been limited to the reproduction of common Western theoretical frameworks. Oxus also provides a place for authors to not only share, but to engage with one another, forming new partnerships and richer research. In using this database, early career academics and students can gain insights about the possible benefits and limitations of conducting research as both ”outsiders” and “insiders” to the Central Asian region.

The second initiative is led by the Central Asian Program based at the George Washington University. The program is seeking articles written in Kazakh and Kyrgyz for its new e-journal. This effort recognises how developing local scholarship can fill in knowledge gaps and enhance the study of the region as a whole. Through a double-blind peer review process, the journal, Central Asia Almanac, will elevate local perspectives to an international audience. The program is considering expanding publications in other local languages as well.

Perspectives from scholars intimately connected to their research fields are what’s still largely missing in Western discourse

Both initiatives are massive undertakings, but alone they are not enough to bring these scholarly communities closer together. An implicit bias still runs deep even in forums that aim to foster connections between Western and Central Asian scholars. Despite the richness of scholarship from Central Asia, organisations like Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS), the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, or the Association for the Studies of Nationalities are yet to recognise a book by a Central Asian scholar. (Disclosure: a book by one of the authors, Erica Marat, was considered by CESS awards this year.)

When faced with a lack of recognition, Central Asian scholars are usually given one or both of the following reasons: 1) they are not sufficiently promoting their work internationally, and/or 2) their work is simply not good enough.

Both responses show how Western area studies scholars are often unwilling or uncomfortable accepting knowledge produced in a non-western context. Placing the blame and responsibility on the underrepresented authors is the common trap organisations failing to actively seek diversity frequently face. While inclusion is often a stated goal, not enough is done to achieve it.

Luckily, networks such as Women Also Know Stuff and People of Color Also Know Stuff have generated useful ways to create a more inclusive academic environment. Chief among them is pro-active outreach to underrepresented groups. Other tools include changing award categories, diversifying the composition of selection committees, altering evaluation processes, and offering mentorship and co-authorship. In addition, course syllabi can include more authors from Central Asia, area studies journals can dedicate more resources to working with scholars from non-Western background, and more publications can be translated into local languages.

Both the recognition of scholars native to the area of study and efforts to reach audiences in where research is conducted will significantly enrich the entire field. This has already been seen in Latin American and South Asian area studies. Academics in these fields have strived to be more inclusive by constantly reflecting on power imbalances, and have succeeded in generating richer discussions. The notions of decolonial and post-colonial inequalities between Western and non-Western academics helped create useful intellectual exchanges that surpassed area studies alone, contributing to disciplinary studies as well.

In the meantime, Central Asian scholars based in the West have also been reflecting on the meaning of knowledge production as a deeply personal and often political process. In joint online discussions run by UK-based sociologists Diana Kudaibergenova and Gulzat Botoeva, participants pondered on how for many Central Asian scholars, academic research is more than a career calling, but often a way to understand their own past, their family, and community. They also face a constant struggle between maintaining connection with their own community and living and working in a place where their academic work will be recognised.

The most succinct view on the broad inequalities in the field and the meaning of research for Central Asian scholars comes from Mohira Suyarkulova, a professor at the American University of Central Asia. In her memorable keynote at CESS in 2019, she explained how for scholars like her, studies of gender and sexuality are a form a praxis, “a process whereby theories and knowledge gained through research are enacted, embodied and realised through action aimed at advocacy, community mobilization, education and political direct action.” Perspectives from scholars intimately connected to their research fields are what’s still largely missing in Western discourse.

The continuing imbalances in knowledge production, inclusivity, and access shows the limitations of Central Asian are studies. Excluding voices, whether consciously or not, undermines even the most privileged scholars in the field. Without new insights from their Central Asian colleagues, Western academics are confined to rehashing old views. The drive for inclusivity should be fuelled by the principle that the true owners of knowledge are the populations who are from that area of study. The ethics of acknowledgement of the ownership and the richness of diverse perspectives must always guide the research process.

Both Erica Marat and Zhibek Aisarina are affiliated with the Oxus Society. Marat is also part of the editorial committee at the Central Asian Almanac journal. She’s been a member and a participant at CESS, ASEEES, and ASN for many years.

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