oDR: Opinion

A view from the margins: alienation and accountability in Central Asian studies

Sociological study and political struggle increasingly go hand-in-hand. But in Central Asia, research needs to become accountable to the very people it studies.

Mohira Suyarkulova
10 October 2019, 12.01am
CC BY ND 2.0 RND.org / Flickr. Some rights reserved

In her classic text The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction, Emily Martin notes that “until recently, many anthropologists looked with suspicion on the task of trying to understand one’s own society.”

The traditional understanding of doing “fieldwork” was to undertake a study of an unfamiliar culture in a foreign, exotic society far from one’s home. Indeed, the entire disciplinary division between anthropology and sociology can be explained by the mental separation between the study of one’s own (Western/“ordinary”/“normal”) society and other (foreign/“extraordinary”/“alien”) societies.

There is much to be said about the merits of ethnographic methods, whereby a participant observer spends many months submerged in an unfamiliar environment, learning to speak a new language, adopting the ways of a foreign culture, and then narrating the experience in a comprehensible way to audiences outside the studied community. Unfamiliarity or “estrangement” is an important source of insight: the entire notion of practicing sociological imagination is to render the familiar strange. People often fail to notice contradictions in their own societies, so it follows logically that outsiders have certain advantages when it comes to uncovering the less obvious features and processes in a society.

In this article, I interrogate and complicate the concept and practice of doing “fieldwork” through my own experience as a researcher for whom the “field” is not only “home” and a source of livelihood, but also a battlefield: a place where activism takes place.

My argument is that one can be an “outsider” in their “home” society. The estrangement in this case occurs not through the geography of one’s birth, or the provenance of one’s identity documents, but through, for example, belonging to marginalised and “othered” social groups. Additionally, we are alienated from our intellectual selves through the global political economy of knowledge production. In this way, the home/field gains a new political salience as not only the source of livelihoods and a career, but also as a site of political struggle .

Out of place

Most female researchers working in the field of Central Asian studies become alienated from their home/field at several levels. They are strange creatures at universities, which have historically been constructed as the domain of intellectual work performed exclusively by elite white men. This stems from an even older tradition of associating men with the realm of reason, while identifying women with nature. Masculinity is routinely associated with a credible intellectual status, whereas women have a hard time establishing authority on campus and in the classroom, as evidenced by the bias in hiring and promotion practices and student evaluations of teaching performance.

The persisting segregation and gendered marking of the “hard” sciences as masculine, and social sciences and humanities as “feminine”, also shapes the intellectual subjectivities of women engaged in the study of Central Asian societies. While the field itself is interdisciplinary, there exists an unspoken hierarchy within it between the “serious” (i.e. masculine) study of security, politics and “fundamental” research in linguistics and ethnographic studies, on the one side, and the more “frivolous” research on gender studies, humanities and policy-relevant studies. Likewise, women are paid less for the same work - as much as 30% in Kyrgyzstan, where I live and work. Female faculty at the American University of Central Asia (AUCA) are paid on average 20% less than their male colleagues, as admitted by the university administration at a banquet for women workers earlier this year.

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There is an urgency to our intellectual quests, which constitutes the core of our intellectual subjectivities as “native aliens” of Central Asian studies

Despite the fact that women represent the majority of students on university campuses since the 1990s, women at universities are still perceived as “out of place” and thought to go to university in search of a husband. I vividly remember being admitted to the (then) prestigious University of World Economy and Diplomacy in Tashkent in 2000, with one of the highest entrance exam scores, and with the aspiration to become a diplomat. By the end of the first year I realised that the best I could hope for would be to become a diplomat’s wife.

“A foolish person asking silly questions”: doing fieldwork “at home”

As Central Asian researchers of Central Asia, however, we are alienated from our “field” in other ways, too. Just like Malawian anthropologist Alister Munthali, while doing my fieldwork in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan for my doctoral dissertation, I felt like “a foolish person asking silly questions, because I was expected to know the answers” since I came from the same culture.

Yet even though I was from the places I was studying, I was estranged from “home” by long absences from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, by my changing nationality status, my linguistic skills (most of my education was either in Russian or English, the languages of opportunity for someone in my position), and the choice of career and lifestyle. All of this de-familiarised me from the things I was supposed to be acquainted with.

Since 2002, I had studied and lived abroad. This, in essence, changed me from a local in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan into a curious guest - a strange-looking, unmarried and childless bluestocking, whose academic accomplishments were devalued by her failure to achieve a “woman’s happiness”. Alister Munthali writes that anthropologists doing research “at home” can rarely be considered full insiders:

“Most native researchers stay away from their homes when they are undergoing training and only return after several years to study their own people. This defamiliarisation with one’s culture allows the objective study of one’s own culture. During the time he is away the native anthropologist attains a new status, an occupation, a new residence and a new way of thinking which in most cases is radically different from his ‘fellow natives’”.

Elsewhere, immigrant scholars like Edward Said and Shahram Khosravi report a feeling of homelessness, or a certain feeling of estrangement or “exile” from both their “home” and “recipient” cultures and communities. Khosravi writes that on his return to Iran to tend to his dying father, he felt that he was “both insider and outsider”. His “home” was fading away, his long absence making him “alien in the country of [his] childhood.” This distance and alienation are also reflected in his linguistic inability to express himself fully in either Farsi or English, with whole vocabularies missing from both. I share this sense of never really being able to express myself fully - in either Russian or English.

Finally, apart from the racialised and gendered constructions of intellectual subjectivity that exclude women and other minorities - thus leading to the often reported experience of “impostor syndrome”, a term that describes an “internal experience of intellectual phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement”. We are alienated from the field of Central Asian studies by our position in the global political economy of knowledge production. This has to do with how resources, monetary rewards and prestige are distributed unequally between knowledge-hubs in the Global North and the region under study.

Within this system, the supposed benefactors are governments (whose strategic economic and foreign policy requirements our research serves), university departments (which receive government and business funding) and individual careers, but hardly ever Central Asians themselves. Funding streams are aimed at securing the futures of people in the West, either protecting them from the dangers emanating from the region, or promising profits and opportunities from the region’s resources. In most cases, knowledge produced in this way is not accessible to Central Asians, as it is published in foreign languages in academic journals behind a paywall.

For most of us, the study of our region is not only our livelihood and career. For us, the “field” is also a battlefield for political struggle

Central Asian scholars are thus alienated from their own “field” of study twice: by having to turn to outsiders as their main audience, while being denied a place within the western academic system and thus the benefits it promises. The latter are empty words in the era of precarious academic jobs.

Moreover, for most of us, the study of our region is not only our livelihood and career. For us, the “field” is also a battlefield for political struggle. For some of us, the research questions and methods we choose, the findings and the resulting publications are not reducible to impact factors and numbers of publications. They are part and parcel of our political activism. As a result, much of the work we do cannot be translated into the usual ways of measuring intellectual contributions and assessments.

Likewise, the pace of academic publication cycles is not suitable for our work. We simply cannot wait for four years before our research findings are published, especially when they are published in a language and an outlet which are not accessible to most people in the region. There is an urgency to our intellectual quests, which constitutes the core of our intellectual subjectivities as “native aliens” of Central Asian studies. Yet when we share our research at international meetings with academics based at western institutions, our intellectual pursuits are sometimes dismissed as “current issues”, as opposed to the serious business of “fundamental studies”.

The field of Central Asian studies needs to become somehow accountable to the people in the region. Scholars must strive for a praxis whereby social scientists would seek to address social issues in their research and make the results of their studies available, informative and useable to the people concerned. Central Asian scholars can play an important part in demanding this accountability. We can turn the experiences of alienation into uncomfortable theoretical, methodological, ethical and empirical questions to be investigated to serve the communities we study. After all, one gets a much better view from the margins.

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