Prof. Dr. Judith Beyer specializes in political and legal anthropology. She conducted long-term ethnographic fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan where she studied the practices of retraditionalization – how the concept of traditions is viewed in Central Asia and how it became a part of the nation-building processes. Her book The Force of Custom: Law and the Ordering of Everyday Life in Kyrgyzstan (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016) reveals the peculiarities of the plural local legal practices. In this interview, she shares some of her findings and talks about her research work in Central Asia.
You are an anthropologist known for your work on the role of law in Central Asia. Can you tell us how you came to combine law and anthropology and what your research is about?
I am a legal and political anthropologist and have been working on and in Kyrgyzstan for almost two decades now. I studied law, anthropology, and Slavonic studies in Germany and spent six months at the American University in Kyrgyzstan (AUK) in Bishkek in 2003 as a DAAD-student.
Dr. Judith Beyer
Head of Research Group “Political Anthropology”, University of Konstanz, Germany. Judith Beyer is currently Member of the International Advisory Board of the peer-reviewed journal Central Asian Survey, Associate Member of the European Network on Statelessness (ENS) and a long-time editor at Allegra Lab, a widely read anthropological blog.
While studying, I gathered data for my Master’s thesis which I wrote on the concept of ‘transition’. It was during the Presidency of Askar Akaev that I noticed how in Kyrgyzstan, politics was being done through constitutional referenda and I observed this particular event in detail and talked to local judges and lawyers about how they envisioned the country’s (legal) future. In my subsequent PhD, I spent almost 2 years in the countryside in Northern Kyrgyzstan in two mountain villages and carried out classical ethnographic fieldwork, particularly with the two local courts of elders (aksakal courts). In my book “The Force of Custom. Law and the Ordering of Everyday Life in Kyrgyzstan” (Pittsburgh 2016) I coin the concept of ‘customization’, focusing on the Kyrgyz term salt (which I translate as ‘customary law’) as a dominant legal repertoire alongside religious law (shari’a) and state law. I argue that although the Kyrgyz concept of salt (Kyrgyz – салт) is often blamed for bringing about more disorder and hardship than order and harmony, it allows my interlocutors in Kyrgyzstan to disavow responsibility for their actions by pushing a model of ‘how things get done here’ to the front. Invoking salt enables actors even as they claim to be constrained by it.
It opens up possibilities to conceptualize, classify, and contextualize large- and mid-scale developments in an intimate idiom. It also is a way to communicate to others that one is an expert in and of one’s own culture. An ethnomethodological perspective, as I pursue it in this book, challenges a conception of social order as hidden within the visible actions and behaviors of members of society. I examine rather how members produce and sustain the observable orderliness of their own actions. I am currently in the process of writing articles on “Law in Central Asia” and the concept of ‘customization’ for two edited volumes that build on this work from Kyrgyzstan.
Speaking of edited volumes, your co-edited volume “Practices of traditionalization in Central Asia” (Routledge 2020) provides important insights into the role of tradition in contemporary Central Asia, Tatarstan and Tibet. Can you tell us about the main arguments of this publication?
In this recent book, I broaden the perspective on ‘customization’ which I developed in the context of law to be applicable beyond the legal sphere and, together with a group of scholars, explore what we call ‘practices of traditionalization’ across Central Asia. In our introduction, Peter Finke and I show how a shift occurred in regard to how the concept of tradition has been employed in the region: while it was framed as the conceptual enemy that needed to be fought and ultimately overcome during the colonial expansion, it became an important tool of nation-building in the post-Soviet era. But the concept is also an emic category of non-elites. It is an important argument that people across Central Asia put forward in order to justify their actions or to contemplate their own and other’s behavior. It is a so-called ‘members’ category’ and needs to be understood from the perspective of the people we work with in the field. In our edited volume, we want to move beyond probing the ‘authenticity’ of particular ‘traditional practices’. Rather than deconstructing tradition in order to do away with it, we see here a site of necessary engagement. Tradition does matter in Central Asia, as it does in Africa and in Europe: it aggregates people, motivates individual and collective action, informs policy, public debates, law, and representation, and is – despite its often enough strategic inception – effectively powerful.
How different and common are these practices across your studied regions?
This is an empirical question: They are as different as people are, but people can gather around the same signifiers, so to speak, to share what we call a ‘cultural model’ and agree on certain practices as being ‘traditional’ in a particular location and context or at a particular time. In our edited volume, we discuss cases that range from political demonstrations in Kyrgyzstan, industrial workers’ gatherings in Kazakhstan, institutions of religious education in Tatarstan, minority communities in Tibet, wedding celebrations in Tajikistan and even the Internet, found with examples from Kazakhstan.
It is interesting that there are cases from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where people were practicing transhumance before the expansion of the Russian Empire, and a case from Tajikistan where people lived settled lives even before. Does traditionalization differ between these different types of society?
Traditionalization is a practice that is not related to a particular way of life – be it nomadic or sedentary. It is an inherent capacity of all humans, a way to make sense and order of their world.
More concretely, we treat traditionalization as the institutionalization of a practice which is informed by – and, in turn, informing – cultural models. As a particular type of practice that always needs to be explored in its concrete institutional and interactional context at a particular time, tradition can only be judged from the present. It is an interpretative concept, not a descriptive one. Tradition, therefore, reflects the tensions between continuity and change, or predictability and flexibility. In rapidly transforming societies, however, such as the Central Asian ones, it can be expected that there will be more variation in the interpretation and acceptance (or disavowal) of tradition.
Why are there no cases from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in the book?
This is unfortunate, yes. But the simple reason for this is that extended anthropological or ethnographic fieldwork has been almost impossible in both of these countries. Turkmenistan has been, since the demise of the Soviet Union, off-limits to most anthropologists whereas in Uzbekistan, research was possible for a while but then became increasingly difficult. One of our authors has been working on Kazakhstan in the last years as he was no longer able to continue his research in Uzbekistan. The latest developments are positive, however, so there is hope for renewed engagement with this fascinating country. In regard to Turkmenistan, it will remain what we have termed an ‘absent presence’ in Central Asia in another publication (Reeves, Rasanayagam and Beyer 2016, 2).
Coming back to your research on law in Central Asia: How difficult was it for the Central Asian societies to adapt to westernized, codified law after the Russian conquest? Do you have any cases in history where Central Asian revolted against new legal order?
This is an interesting question – it was very difficult for Central Asians, of course, because it was foreign law that was being brought to them and it did not come as an ‘offer’, but through force. It was imposed top-down and went along with the gradual eradication of their own law(s), that is shari’a and customary law. However, one needs to understand that what came to be known as customary law from then onwards was created only in this very context of the Russian encounter: Early ethnographers, who had been sent already during tsarist times, and who often traveled along with soldiers, had been given the task to ‘write down’ and thus codify customary law. What had always been a very flexible, situational, and local way of dealing with conflict, dispute, and management (e.g. of resources, right to pasture usage, marriage regulations) became – through the process of codification – fixed. “Customary law” was in this way invented by the Russian colonial empire – as a fixed corpus of laws, rules, and regulations it is a product of Western (legal) thinking as there has never been ‘the’ customary law of the Kyrgyz, the Uzbeks or the Tajiks, for example. The endeavor was only partially successful because what Russian ethnographers captured was not customary law (or likewise shari’a, as they never managed to transform Islamic law into statutory law either), but their own fiction of it. Thus, both continued to exist, albeit in the private realms of Central Asian households and lineages.
In regard to your question about possible revolts against the new legal order, there are two answers: one is, yes they did, for example, there was an open insurrection against the introduction of administrative reforms such as the election of a head of a village or an encampment in one part of what is today Kyrgyzstan. But in other parts, Russian reforms were made possible because Kyrgyz also aligned with the Russian troops in order to fight the Kokandian rulers, for example. But I would also say that Central Asians fought Russians with their own weapons: They began to take their cases elsewhere: when the newly elected local judges began to stage court cases and to sell decisions, for example, people began to also deal with serious conflicts and crimes inside their households or lineages. But here, regional variation needs to be taken into account again: Russian, and later Soviet control, was exercised to a far lesser extent in the area where I did fieldwork, for example, then in Bishkek or the Fergana Valley, and people learned to accommodate the legal reforms more than they openly resisted them.
Has contemporary law in Central Asia been sufficiently modernized? There are still wide gaps in family and gender law, for example. Some worry that conservative sentiments will be codified and stall development of better protections for women or minorities.
This is not a question of modernization, I would say. If you even want to equate Western law with being more ‘modern’ than non-Western law (which I would refrain from doing), then you only have to look at Turkmenistan which has a highly developed civil code modeled after the German one. The country has also expressed interest in commercial law reform and collaborates with international development agencies in order to modernize its laws to bring them in accordance with international conventions. At the same time, however, the introduction of the Law on Public Associations in 2004 virtually destroyed Turkmen civil society. What you have termed ‘conservative sentiments’ needs to be understood as modern phenomena that goes hand in hand with a neoliberal agenda.
In a way, Central Asia no longer practices “wild capitalism’ (Russ. dikii capitalism/дикий капитализм) as it has been derogatively termed by Western (economic) observers in the 1990s, but has professionalized the stripping down of their countries for parts through legal means. This is why I find the emerging activist movement in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan so important: There are currently many young citizens active on the streets and in the (social) media who are fighting for their (human) rights, for the enforcement of the rule of law and who want to hold their elected representatives accountable. We should be concerned about the latest legal changes in Kyrgyzstan, for example, that curb freedom of speech or intend to confine women to the sphere of the household, but the ongoing protests by the young generation also give me hope. None of this is a question of modernity, however, but rather one of accountability.