Held at the Conference “Central Asian Studies Inside Out. Challenging Grand Narratives”, organized by l’EHESS and ZMO (Berlin). March 28, 2019. Paris.
In this keynote speech, I engaged with the conference topic of “challenging” and even “disturbing” “Grand Narratives” through an investigation of the tradition of orality and the usage of oral history in Central Asia. These are two interlinked endeavours, as oral tradition has been investigated “as history” (Vansina) and oral history understood as “the voice from the past” (Thompson). Anthropologists (of Central Asia) investigate tradition as “a site of necessary engagement that aggregates people, … informs policy, public debates, law, and representation, and is – despite its often enough strategic inception – affectively powerful” (Beyer and Finke forth. in Central Asian Survey). Examples from Central Asia show how “oral tradition”, especially when mediated by state and media apparatus, can take on “grand narrative” qualities. Moreover, in contrast to how oral history has been treated in the past, namely as history “from below”, of “the everyday” and by “the little guys” (Graeber), thus as “little narrative”, as I call it, it is worth exploring in what ways this method of ethnographic and historical inquiry has the capacity to yield “grand” results.
In 2007 I attended one of my first academic conferences, the Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN)-Conference in New York, which is held yearly at Columbia University. I enjoyed travelling to New York as I had lived in this city for one and a half years in 1997-1998. It gave me a chance to see friends and my former host family.
I thoroughly enjoyed the conference, particularly meeting colleagues I had gotten to know during my field research in Kyrgyzstan (2005-2006) and, for the first time, seeing “big names” in person whose work I had read as a graduate student and when preparing for my PhD-project. I presented a paper on the imagination of state law in Kyrgyz aksakal courts (lit. courts of elders) — the first part of my ethnographic data I decided to work with. I did not expect winning an award for this that early, but I guess part of the reason why I won is that I just followed my intuition to start with the most fascinating part of ethnography that I gathered during my field research.
Here is the interview with ASN – go check out their new website, too! You will find more interviews with other scholars as well as a bunch of new resources.
Judith Beyer Interview
April 2, 2019
In 2007, Judith Beyer wrote an award winning paper on Kyrgyz legal pluralism. Today her academic focus also includes Myanmar and issues of statelessness.
JB: I had just returned from 15 months of fieldwork in rural Kyrgyzstan and had to decide which part of the data that I had gathered I wanted to work with first. I decided to start with an extended case study I had found particularly intriguing. Part of my research had been devoted to understanding the type of work of the so-called “aksakal courts” (lit. “courts of whitebeards”, i.e. male elders) in the two villages I was working in. This institution can be described as neo-traditional, although the figure of the “whitebeard” and the assumption that (male) elders, in their roles as household or lineage heads, are capable of solving local disputes, goes back centuries in Kyrgyzstan. The paper drew on a particular case I had participated in, centred on questions of divorce, remarriage, separation of property and child support. What intrigued me most, however, was how – in a rural setting where “the state” was experienced as absent, where the end of the Soviet Union had resulted in the demolishing of the social security system, where there was no police and no formal state court – the local court of elders engaged in what I call “performing the state” by replicating what they imagined to be state court procedures. “There is no state here anymore” was a sentence I regularly heard from my informants. Thus, feeling left to their own devices, the aksakalshad to handle their new role as judges by themselves, a role into which they were pushed by new laws on local dispute resolution, enacted after the country had become independent in 1991. In court sessions they tried to create the appearance of a state court and introduced procedures they claimed were derived from state laws. They also invoked the state apparatus as a threat, specifically when people did not want to heed their decisions. While the institution of the aksakalcourt had been explicitly set up in each village of the country to allow adjudication according to “customs and traditions” as a special law on the aksakalcourts stipulated, the elders acted out imagined state law instead.
ASN: What stage in the graduate program were you at the time?
JB: I was a PhD candidate at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, where I was a member of the working group “Legal Pluralism” headed by the legal anthropologists Franz and Keebet von Benda-Beckmann. I was also enrolled as a PhD student at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg from which I then graduated in 2010.
In October 2014 I have been appointed Professor of Anthropology (tenure track) at the University of Konstanz in Germany.
What projects are you working on now?
From 2010 onwards, I developed a new regional interest in Asia, starting fieldwork in Myanmar. There, I work in Yangon, the former capital of the country, a metropolis of seven million people – quite a change of scenery compared to the Kyrgyz village I used to live in! My interest lies in understanding the positioning of religious and ethnic minorities in this city, particularly Hindu and Muslim groups, their histories of migration from India in the 19th century as part of the final expansion of the British Empire, and their current political situation in a de facto Buddhist state which has had a long history of repressing minorities, particularly Muslims. I am specifically interested in understanding my informants’ strategies of acting as “communities” in order to secure their religious properties as well as to keep a realm of autonomy and self-determination in an increasingly hostile environment. There are, however, numerous overlaps to my research in Central Asia and I have begun to publish comparatively by drawing on my insights from Kyrgyzstan. Most recently, for example, an article on the concept of “transition” that has been so central in scholarly analyses of the entire post-Soviet world and that has now migrated from Central Asia (where I encountered it first) to Myanmar. The article is called “’Transition’ as a migratory model in Myanmar” and has been co-published with Felix Girke.
I am also working on new projects related to the issue of statelessness, both in Myanmar and in Europe. Since statelessness is a problem in Central Asia as well, there might be future possibilities to again link my different field sites with each other.