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ISEK - Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies Social and Cultural Anthropology

Ethnic Differentiation, Interethnic Relations and Conflict in Central Asia: The Case of the Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kazakstan

Peter Finke, Alessandro Monsutti, Günther Schlee, Jürgen Paul, Wolfgang Holzwarth, Indira Alibayeva, Baktygul Karimova and Khadija Abbas


1. Summary of the research plan

The present project examines in a theory-oriented and comparative way processes of ethnic differentiation and inter-ethnic relations in four states where Uzbeks form a significant minority. Three of them, namely Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, have in recent years experienced conflicts of varying scale, in which Uzbeks have been more or less strongly involved. Kazakstan, which so far has been spared from serious inter-ethnic tensions, will serve as a kind of control case. The aim is to compare patterns of conflict and political mobilization in the name of ethnicity. It will be asked when, why and how ethnic differentiation becomes relevant for social and political action, how this is shaped by national politics and the distribution of resources, and how this influences individual behavior and the composition of social networks on the ground.

The Uzbeks offer an excellent opportunity to examine these issues. Besides being the largest ethnic group in Central Asia and constituting the absolute majority in the state bearing their name, they also form significant minorities in all neighboring states. These are usually long-established Uzbek communities that happened to end up on the other side of a state border. Each of these settings represents a distinct case in terms of ecological and economic conditions, historical and political configuration as well as ethnic composition. By comparing Uzbek communities in different locations where violence has erupted or not, it will be possible to look at the impact of state politics and local identity concepts on inter-ethnic relations and on their mobilization in situation of conflict. The investigation will be guided by anthropological approaches selecting one specific field site in each of the four countries to be included and will be conducted on three principal levels:

  • Conceptualization of Uzbek identity in relation to the overall ethnic configuration
  • Patterns of social interaction and distribution of economic as well as political resources
  • Strategies of mobilization by political leaders and ethnic entrepreneurs

The major objective of this project is to provide new insights into processes of ethnic relations and conflict management in contemporary Central Asia and northern Afghanistan. This is of tremendous importance for a better understanding of the region in a period of rapid change after the collapse of the socialist regimes. They have an impact on the development of the region and far beyond. Ethnic tensions and inter-regional competition within and among the new independent states are key issues in this respect. So far, these processes have been studied primarily on the macro-level. Their impacts on people’s lives in the context of new independent statehoods and the massive irruption of transnational organizations such as NGOs are less well known. At the same time, the study will also provide new data for the development of theoretical models about the nature of ethnic identity and differentiation in conflict situations when the competition for scarce resources facilitates the instrumentalization of identity for political purposes. In this project a number of theoretical approaches on the nature of social groups and collective identities and their meaning for individual behavior as institutional frames will be combined.