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

Jeti-Suw - Portrait of a Region: Social and Cultural Change in South-eastern Qazaqstan

Peter Finke, Dinara Abildenova, Zarina Mukanova and Verena La Mela


The aim of this planned project, or cluster of projects, is to portrait one particular region, namely the south-eastern parts of Kazakstan traditionally known as Zheti-Suw (“Seven Rivers”) in a period of rapid transformation. At odds with the overwhelmingly negative reports of anthropologists in many parts of the world, people here have in recent years experienced a moderate but steady improvement of living standards and future perspectives.

Background to this story is the on-going transformation process and the current economic boom in the newly independent republic of Kazakstan. Based largely on the profits from oil extraction, this has in recent years resulted in trickle-down effects and inspired a considerable degree of entrepreneurship. The effects, however, are spread unequal and it is one of the objectives of this project to look at the distribution of costs and benefits. In particular, the rural-urban divide and the closeness to markets are expected to play a role in this. But these changes have also set in motion processes of social and cultural change as people look for new ways to interpret the world and to express their own standing within that. For this, we will draw on a number of theories explaining institutional change, the role of transaction costs, conspicuous consumption and social stratification.

This study is conceptualized as a longitudinal one conducted within a network of institutions and individual projects. Several PhD students at the University of Zurich and the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle will conduct fieldwork in Kazakstan in the years to come. In addition, researchers from local universities and graduate students from the University of Zurich will participate in this endeavour. As it is the aim to study the changing conditions and consequences a consecutive series of projects is envisioned.