Autopsy of a Half-Baked Anthropological Research Project [update]

A recurring theme on this blog has been politics and the changing social landscape of Kazakhstan. I thought it would be helpful to explain in more detail some of the research I’ve done outside of this blog in order to to provide more context to my ideas here.

To begin, it’s been five years since I finished my Master’s degree. I entered University College London in 2009 with hopes of building on my experiences in Kazakhstan and deepening my understanding of the ‘post-socialist’ world. My Dissertation was written about Kazakhstanis who go abroad for higher education and their experiences upon returning. I also wanted to look at the implications for Kazakhstan’s society and political system of large scale foreign education.

Did I succeed? Not at all. I have never been quite happy with the results, and it is only now that I feel comfortable revisiting the research. The 4+ years have given me perspective and distance with which to reexamine my project with a clear mind.

In addition, some people I’ve met over the years have asked me if they could read the dissertation. It seems a bit much to send them the whole thing, or to have them sift through the related blog posts, so I thought it would be useful to compile everything into one place.

What follows is a result of condensing over 20,000 words into about 3,400, including added reflections and re-analysis. Any cut and pasted original material will be in italics, and the rest is written in the ‘now’. Part 1 consists of my motivations and revisiting the original research. In Part 2 I look at how I expanded those themes in my blog. Finally, in Part 3 I will rethink my research questions and bring some closure to my work.

Part I: The Original Research 2009-12

1. Motivation

spring 2008 187
What am I doing here?

A common question to the expat in Kazakhstan is, “What the %&*# are you doing here?”. At first I was annoyed by this question, failing to see why it mattered. I also didn’t like the implication that Central Asia wasn’t a place worth experiencing. Since then I’ve lightened up and realized it is indeed a good question. What the hell was I doing spending 2 years of my life on the other side of the globe? Running away from something? Not really. Trying to find myself? Sure, but who isn’t? In search of adventure? Yeah, a little bit, but there were better places for that.


But after some reflection, I think the real answer comes from my family history. My parents moved to the US from Bulgaria, and me and my brother were the first members of the family to be born in the USA. Like lots of people in similar situations, I kept an interest in the ‘old country’ and have always loved to read and study about history, society and politics. The transformation of Bulgarian society after the fall of Communism came just a hundred or so years after liberation from the Ottoman Empire. How did one nation rebuild itself after 500 years of isolation? After 40+ years of Communism? In Kazakhstan I could see many analogies to the Bulgarian situation, both in 1989 and the late 19th Century. A nation reemerging on the global stage; transitioning from one way of life to another. The mixing of Slavic, Turkic and Socialist influences only sweetened the deal.

As an aside, I sometimes had the curious thought about if I had been born in Bulgaria instead of the US? How would my life be? Could I learn anything about my generation in a similar post-Socialist country?

So in short, I really wasn’t there in search of the exotic, but the familiar. As a result I lived there for two wonderful years in Almaty, and have been back multiple times.

2. Original Research Goals

I can imagine if I met a researcher conducting field work about young over-educated east coast Central Asia-philes I would feel simultaneously honored, horrified, intrigued, slightly violated and eager to help. My research on educated youth of Kazakhstan has always felt a little strange, but I chose my research for a specific reason.

While the deep underlying reason is to learn more about my own roots, I chose Kazakhstan because of the incredible impressions made by my motivated, determined students and friends. Education was their tool to conquer the world.

The contrast between this dynamism and the lumbering government stuck halfway in a supposed ‘transition’ struck me as peculiar. After spending time there I abandoned my very-Washingtonian notion of ‘transition’ and wished to understand the country on its own terms. This desire led me to Anthropology.

Past, Present and Future.

My research goals were only embryonic at this point, but I remember wanting to explore how a changing society affects people, and how changing people affect society. I wanted to dive deep into these massive historical shifts and see how they played out in people’s lives (like the imaginary me growing up in 1990’s Bulgaria). I likewise wanted to see how individual experiences add up to societal change on a generational level.


Finally, education is long assumed to be the ‘key’ to developing nations, and the Kazakh government loved to espouses its virtues. This led me to choose the state-run Bolashak scholarship program as a case study, but in reality the phenomenon concerns anyone who studied abroad, not just those Bolashakers. The numbers exploded with the expansion of the program, as well as independently financed students in the mid 2000’s. By 2010 this new wave was starting to come back in greater numbers and I hopped on board to see what was happening. Some background,

The Bolashak Scholarship was created by Kazakhstan in 1993. It is a fully funded scholarship plus living stipend for the country’s “best and brightest” to go abroad and undertake study at leading institutes of higher education. In exchange for the scholarship, the students agree to return and work in their homeland for a minimum of five years. Originally limited to just a few dozen students per year, in 2005 it was greatly expanded in size and scope and it began including undergraduate studies as well. In total more than 7,000 students have taken part in the Bolashak program. Quotas for the fields of study are determined annually by the Ministry of Education and range from Engineering and Economics to Public Policy and Public Relations. From 2005-2010 the humanities received 42% of scholarships compared to 53% for technical specialties. In the same time period the vast majority of the scholarships were for study in Western universities, including 63% to the UK and US alone. The program itself is administered by the Center for International Programs (CIP).

The motivations for such a program are both practical and economic. After the fall of the Soviet Union there was an dearth of governmental expertise ready to deal with Western practices and businesses. In addition, after an attempt at building a ethnically ‘Kazakh’ nation state was rejected, President Nursultan Nazarbaev chose economic development as the cornerstone of regime legitimization (Dave). Gaining foreign expertise to guide the government and state-run businesses in the world arena was crucial in this.”

To be a bit more specific, I wanted to focus on the political aspect of the lives of those returned Kazakhstanis. This is, firstly, because I am generally interested in political systems and the idea of power in a society. Secondly, Bolashak is a state-created project, which I felt added a certain depth concerning it’s goal to ‘change society’. The program’s goal is to improve the country and bring back foreign expertise, ideas and, to a certain extent, mentalities in order to help develop the economy and thus society as a whole. What were the boundaries of this outsourcing of higher education?

In short, many have documented the system of patron-client relations that has supported the power structure of the country since 1991, and I wanted to explore how Bolashakers viewed the political situation after their return. Were they going to want to try to change the system? If so, how? For my research in 2010, I conducted Interviews, surveys, reviewed anthropological literature, throwing in generous amounts of polisci and sociology as well.

3. Original Research Findings

A. Bolashakers are basically apolitical.

B. HOWEVER, by their very existence they present a potential ‘threat’ to the political system of patron-client relations upon which power is built. By being tasked with improving the country, their very mission is inherently anti-status quo and implies a deficiency in the current ways. So while not directly anti-state, they are a state-sponsored evolutionary threat. (My underlying assumption, which I no longer hold, was that foreign ‘expertise’ and education leans pro-democratic, and not just pro-economic liberalism)

C. SO the Kazakhstan government takes some precautions to protect itself by asserting control over the choice of those selected, and thus exposed to foreign ideas. They filter out those less invested in the state (non-Kazakhs, those less economically well off). This isn’t itself unique. Would a radical leftist end up being chosen for the Presidential Management Fellowship in the US? This is in addition to general soft-authoritarian measures of legitimization (see Ed Schatz).

If you’ve made it this far, you’ve earned a gratuitous Kok Zhailau pic!

4. Post-mortem

So I reread my dissertation and it’s not as bad as I thought, but still pretty inconsistent. To summarize here are some of the comments of my adviser:

-Solid piece of research.
-Excellent piece of describing the unusual role of the government
-Explains well how social/cultural structures prevent this occurrence
-Good analysis of relevant literature
-Raises paradox of reintegration into political structures

-To dovetail with poli sci should have investigated anthropological Qs about nature of political power and the role of the state.
-More mention of education and elite production (Bourdieu).
-Go Beyond regional boundaries.”

5. Methodological Problems

A. To start, this dissertation was way beyond the reach of my abilities to complete, let alone with just a few weeks of self funded research. I researched the program online, conducted surveys of present BS’ers and Alumni, did interviews in England and Kazakhstan, and library research on post-socialist anthropology, political science and education (not nearly enough on the latter).

B. In addition, 2010 was way too early to actually see any results, as thousands of BSers were still abroad. Hell, 2015 is probably still too early to see any large scale impact.

C. The power dynamics are quite far from my original intention of studying the effects brought into society by these ‘change agents’. My scope became way too large, and political, losing the individualized aspect of study abroad. Despite my well meaning Anthropology Professors, I was still attached to some western assumptions on power dynamics in authoritarian countries. I lost the Anthropological edge when my scale grew, and ended up abandoning it altogether. I did this because I didn’t have the time to research it on a small level.So, in the end, I was doomed from the start by my ambition. Not a bad way to fail if you ask me.


Part II: Further Developments 2012

Even after submitting, I wasn’t really satisfied with my work, and over the next couple of years I tried to expand on them a bit more. I wrote four blog posts elaborating on my findings:

1. Nazarbaev, Inc. – January 2012 (На русском)

IMG_4495In Nazarbaev, Inc. I used the urban space of Astana as a lens through which to view generational and societal change. I wrote about WHO lived there and WHAT type of city they were creating. Astana is a corporate city, inhabited by Homo Astanus, middle-aged to older bureaucrats and ‘company men’, “Homo Astanus is [not] always corrupt, but he does not shake the boat too much either.”

Homo Bolashakus, on the other hand, is “bright, young (under 30) motivated, mobile and well-educated; she has studied in the west, or at a Western-style university in subjects like Public Policy, Business Administration, Finance or Accounting. A lot of hopes are pinned on this generation: that they will change things for the better.”

I then used these two groups to examine the idea of mentality (Менталитет) as a key feature of the generational gap. The stated hopes of many, like Vaclav Havel’s, are placed on a new Western-oriented mentality fixing many of society’s ills. The Kazakh government itself also proclaims this wish. However, I concluded,

“It’s still much too early to tell what changes they will bring about. But we must be careful to temper our hopes a bit from Havel’s, and words. As an example let’s look at business practices in Kazakhstan. Foreign business practices can be attractive for idealists and cynics alike. For the former they provide an idealistic ‘other’, full of norms, proper practices, and transparent standards: in essence the opposite of the culture of corruption of nepotism that characterizes power in Kazakhstan. This is a worthwhile goal, improving business climate, fairness and openness. But the profit-driven nature of western business practices can also feed into the system by focusing on short terms gains/deals that enrich the elite. The profit driven techniques from the west are harnessed for the benefit of Nazarbaev, Inc, not society.

These groups make up part of Astana’s new playing field, building a new future. Uncertain, deeply cynical yet optimistic.”

2. Life After Father – April 2012 (На русском)

naIn Life After Father, I addressed the post-Nazarbaev political possibilities and the potential role of the Bolashakers. I compared them – open, enthusiastic, patriotic and educated – to the Шестидесятники, who were those Soviets coming of age in post-war prosperity and growth. However, they were silenced by the arrival of Brezhnev and had to wait until Perestroika to find their voices.

I called them privileged but not (yet) elite, an important distinction. they have potential energy, their most important characteristic. Also, “they are not an ideologically united group. They can be career-driven and pragmatists or passionate idealists. They can be cosmopolitan or nationalistic.” Finally I address the potential role of rural migrants.

What will happen in Kazakhstan is very unclear, and external political and market forces will also play a part, but the underlying changes and motivations of these new actors will be vital. “A useful model to view generational change can be supplied by anthropologist Maurice Bloch… society is a never-ending conversation between individuals….generational change [is] the gradual emergence of new voices and the softening of older ones…Societies are in a constant process of becoming a continual replenishment, and Kazakhstan is no different.”

3. How Tito Explains Kazakhstan – June 2012 (На русском)

josip broz titoIn this piece I compared President Nazarbaev to Tito: a larger-than-life figure who, despite repressive politics, is still looked at positively for increasing the standard of living and opportunities for his citizens. I used this as a call to move away from Western fetish
with opposition politics. Instead of the standard binary definition, I proposed a prescriptive breakdown of society into four categories:

“1. The Cynics (C), The core elite. They are out for themselves and will do what it takes to stay in power.

2. The Cynical Pragmatists (CP): Also out for themselves, and thus willing to go along with sometimes immoral practices and corruption. But they don’t decide these practices and would gladly do the opposite if it were for their benefit.

3. The Cynical Idealists (CI): They would prefer a fair and democratic country, but as long as they get basic rights and economic fulfillment they will tolerant some corruption, mild repression and theft. Commonly referred to as the apathetic masses.

4. The Idealists (I) : The active hard core of political dissidents. Includes some (but not all!) opposition and human rights activists.”

This reduces, but doesn’t eliminate, the focus on the elite/opposition confrontation. It is an attempt to call for the understanding of how society can change under a seemingly stagnant political regime.

4. Bolashak Paradox – Unpublished, June 2012Picture 812

In this final piece, which I never published, I basically condensed the dissertation into 1,000 words. What I mean by ‘the paradox’, is the same as the “Original Research Findings” listed above, but in more depth,

“The program is noteworthy in its ambition and foresightedness, but it also contains a possible paradox that can be used to shed light on modern Kazakhstani politics and society. The Bolashak Paradox is simple: on the one hand the government needs these educated young people and their foreign obtained expertise to help the country perform in the global economy. These students are called upon by the government (and the President himself) as future leaders’ and ‘change-makers’ to dedicate themselves (or at least 5 years of their lives) to bettering their country.

On the other hand, they also represent a threat to the current way of doing things.Their mission to better Kazakh society potentially entails changing the current political system (based on patron-client relations and rife with corruption) that has been built around President Nursultan Nazarbaev. So the need for foreign knowledge that will lead to economic growth must be balanced with the need for the Nazarbaev regime to maintain a loyal power base.

By willingly and publicly giving up control over their education, the regime loses what sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Luc Passeron called the most important factor in social-systematic reproduction: what I term implicit legitimization. Education, in their view, is crucial in maintaining the system of relations that supports the economic and political elite. In addition, while Bolashakers represent a tiny portion of the overall youth population, and not even all those who study abroad; the difference between them and other students who pursue a Western education is the government’s very promotion of them. ”

Finally, I wrote some preliminary conclusions, expanding upon the dissertation,

“It is important to note this paradox is more evolutionary than revolutionary. As I’ve noted elsewhere most of the students I’ve met are extremely optimistic and patriotic, honestly motivated to improve their country. In addition the current economic climate means most can more or less find opportunities for personal and career growth in the country. The possible problem lies when/if what they view as best for Kazakhstan does not mesh with that of the elite. This could either occur within the current system (if the President hangs around for awhile or manages to appoint a successful successor.), or within a new, more uncertain regime. The resulting (political, nonviolent) conflict

Two counterarguments to my thesis say these Bolashakers are apolitical and/or technical specialists who aren’t interested in shaking the boat. This is partly true. Using my four point frame in Tito, most Bolashakers, like most of the overall population, would fall under the Cynical Pragmatist or Cynical Idealist categories. This kind of population is not conducive to political change, but in a time of greater uncertainty (i.e. post-Nazarbaev Kazakhstan), they could very well try to mobilize (or be mobilized) politically to protect what they see as their own interests. Also it should be noted that there is no intrinsic reason an Engineer can’t be as politically active as a Humanities student. These groups are quickly forming their own networks, as well as identity, outside of the regime, but as of yet lack the weight to be major players. In addition many self censor, or are already cynical about enacting change. Others are co-opted into the system, either in the hopes of changing it or by indifference to any moral questions. This brings us to the main error Western commentators (sometimes myself included) make: assuming that any Bolashak-led change will be towards a liberal Western-style democracy. While this system is the ideal for many (the Cynical Idealists), there are still barriers to it, both internal and external.”

This is the end…?

Part III: Conclusions

After all that, to be honest, I don’t have much more to say on the issue. There certainly are numerous Anthropological questions to be asked concerning the personal experience of study abroad. I think of all he ideas I’ve written about, the concept of mentality is the most interesting. What is it? Where does it come from? How does studying abroad change someone? How does this new mentality affect their lives? Their daily interactions at work? How do they act out their new knowledge? How does it come into conflict with the old? Theoretically we could also examine the role of pedagogical power using Bourdieu. Does outsourcing it really show weakness in the system? I encourage someone to pick up where I left off, or to cite this for their own research. Удачи!

UPDATE 2017!

It turns out I’m not alone in asking these Anthropological questions. Doug Blum has written an insightful book looking at the personal experiences of those returning to Kazakhstan from abroad. How are their values and habits changed? How do they interact with their home culture after experiencing another? I review it here and here!


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