Central Asian specialists want to make room for local researchers

The Oxus Society digital library is one of a kind. Monograph on the birth of the Kazakh state, thesis on post-Soviet identity in Uzbekistan, ethnography of Kyrgyz shepherds under the USSR… The subjects covered by his 174 books are sharp, but the real singularity is elsewhere: in the identity of their authors. Whether they are political scientists, anthropologists, historians or sociologists, all of these specialists in Central Asia are themselves from this little-known region.

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There is something subversive about putting these books online in this field of study dominated by Western researchers. Created in September 2020 by a dozen specialists from Central Asia, the Oxus Society hopes to reverse the trend, by offering more visibility to researchers in the human sciences from the area. This Monday January 11, this very young learned society renews the experience by publishing no less than 250 academic articles written in English by Central Asian researchers.

“Making other voices heard”

« We want to bring new faces, to make heard other voices than those we hear most of the time in our field of research Says Edward Lemon, professor at Texas A&M University and president of the Oxus Society. ” Despite the interest of their eyes, local researchers continue to suffer from a strong hierarchy of knowledge in our field of study. »

The Oxus Society effort illustrates a recent but growing aspiration within the field of Central Asian studies. In 2019, a series of articles published on the openDemocracy site shed more light on this imbalance, and recalled the difficulties of these researchers whose “field” is also the place of life. Recently, George Washington University in Washington DC is working on a new scientific journal bringing together academic articles in Kyrgyz, Kazakh and other local languages. The first issue is expected at the end of 2021.

There are many reasons for the low dissemination of this work. There is of course the language barrier, due to the dominance of English in the research world. Edward Lemon also emphasizes the unequal way in which knowledge is produced. ” It is not uncommon to see an American or European researcher arrive in Tajikistan, hire locals who will translate and research documentation for him, leave, and publish an academic article or book under his name alone. »

“A problem that affects all the countries of the South”

Striking result: in twenty years of existence, the Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS), the most important association for Central Asian studies, has never awarded its prestigious book prize to a researcher from Central Asia. ” Our prize was created to reward works in English, at a time when few Central Asian researchers were producing work in this language. », Recognizes Morgan Liu, professor at the State University of Ohio and president of the CESS. ” VSThis is no longer the case today, so we have to tackle this problem. »

According to Morgan Lui, it is possible that the members of the jury are biased in favor of researchers most familiar with Western academic methodology and the debates surrounding it. But these implicit preferences are also manifested by the low number of citations local researchers are subject to, and their under-representation in academic corpus, says Erica Marat, professor at the College of International Security Affairs in Washington.

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« This imbalance is not exclusive to Central Asia, it is found in all the countries of the South. », Notes this specialist in security policies. A more equitable relationship, however, has been established in recent years in South Asia and America, she says. ” Today, certain concepts resulting from these fields are mobilized for the study of Western societies. We all have to benefit from this development. »

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