Sarah Kendzior Says What We Have All Been Afraid to Say…

by Noah Tucker on 1/26/2014 · 7 comments

“Central Asian studies is a dying field, and many of the experts of the region are now unemployed or doing work that has nothing to do with Central Asia.” alum Sarah Kendzior gave a great interview this week with Australia’s Crikey and said what many of us feel but have hesitated to say publicly. Over the last year I’ve had this conversation more and more often at workshops and conferences, and each one I go to makes it more clear that fewer new scholars or professionals are entering the field and many are leaving. And it’s by no means confined to academia: at summer language programs we used to always joke that if all else failed we could get a job with The Man–an assumption reinforced by the recruiters from various agencies plying grad students learning Persian and Pashto and Uzbek with free pizza for “just a few minutes of their time.” Those days are abruptly gone, along with the jobs the recruiters were trying to fill and sometimes the language programs themselves.

The group of regular contributors and participants on this site in the roughly ten years we’ve been around are a good sample. Maybe I’m biased–okay, of course I am–but I’ll venture to say (about others, not myself) our authors over the years are some of the brightest and best of this generation of post-9/11 regional scholars and analysts. Yet not a single one of us has stable employment directly related to Central Asia or Afghanistan, and many have left the field entirely. Not for lack of education, publications, credentials, recognition or respect–but lack for lack of stable, paying opportunities in the spite of all those things. Many are talented people who have already found success doing other things–but the field suffers, the bridges built to the region crumble, policymakers get bad advice, and opportunities are lost as our field contracts and significant public investment made into a generation of specialists is simply written off.

As usual, Sarah says it better:

Central Asia is a good example of how funding impacts knowledge. Central Asian studies is a dying field, and many of the experts of the region are now unemployed or doing work that has nothing to do with Central Asia. Without money and jobs, the research stops. One of the best-known analysts of Central Asia is training to become a dentist. The world’s foremost scholar of Tajikistan is unemployed.

The reason is that the money is gone. [US government] funding supporting scholars of Russia and Eurasia was cut. The [2013 budget sequestration] resulted in lay-offs for Central Asia analysts working for the government. Because of the drawdown in Afghanistan, think tank positions dedicated to Central Asia were eliminated. News outlets that covered the region lost funding. There is nowhere for the younger generation of Central Asia scholars to go.

The implications of this are greater than the effect on the scholars in question. Before the Soviet Union collapsed, Central Asia was rarely studied (other than by Soviet researchers forced to censor and manipulate their own findings). Westerners who studied Central Asia tended to do so through a Soviet lens that privileged Russian language and Russian speakers. This changed in the 1990s and 2000s, when scholars traveled to the region, learned local languages, collaborated with local scholars and produced ethnographically rich work that valued Central Asia in its own right. Historians translated forgotten texts that changed not only perceptions of Central Asia, but how Central Asia relates to the world. (Adeeb Khalid’s work on Islamic intellectual history is a great example.)

And now it is ending. It is a loss for knowledge and also a deeply stupid move on the part of the US government, who will inevitably be looking for analysts if and when the region experiences turmoil, and may not be able to find people with up-to-date language skills and regional knowledge.

There’s much more, by all means go read the whole thing for rays of hope from the Central Asia Program at GWU and Googoosha histrionics (and why we should ignore them). It’s a wide-ranging interview with lots of great things from Sarah’s recent work on topics closer to home, from media and higher education to the prestige economy.

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Noah Tucker is managing editor at and an associate at George Washington University's Elliot School of International Affairs Central Asia Program. Noah is a researcher and consultant for NGO, academic and government clients on Central Asian society and culture. He has worked on Central Asian issues since 2002--specializing in religion, national identity, ethnic conflict and social media--and received an MA from Harvard in Russian, E. European and Central Asian Studies in 2008. He has spent four and half years in the region, primarily in Uzbekistan, and returned most recently for fieldwork in Southern Kyrgyzstan in the summers of 2011 and 2012.

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IMC January 26, 2014 at 3:36 pm

“Bart, don’t make fun of the Central Asian experts; they just made a terrible life choice.”

Or, “Someday this war’s gonna end…[wistful sigh]“

John January 27, 2014 at 12:43 pm

I’m currently a university student who is not studying Central Asian Studies but I find the subject extremely interesting and I read Registan articles as often as I can. I really appreciate all your work and your passion for something that I am also interested in.

Damian January 27, 2014 at 12:45 pm

Is this specifically a US? I am not sure, but I don’t feel like there is a crisis in Central Asia scholarship in Europe.

Alexander Morrison January 28, 2014 at 6:51 am

I’m not sure I agree with this – it might be true of the Washington beltway or Chatham House, but academic scholarship on Central Asia is in a far better state than it was ten years ago, and there are jobs available for those with talent and ability. My own discipline is history, and when I began my doctorate in 2001 you could count the number of tenured Central Asian historians at American universities on the fingers of one hand, and Adeeb Khalid’s monograph was a lonely pioneer when it came out in 1998. Now we have fifteen or twenty serious monographs in Brill’s Inner Asian Library alone, books by Daniel Brower, Jeff Sahadeo, Ron Sela… the quantity of properly-researched articles, many not just in niche area studies journals, has ballooned (even if half of them seem to be by Paolo Sartori, whose output is simply prodigious). ‘Central Asian Survey’ is now a proper peer-reviewed journal, when it used to be a bad joke. In the US there are Central Asian specialists at Michigan (Douglas Northrop), Ohio State (Scott Levi, Morgan Liu), UCSB (Adrienne Edgar), Harvard (Laura Adams), UCDavis (Ian Campbell), Maryland (Sarah Cameron) – these last two very recently appointed – leaving aside the cluster at Indiana University and Wisconsin-Madison, the two main recognised centres of Central Asian Studies in the US (with much more impressive expertise and programs than GWU). These are just the ones I can remember – and that’s just the US. In Europe, while the UK is pretty moribund apart from John Heathershaw at Exeter, you have excellent scholarship coming out of the Zentralasien seminar at the Humboldt University in Berlin, and from the Max Planck Institute at Halle, and the CNRS in Paris (where Stéphane Dudoignon, whom I would certainly describe as the world’s leading expert on Tajikistan, was certainly not unemployed or training to be a dentist last time I looked). Finally, I suspect that part of the reason there are fewer jobs available for US graduates is that (at least in some fields) Central Asian scholars are now able to overcome their previous marginalisation. In the end, the main centre for Central Asian studies will be Central Asia itself, even if it is going to take a while before that becomes possible in Uzbekistan. Kendzior’s statement betrays a certain parochialism, both as regards location (US academia as the centre of the universe) and discipline (Politics & IR). There is a lot more going on than that.

Sarah Kendzior February 15, 2014 at 9:27 am

Alexander, I agree with much of what you write, particularly the prodigious output of Central Asia scholars over the past decade and the emergence of new and pioneering literature on understudied aspects of the region. But this actually proves my point. All of this was made possible by an investment in scholarship through institutions which provided grants for research, created positions for scholars, and funded graduate and post-doctoral work. There have been specific, devastating cuts to the field over the past two years, and they are not limited to academia but extent to the NGO sector, journalism, and government. The money is simply not there. What we are seeing now, in the work you mention, is the results of a solid investment. What we will see in the future is a decline in research unless things change.

You listed a number of excellent scholars. The reason you know who these scholars are is because they have jobs. I can name dozens of similarly excellent scholars who hold PhDs or have otherwise demonstrated their research prowess, making significant contributions to our knowledge of Central Asia. The reason you do not list them is because you probably don’t know them. The reason you don’t know who they are is because they are all now unemployed or employed outside the field.

Kim Jong Un February 27, 2014 at 12:27 pm

Why nobody studies my country?

Nathan Barrick March 4, 2014 at 6:20 am

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