“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.” Registan.net 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.