Version classiqueVersion mobile

Mobilities, Boundaries, and Travelling Ideas

Philipp Schröder
Manja Stephan-Emmrich

Part 2. Travelling Ideas: Sacred and Secular

4. Explicating Translocal Organization of Everyday Life: Stories from Rural Uzbekistan

Elena Kim

Texte intégral


1In this chapter I adopt Dorothy Smith’s theoretical framework of the ‘social organization of knowledge’ (Smith 2005:10) and a related method of inquiry, institutional ethnography (ibid.: 14), to illustrate how the everyday existence of people living in the poorest areas of rural Uzbekistan is shaped by invisible but powerful processes, which I call translocal ruling relations. Institutional ethnography tells us that no local activity in the contemporary world takes place in isolation from larger social and institutional arrangements, but is always coordinated from outside the local space (Smith 1987:1–30). This investigation produces empirical insights that develop our understanding of ‘translocal’ as an analytical and a methodological concept.

2I focus on the events taking place in a village located in the northwestern part of Uzbekistan, where, similar to many other places in Central Asia, most Uzbek families have experienced profound change as a result of the large-scale migration of the male population in search of paid work. Female-headed households live in precarious conditions, as the remittances from their male partners are unreliable and often insufficient. These women’s own sources of livelihood, which come primarily from small-scale agriculture, are made precarious by reduced irrigation resources and the difficulty of accessing them. Using my chosen methodological framework, I begin from these people’s stories and identify traces of the powerful forces that have shaped their lives. I ask: why were these men were forced to leave their homes? How do these rural women organize their lives and negotiate their material and immaterial resources? What influences their experiences, choices, and coping strategies? I seek to answer these questions by focusing on implicit but identifiable mechanisms and technologies in which translocal institutions, ideologies, and discourses infiltrate local settings. Hence this chapter offers a concrete illustration, in a specific place in Uzbekistan, of the operation of translocal power, expressed in institutional discourses and ideological practices that shape these people’s experiences.

3By mapping translocal relations in my research, I find that the operation of local community-based irrigation management is aligned with the interests of the state agricultural export industry and, as such, fails to recognize certain categories (mostly, smallholder households) of land-and water-users as legitimate recipients of state-supported irrigation. Eligibility for agricultural support and services from the state is established based on a specific understanding of efficient agricultural management. Institutional eligibility is indicated by documents and other text-based practices produced by professionals at the many levels of the state management of agricultural export. As a result, many poor households are deprived of opportunities to secure agricultural inputs such as irrigation services and, subsequently, suffer lower production, which impacts on their quality of life. Ultimately, men are forced to seek alternative sources of income outside the agricultural sector and outside their villages. These men often find themselves in insecure and risky work conditions with unreliable and/or insufficient income (Zanca 2011:45). Women, as is customary, are left at home to engage in the everyday struggle to support their families (Kim 2014:106–20).

4An institutional ethnographic framework can and has been used by scholars to study migration-related topics as well as a variety of other research questions, including those related to environmental policy, education and health reforms, international development, economic reorganization, etc. To provide just a few examples, Naples (2009:14–20) explored the migration of Mexican citizens to rural North America and described how socially constructed problems of migration, immigration and economic restructuring impacted community-based practices and contributed to an exclusionary regulation of citizenship. Ng’s (1996:81–89) institutional ethnography of Canadian immigration policies demonstrated that state discourses about ‘immigrant women’ from the global South framed them as ‘dependents’ and thus informed working practices that reproduced gender and race inequalities. The research of Kim and Campbell (2013:195–201) on non-governmental organizations in Kyrgyzstan showed how global peace-building initiatives shaped the everyday work of local women’s groups and affected the quality of services these could offer to their beneficiaries.

5However, this chapter does not focus on the mobility of people per se. Rather, it expands on existing and highly regarded scholarship on connectivity across research sites, albeit on a different conceptual basis. Specifically, I concentrate on the mobility of ideas, discourses, texts, and practices and their influence on the everyday reality of largely immobile people. Indeed, female smallholders live within a traditional gender hierarchy that fixes their place within the private spheres of their homes: they have limited access to public space in their villages and their migration abroad is nearly impossible. However, this chapter, like many other institutional ethnographies, demonstrates that, notwithstanding this lack of mobility, in today’s globalized world even the most immobile subjects can be seriously impacted by processes, people, institutions, and ideologies located outside their own environment.

6The concept of translocal ruling relations helps us to understand how this impact is achieved and maintained. Smith understands translocal ruling relations to be ‘expansive, historically specific apparat[i] of management and control that arose with the development of corporate capitalism and support[s] its operation’ (Devault 2006:259). The concept of the translocal is derived from the understanding that no activity, regardless of its location in the contemporary world, takes place in isolation from larger social and institutional arrangements, but is always coordinated from outside of the local space, i.e., translocally (Smith 1999:80–92). Institutional ethnographies focus on discovering the exact processes by which such coordination is accomplished, paying attention to the consequences resulting from the ruling relations (Campbell 2006:94). Empirical observations demonstrate that translocal power, seen in technologies of social control, is increasingly textual and discursive (Smith 1999:80–92). In an organizational setting, texts such as charts, strategic plans, monitoring sheets, reporting matrices and the like are the mechanisms that coordinate and connect work processes. These connections are called ‘social relations’ and people doing their everyday work are drawn into them, aligning their activities with the institutional interests expressed in these texts but not necessarily with their own, personal, interests. People are often ruled by the assumed power of texts and discourses. This chapter aims to look at a specific setting in rural Uzbekistan in order to identify, describe, and analyze the processes involved in making this rule possible. This undertaking has important social implications in helping us to detect how and where well-intended managerial work becomes counter-productive.

7Also deserving of attention is the larger political and historical context in which the research took place. Today, Uzbekistan is the largest and most populous nation state in Central Asia, with a population of nearly thirty million people (World Bank 2015). In 2014, the estimated gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was 5,600 USD. The unemployment rate stood at 4.9 percent in 2014. Uzbekistan has abundant natural resources such as large deposits of gold, silver, zinc, uranium, lead, copper, and molybdenum. The country’s energy resources include natural gas and deposits of coal and oil. About sixty-five percent of the population are rural settlers. Nearly twenty-six percent of the labour force work in the agricultural sector, which accounts for more than eighteen percent of GDP (ibid.).

8During the Soviet era, Moscow forced Uzbekistan to produce cotton as a monoculture. This crop was unsuitable for the area, mostly due to the fact that seventy percent of the country’s territory was desert and only eleven percent of its area was arable land (Herbst et al. 2006:306). Excessive use of water from the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers, which feed the Aral Sea, led to drastic social and environmental consequences. The depletion of the Aral Sea led to widespread salinization of the soil throughout the already arid region. Additionally, the use of pesticides and fertilizers in the agricultural sector raised soil and water toxicity. Since independence, the government has made little progress toward mitigating environmental degradation (World Bank 2015). Today, pressing concerns include untreated wastewater, lack of clean drinking water, and air pollution from heavy industry. However, even though some progress toward agricultural diversification has been made, the country remains one of the largest exporters of cotton in the world (The National Cotton Council: 1) and continues to rely heavily on imported food.

9According to the 1991 constitution, Uzbekistan is a secular, democratic republic. Political power is vested in a president who can serve multiple five-year terms and is elected by direct vote. In reality, political power has been maintained through state-backed violence and elections, none of which have been deemed free or fair by the international community (CIA World Factbook:1). The ruling party believes in enacting harsh measures as a means of avoiding civil wars and other conflicts (ibid.). The country is often classified as a hard authoritarian regime with limited civil rights (United States Department of State 2013:1–5) in which violations of virtually all basic human rights are widespread (International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights 2004).

10In terms of territorial administration, Uzbekistan is comprised of twelve provinces. Among them, the Khorezm region has been the worst hit by the Aral Sea crisis. Khorezm is surrounded by two deserts, the Qaraqum in the south and west, and the Qyzylqum in the north and east (Kehl-Bodrogi 2006:235–37). The inhabitants of the province are predominantly Uzbek along with a small number of Turkmen ethnic groups, and its Uzbek residents speak a dialect not widely understood outside the region. Nearly eighty percent of the population lives in the countryside, making a living from irrigation-based agriculture (ibid.). Its disadvantageous position, 400 kilometers south of the Aral Sea alongside the lower course of the Amu Darya River, the major source of irrigation, creates a number of serious problems for agriculture (Kehl-Bodrogi 2006:235–37). In addition to this, grave ecological issues caused by a high water table and soil salinization hinder smooth agricultural production (Herbst et al. 2006:306). A large proportion of the population is economically disadvantaged and lacks social security (Kehl-Bodrogi 2006:235–37).

  • 1 In order to protect my interlocutors’ integrity the real name of the village has been replaced by t (...)

11My institutional ethnographic research took place in one of the villages in the Khorezm region, recognized as one of the poorest in the area (Abdullaev and Mollinga 2010:89–96) and located at the furthest tip of the Amu Darya river. Irrigated agriculture is the predominant means of employment for its population of about eleven thousand people. Due to its unfortunate location, this village (henceforth given the pseudonym ‘Hayat’1) suffers from a markedly insufficient and unreliable water supply, especially during the frequent periods of water scarcity (Veldwisch and Bock 2011:581–84).

12Two types of farmers operate in Hayat: private farmers and smallholders. These two categories emerged during a series of national land reforms in 2006, 2008, and 2010 (Djanivekov et al. 2012:1106–20). These reforms, intended to restructure a cumbersome agricultural administration in response to new political and economic conditions, nonetheless maintained many features of the old system. To provide a brief historical overview: four years after Uzbekistan became part of the Soviet Union in 1924, it actively enforced the agrarian policy of ‘collectivization’ (Kandiyoti 2002). This policy required the consolidation of individually owned land into communal farms, i.e. collective farms and state farms, with the expectation that this would lead to increases in agricultural exports, supplies of raw materials for industry, and food provision for the urban population. As a result, by 1932, nearly 80% of all rural households had been incorporated into 9,734 collective farms and 94 state farms (ibid.).

13Collective farms were typically organized by merging small individual farms into a cooperative structure, whereas state farms were created by the state on the land confiscated from former large estates. The workers on state farms were recruited from among landless rural residents. The work within collective and state farms was internally divided among working groups, known as ‘brigades’ and headed by a brigade’s leader or ‘brigadier’ (Veldwisch and Bock 2011:581–84). The workers on collective and state farms used to receive a small piece of ‘private’ land for their own food production (about 0.25 ha) as part of their payment and in order to keep the workers bound to the collective farm (ibid.).

14After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Uzbek government, wishing to transition to a market economy, introduced a reverse process of ‘de-collectivization’ within which agricultural land was privatized and redistributed (Djanivekov et al. 2012:1106–20). De-collectivization led to the establishment of a new agrarian category of ‘private farms’. Local administrations selected leaders of the former communal farms (ibid.) to become private farmers; they were leased land for cultivation. Private farmers were expected to hire the rest of the rural population, yet in practice they employed only a small number of workers, thus leaving many families jobless. Scholars recognize that this agricultural reform was largely unsuccessful (Abdullaev et al. 2005:115) and its social impact was extremely harmful. When unemployment and poverty became widespread among the rest of the former workers of the communal farms and food security was at risk, the government granted additional small plots of land (0.12 ha) to each smallholder household. Formally, this land policy created a new category of ‘smallholding peasants’ (here, referred to as ‘smallholders’).

15Agrarian land reforms were followed by changes to irrigation management policy. Regional water resources were depleted due to decades of intensive cotton production as well as inadequate water management institutions and outdated water allocation mechanisms (ibid.). To tackle these problems, policy makers introduced Water User Associations (WUAs), to form a democratic and community-based water management organization that would not only practice efficient and fair distribution of water for irrigation, but would provide ‘social assistance to the most vulnerable groups’ (Asian Development Bank 2011:11) through improved agricultural activities. Globally, WUAs are recognized as grassroots initiatives led by water users, and organized on the principles of equity and efficiency in the distribution of water and the use of irrigation and drainage systems (Zavgorodnaya 2006). Since 2005, hundreds of WUAs have been established in Uzbekistan, many in accordance with the so-called ‘Uzbek’ model, whereby government departments (mostly within the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources of the Republic of Uzbekistan) designed and set up WUAs with little involvement from water users, who were supposed to be the initiators of these processes. The WUA leaders and their technical employees were appointed under the close supervision of local authorities and regional departments of the ministry (Zavgorodnaya 2006).

16At the time of my fieldwork, the village had already undergone these reforms and 29 private farmers were appointed as farm leaders from among the former collective. Additionally, more than 2,000 households had attained the status of smallholder farms (Zavgorodnaya 2006). All of the 29 private farms produced cotton and were headed by men. In the majority of smallholders’ families, life was rather fragmented. The men were absent for long periods of time working as migrant laborers in Russia, Kazakhstan, and urban areas of Uzbekistan. Women became the heads of the households and assumed all of the farming work in addition to their traditional domestic chores (Kim 2014:106–20). Maintaining agricultural production became one of their main responsibilities. In the vast number of these emerging female-headed households, their main source of livelihood, small-scale agriculture, was continuously endangered by reduced irrigation resources and the difficulty of accessing them (ibid.). All this took place in the presence of a local WUA, which consisted of a chairman, an accountant, and five water engineers. The WUA took responsibility for all matters related to irrigation within the village, and their role became more prominent during the years in which water was scarce, because regional water regulation forced villages to queue for water. The village received water once every 2 weeks for about 2 to 3 days (and nights).

17As a point of entry into my study I researched the experiences of smallholders, investigating why, even after the state’s policy to counteract unemployment and hunger, these men were forced to leave their homes. Furthermore, why did rural women who were left behind continue to experience challenges in securing water to sustain their families even with the existence of a WUA? Questions such as these, which arise from listening to local people and shape the course of the ongoing inquiry, are called ‘the problematic’ in institutional ethnography (Smith 2005:68–80). My problematic emerged from ethnographic data revealing that water scarcity presented persistent challenges to the entire village population. I sought to understand how it was possible that, after having received additional agricultural land and in the presence of the WUA, smallholder families continued to endure insecure livelihoods and are forced to send family members abroad for income. This chapter seeks to provide answers these questions by rigorously applying an institutional ethnographic approach.

18The organization of village life is not only a matter of personal choice, or ineptitude, but is impacted by people and institutions situated outside the local context, whose actions are not directed at that particular village. By investigating the workings of these institutions, their operation and activities, and the connections between them, this chapter uncovers the translocal coordinating power of national policies of foreign agricultural trade and commerce and their impact on an individual village. By examining the implicit but identifiable mechanisms and technologies through which translocal institutions, ideologies, and discourses infiltrate local settings, I argue that rural Uzbek people’s realities, which are characterized by uncertainty and increasing economic insecurity that is exacerbated by deteriorating environmental conditions, are not ‘just happening’ but result from national agricultural trade policies. I reveal the various material connections and interactions between the state and the individual smallholders, and the consequences of these dynamics.

Conceptual framework

19The term ‘translocality’ has come into vogue over the past two or three decades (Greiner and Sakdapolrak 2013:373–76). It is used by scholars from different disciplinary fields such as geography, history, area studies, cultural studies, anthropology, and development studies. In 1996, Arjun Appadurai argued that this concept could be used to understand what he termed the reproduction of the local in the context of transnational mobility (1995:216). He argued that migrants actively reproduced their own localities outside their home countries in the sites of their new residences and such ‘production and reproduction of locality, in which ties of marriage, work, business and leisure weave together various circulating kinds of “locals” are increasingly complex’ (ibid.). Challenging the accepted notion of transnationalism with its focus on national borders, he argued that translocality is a contemporary feature of globalization that offers a different perspective on the relations between apparently insular locales (Greiner and Sakdapolrak 2013:373–76). Increasingly, the notion of translocality has been theoretically and methodologically helpful to scholars who seek to capture much more nuanced local connections across national boundaries (Appadurai 1995:216–22).

20A review of the existing literature on the concept of translocality reveals the wide use of the term. Translocality involves mobility, space, connectedness, and associated knowledge. In discussing the analytic use of translocality, this chapter does not focus on the stories of mobile subjects, but on the interactions between global ideas, discourses, ideologies, and local experiences. In doing so, I follow Stephan-Emmrich (Chapter Nine) and concur with Hage’s understanding of translocality as an analytic ‘double gaze’ to argue that local environments and global dynamics are inherently interrelated (2005:464–70). Like her, I argue that, in today’s world, in which social realities are shaped by globalization, the ‘double gaze’ needs to be able to capture lived experiences and the forces that structure them. In agreement with Burawoy’s theory of a ‘global ethnography of space’ (Burawoy et al. 2000:35–42), this chapter suggests that local experiences can connect to wider geographical processes and spaces and that certain methodologies, like his ‘extended case method’, help researchers to explore how to reach out from micro processes to macro forces and thus link the local to the global. One important aspect of institutional ethnography is its commitment to an empirical method of tracing and mapping the multiple connections between local lives and global powers. All of these connections, or ‘social relations’, are material and discoverable rather than dialectic or theoretical, especially when it comes to explanations of the global modality of the local (Smith 2005:68–80).

21The term ‘social relations’ does not refer to interpersonal relationships but to how various connections between different sites of experience are made. These sites are not necessarily connected by people who know each other and exchange something, as they do in social networks. In fact, institutional ethnographers argue that in many cases different sites are connected by people who do not know about each other’s existence but are connected through the use of the same ideas, work sequences, routine responsibilities, etc. In contemporary institutions, defined as complexes of activities organized around a distinctive function such as migration policy, international trade, etc., activities are initiated and designed as a means to fulfil institutional functions (ibid.). People located in different positions in an institution carry out these activities following guidance and instructions developed elsewhere, usually in texts, within the institutional structure (ibid.). Through such textually circulated instructions, organizational rules, forms, standardized procedures, etc., people participate and contribute to the maintenance of institutions and to institutional knowledge, resources and purposes (ibid.). People’s everyday lives play out within such social relations, called ‘social organization’, which integrate their local experiences into wider institutional regimes (ibid.). I will show later in my analysis how the everyday work of the rural water managers in Uzbekistan is socially organized, through texts and rules, to facilitate state-led agricultural export. Resource management experts have recognized some aspects of this system as good governance. It involves both private farmers and smallholders, but it envisages different purposes for each and impacts them differently.

22Returning to the theoretical framework of institutional ethnography, translocal social relations are defined by Smith as ‘coordinated chains of action that connect embodied experiences, which occur at a specific local site, to work that is performed at other sites’ (ibid.:38), a statement that emphasizes the extent to which social relations within an institution can shape and direct people’s work. Smith refers to translocal ‘ruling social relations’ which ‘reach beyond and coordinate what a particular person is experiencing locally’ (ibid.:34). Further research is needed to fully explain the work practices that connect people who have no direct knowledge of each other and who live in different locations. These connections are material and not theoretical, because institutionally designed and implemented activities affect the actions of people in local settings. Therefore, in any institutional ethnographic project ‘translocal forms of coordinating people’s work are explored as they are to be found in the actual ways in which coordination is locally accomplished’ (ibid.:38).

23Institutional ethnographic analysis shows that people are typically unaware that their everyday lives are organized across space, time, and institutions, which connect them to a range of people, texts, and work practices. Invisible, translocal relations can nevertheless be uncovered by researchers who can describe and track them from local to extra-local sites. In other words, these relations are identifiable in people’s socially-organized work activities because they are objectively present. Here, in agreement with Alff (in Chapter Five), I argue that contextual factors influence the agency of actors and the outcomes of their strategies.

24Institutional ethnographers put forward a more radical argument, claiming that the strategies and choices, including resistance, in which individual people engage are shaped, often invisibly, by translocal ruling relations.

25This is not to say that people’s activities are not of interest to institutional ethnographers. On the contrary, people as actors always remain central to research, and the analysis of what people do every day to put their lives together allows institutional ethnographers to identify, track, and explain how particular translocal relations work in specific settings. An investigation typically begins by exploring the experiences of those involved in an institutional setting; the analytical goal is to discover and map linkages between everyday life, organizations, and translocal processes of power (Devault and McCoy 2006:18). The researcher gets to know what happens in a setting, learning from the people themselves and identifying a research problematic — usually concerned with dislocations between ruling ideas and local people’s experiences and knowledge. But how does this work in practice? The researcher’s analytical framework provides a sense of socially organized knowledge guiding local actions; a belief that nothing ‘just happens’ but rather is made to happen.

26In institutional ethnography the analysis of institutional texts is important. ‘Texts’ can be documents or any form of representation that has a ‘relatively fixed and replicable character’ (Deveau 2008:9) and that people routinely use in the conduct of their work. These include organizational charts, work manuals, reporting guidelines, monitoring sheets, logical frameworks, etc. Institutional texts travel in various forms and are passed from one set of users to another, where they are read as instructions and written as records. Smith uses the metaphor of DNA to illustrate how socially organized knowledge produced in one location becomes packaged in texts and then replicated either electronically or in hard-copy format in multiple locations, becoming a blueprint to regulate local activities and organize social relations among people (ibid.:4). It is precisely in these texts that traces of ruling relations can become visible. Texts operate as material carriers of ruling relations because the latter ‘rely on textually based realities to produce, reproduce and stabilize institutions, because texts have the capacity to preserve meaning in the absence of local context’ (Smith 2005:103).

27However, not all documentary materials and texts form part of institutional ethnographic research, only ‘active’ texts. In other words, the texts are treated as ‘data’ if people use or ‘activate’ them in their everyday work and if their engagement with these texts coordinates their actions (Campbell and Gregor 2002:82–90). Ethnographers ask who uses which texts, how the texts are used, what is focused on and what is ignored, and how people align their work with texts. In this way researchers can identify the text’s capacity to orient people’s activities in the directions that are institutionally relevant. Smith calls human engagement with texts a ‘text-reader conversation’ in which the reader ‘responds to, interprets, and acts from it [the text]’ (Smith 2005:105) and in doing so becomes an agent of this text. Language coordinates the reader’s consciousness and exerts control over her response. Such textual mediation becomes the practical or material form through which ruling relations enter the local setting and order its routines (ibid.). Understanding how this happens in any particular case is an essential part of institutional ethnographic research projects.


28Institutional ethnography is both a theoretical framework, deeply concerned with the political and economic processes in which everyday lives are lived, and also a methodological approach to research (Eastwood and Devault 2001). Institutional ethnographers use a variety of research methods, such as in-depth and semi-structured interviews, focus groups, participant observation, and textual analysis to examine social relations (Campbell 2006). In my research project, data collection involved unstructured and semi-structured interviews, direct and participant observations, and text analysis.

29Exact empirical processes in institutional ethnography cannot be predicted beforehand because researchers ‘know what they want to explain, but only step by step can they discover who they need to interview and what texts or discourses they need to examine’ (Slade 2008:83). The data collection process is iterative and can be divided into three stages, beginning with entry into the research site. My research project began with an inquiry into the everyday lives of smallholder households through participant observations and in-depth interviews; I visited participants’ homes and also lived with a local family, which helped me to formulate questions about their experiences. Adopting their standpoint, I then formulated a narrative about their everyday lives, work, worries, challenges, etc., and identified gaps in my understanding to be pursued further. These missing pieces of information indicated possible explanations for the difficult experiences of smallholders. The main aim of this first stage was to formulate the problematic of my study — the question of how the smallholders’ everyday lives, with their struggles and increased workloads, were socially organized.

30In the second stage, using this data I mapped connections between the institutions of water management and agricultural administration. I also conducted semi-structured interviews with relevant institutional actors and directly observed their work. In institutional ethnography, data collection and analysis are not completely distinct phases; in my research the initial extensive interviews were used both to identify the translocal social linkages that existed in people’s everyday lives and to direct my ethnographic gaze toward the next steps of data collection. During the interview process I paid extremely close attention to whether my interviewees mentioned specific names, people, institutions, government agencies, etc., as I tried to understand what linked these people or institutions to the respondent’s experiences.

31These newly-identified interlocutors included private farmers, members of local committees, employees of the local WUA, etc., whom I subsequently interviewed. When interviewing them, I paid careful attention to any textual documents they used and, through interviews and direct observation, I inquired into exactly how they engaged with these texts during their work. These new data allowed me to further refine my research goals. The core idea at this stage of research is that what the interlocutors do, know, and tell is coordinated by the ruling relations of the institution. The task is then to extend the interlocutors’ own knowledge by uncovering the local coordination that is structured by the ruling relations. This takes place in the third stage of the research, which involves analyzing the institutional texts that were revealed in the previous stage. Here, I focused on identifying the origins of the working texts, which, I discovered, coordinated the work of local institutional actors. This process involved mapping out different documents and the connections between them and, finally, uncovering the social organization of ruling relations governing the work of agricultural management.

32The pool of data used for this analysis consisted of forty in-depth and semi-structured interviews. I began with a conversation with a water engineer who used a specific document to plan and sequence irrigation in the village. I learned that this document was part of a body of texts that facilitated the implementation of the same national policy, itself a component of Uzbekistan’s national cotton export programme. In what follows, I describe this institutional map.

Discovering translocal connections between local experiences and global trade

33As mentioned earlier, Uzbekistan remains one of the world’s largest cotton producers. This is the result of the prioritization of cotton cultivation ordered by the central Soviet administration throughout its period of governance (Abdullaev et al. 2005:113). The Soviet administration wanted to make the USSR self-sufficient and forced some of its republics to become highly specialized producers of certain commodities for consumption both within the internal and export markets (ibid.). Thus Uzbekistan became a territory of intensive cotton cultivation, producing seventy percent of the entire Soviet supply (ibid.). This industry employed about forty percent of the republic’s total labour force and accounted for more than sixty percent of its total economic input (ibid.:115). By the early 1980s, the USSR had become one of the major exporters of cotton, accounting for more than a fifth of world’s production and only lagging behind China (ibid.).

34In contemporary Uzbekistan, the Soviet legacy has been preserved in both the cotton monoculture and the high level of state control of the industry. The production and international trading of cotton is strictly regulated by the government (Rudenko 2009:285) with cotton’s contribution accounting for twenty-five percent of Uzbekistan’s gross domestic product (Muradov and Ilkhamov 2014:11) and total agricultural exports accounting for more than forty percent of total exports (World Food Programme 2008). State control in the post-Soviet era operates through imposing quotas on ‘output and area, a state purchase system and price, quantity of production, and controls on farm outputs’ (Abdullaev et al. 2005:115). Directly after independence in 1991, all agricultural produce, except that grown in kitchen gardens, were required to be sold to the state. Five years later, state quotas were removed for some agricultural crops but not for cotton (Abdullaev et al. 2005:115). After a series of agrarian land reforms, described at the beginning of this chapter, private farmers (or ‘fermers’ in the local language) became the sole suppliers of cotton, although cotton farms remain state property. Today, private farmers are mandated to plant cotton and they must sow a certain area of land with the plant, else they are penalized (Abdullaev et al. 2005:115). Furthermore, private farmers are obligated to supply all of the cotton they grow (with a quota on the minimum required) to the state at a pre-determined rate. Needless to say, the internal purchasing price for cotton is almost half the international market price (Rudenko 2009:285–60). In return for their cotton, farmers are entitled to free land tenure and receive support from government-sponsored agencies in the form of seeds, fertilizers, machinery and irrigation. In legal terms, becoming a private farmer meant that an individual selected or appointed by the local administration was registered as such and signed a contract with the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources of Uzbekistan where all the described quotas and government-sponsored services were laid out.

35In contrast, smallholders (or dehkans in the local language) came into existence very differently, in response to the breakdown of the centralized Soviet system when millions of rural people lost their livelihoods due to decreases in production, shortfalls of basic food products, and lack of previously-provided social infrastructure (Kandiyoti 2002, Abdullaev et al. 2005:115). In 1994, to increase food security and respond to growing poverty, the government withdrew some land from collective farms and distributed it among the rural population, formally describing these owners as dehkans who were granted permanent and inheritable rights to the land (Zayforodnaya 2006).

36There are thus two distinct sets of goals and expectations for private farmers and for smallholders: to provide the state with a crop required to maintain the national export industry; and to respond to the apparently inefficient agricultural governance with a quick and effective solution to an unexpected side-effect of the agrarian reforms. In both cases, however, the availability of irrigation, a controversial issue in Uzbekistan, is key. WUAs were established to address the problem of irrigation scarcity and distribute water equally and democratically. However, as my findings show, the reality fails to live up to this promise. I argue that WUAs are an integral part of the policy that supports the large-scale production of cotton by private farmers and exists to help these farmers increase their productivity, rather than to assist the most vulnerable groups.

37The vulnerability of smallholders was evident from the outset of the research. I soon learned that agricultural produce from their gardens and small plots of land are absolutely essential for food and for animal breeding. In most cases these families do not have any other source of income, except anything that male family members who have left the village can send back. The majority of families have been broken up by labour migration, and the remittances sent home by these men provide the only source of meaningful cash income. ‘There is no job for our men here in the village’, a female smallholder told me. This puzzled me because the cultivation of 0.13 ha of land, breeding animals, and selling crops and livestock appeared to provide enough work for entire family. However, as I later discovered, generating hard cash revenue from their plot is so labour-intensive that going abroad as a migrant worker becomes a much more attractive option financially, despite the costly price these men have to pay on a personal level. As a result, I observed highly feminized smallhold agriculture characterized by the increasing difficulty of securing the necessary support for agricultural production, chiefly irrigation. At the same time, my interviews with the male private farmers indicated that they suffered no limitations in terms of the provision of water and services (Kim 2014:68–80). Neither did their family structure seem to have been affected by outmigration. This brought me back to my research problematic and my consideration of the different impacts a social organization can have on different constituencies, i.e., the smallholders versus the private farmers.

38As I looked more closely at the everyday work of the irrigators in the local WUA, I realized that giving precedence to the irrigation needs of the private farmers over those of the smallholders was not something that these professional irrigators ‘just did’. On the contrary, their work was socially organized and coordinated by institutional texts such as irrigation schedules, monitoring, and report forms. Water engineers did their jobs professionally and responsibly by using these forms in their everyday work. Below (in Figure 4.1) I provide an example of a monitoring sheet used by all water engineers in the WUA called ‘kontur’.

Fig. 4.1 Kontur (monitoring sheet) translated by the author.
Image © Elena Kim (2014), CC BY 4.0

  • 2 Here and hereafter pseudonyms are used.

39In the words of water engineer Ikram,2 he ‘controls the number of the watered hectares [and] looks at the kontur. They have numbers that correspond to the fermers’ land. [He] marks which land has been watered and informs the WUA’.

40If we attend to the column in the kontur called ‘Kontur Number’ we see different numbers each corresponding to a specific piece of land in the village. Once a piece of land is numbered by the land surveyor, it is marked as a kontur. From Ikram, we learned that these konturs mark only the land cultivated by private farmers. In my second interview with him the WUA chairperson supported this observation, as he stated that ‘myrabs [water engineers] use the konturs of the farmer’s land only’.

41This is an example in which a text directed the attention of the WUA to a particular category of water user. Using the kontur, water engineers ensured that efficient provision of water was only provided to the selected areas. I tracked the use of konturs in the WUA and discovered that the information they provided fed into a standardized reporting form, which itself contained the sub-heading ‘Fermer’s land’. I learned that the standardized reporting form and the kontur were, in fact, appendices to the WUA’s Charter. The Charter itself states that its main areas of activity are the delivery and distribution of water among its members. Membership is acquired by signing an agreement with the WUA. As the WUA chairperson told me, the ‘agreement is the most important; if there is an agreement, there is water; no agreement means “no water”’.

42However, he also indicated that not everybody is eligible to sign. As WUA staff explained:

An agreement with smallholders cannot be signed because they do not have a stamp, while farmers have the contract with the State. They have cotton and wheat […], while they (smallholders) do not have a stamp.

43All the private farmers were in a position to sign such an agreement with the WUA because they were already legal entities who had a contract with the state to provide cotton. For this reason they were equipped with their own stamps, without which they could not be private farmers at all. The situation of smallholders was entirely different in this respect. Their existence as a category of agricultural producers was the result of a forced measure and an ad hoc decision rather than a strategic choice; their crops provided subsistence rather than contributing to state commerce. Since smallholders did not have to supply the state with their crops and did not have to enter into contracts with the state, they were not recognized as legal entities and were not granted stamps. The WUA was organized to operate as a ‘closed club’ with membership limited to private farmers, thus failing to address the needs of the poorer smallholders. As an institutional ethnographer, I understood that the exclusionary practices of the WUA developed not because of deliberate efforts by individuals but because they were translocally incentivized: the WUA Charter and its rules on membership and eligibility, which directed the work of its employees, was part of a larger institutional system. It was therefore important to focus my analysis on the institutional origins of the WUA Charter. I found out that what was happening locally was linked, through a number of translocal, textual and discursive connections, to Uzbekistan’s global cotton trade. The policy of the WUA establishment in Uzbekistan formed an inherent part of the state’s agricultural reforms that aimed to increase agricultural productivity. This policy was put into practice in an appendix document regulating the set up of private farming entities throughout Uzbekistan. This appendix, which included the definition and roles of WUAs, was accompanied by the documentation needed to set up this type of organization, such as blueprints for the Charter, agreements, reporting forms, konturs, etc. This package was circulated throughout Uzbekistan, and the village I studied also relied on it for its everyday operations. Thus the activities of individual water engineers in the village were directed by a sequence of texts that were coordinated by the state with the aim of maximizing produce for international trade. Their everyday work, with its unintended negative impact on smallholders, was thus translocally coordinated.

Translocal organization of water management and its unjust consequences

44Uzbekistan participates in the global cotton trade to sustain its economy and its regional and international influence. The government have initiated a number of policy efforts, which they claimed were intended to mitigate the negative social effects of monoculture production on the poorest groups. These included the 1994 land reform and the promise of democratic water management through the introduction of WUAs. However, in practice, these apparently benevolent policies supported commercial interests, which affected individual farms in a systematic way. The need to sustain the trade in cotton resulted in land reforms that were intended to increase agricultural production, as well as methods of irrigation management that supported this. WUAs were (and still are) part of the state’s regulation of agriculture and, through texts such as konturs, established the regime’s priorities and neglected those who did not directly contribute to cotton production, i.e., smallholders, who became institutionally invisible. Smallholders were not listed among the beneficiaries of the improved water distribution by the WUA when its policies were drawn up, and therefore they could not appear in the WUA’s statutory, regulatory and operational texts as legitimate water users. Their absence from the kontur restricted water engineers from providing them with irrigation services and as a result smallholders cannot easily access water to irrigate their plots.

45Smallholders ‘will find water by themselves’, the water masters told me when I asked them how peasant households were expected to receive irrigation services. Having been trained to use WUA texts in their work, their attention is routinely directed away from smallholders’ needs. Smallholders do indeed ‘find water by themselves’ to maintain their farms and feed their family members, but they do so at the considerable expense of their time, health, and labor. For male smallholders, for whom working in the fields used to be a full-time job, inefficient agricultural practices were compounded by the unreliable water supply and this created a powerful incentive to travel to Russia for work. These men often live precarious lives full of uncertainty, anxiety, unreliable sources of income, and even violence, in pitiable living conditions. They lack social security and suffer the constant fear of deportation (Khajimukhamedov 2008).

46For female smallholders, the exclusion from irrigation systems often means a tremendous increase in their workloads. In my previous work I described in detail the devastatingly difficult living conditions of the female smallholders who remain in the village while their male partners are working abroad (Kim 2014, Kim et al. forthcoming). These women are expected to do the work of three people in order to sustain their families and households: domestic work, their own farming activities, and, now, the agricultural labour of their husbands. In addition to their traditional tasks of maintaining the house, working in the field, rearing children, and taking care of elderly family members, they have assumed new responsibilities such as soil fertilization, planting, irrigating and harvesting, and they are forced to manage their time to accomplish this intensified workload. My ethnographic observation notes from just one day living with a smallholder family record: ‘that day, talking to Norida was almost impossible because of her all-consuming work, the shouting of the children around her’. Without even basic house and garden equipment, time-consuming and physically complex work becomes even more so. For instance, breadmaking is done from scratch using a mud stove heated by brushwood that the women must gather, and the preparation of food for canning is accomplished manually by following a dozen carefully sequenced procedures.

Fig. 4.2 A peasant woman working in her field.
Photo © Elena Kim (2014), CC BY 4.0

47I discovered that these women had to undertake even more work to ensure sufficient access to water, which was taking up more time than they could afford. Since water only arrived in the canals once or twice per month for two or three days, women had to engage in time-consuming labour to find out if it was available so that they could open their canals and irrigate their fields. Many physically traveled to the canal, which might be a journey ranging from fifty meters to more than several kilometers of unpaved roads. My ethnographic notes describe what it means for many women to monitor water availability:

Nargiza takes two hours by her donkey-harnessed cart to reach her field and look at the canal. If the water is not flowing, this long journey is undertaken in vain. If the water is there, she queues with other smallholders and waits until she can open her ditch and let the water flow into her plot of land. Depending on the water pressure, irrigating one plot takes from forty minutes to five hours. This adds up to long hours of work, added to the additional hours of the journey back and forth to the village. Norida walks or uses her bicycle to go to the canal. By bicycle it takes her twenty minutes to reach the place and she has to do this once every two or three days during the vegetation season.

48These smallholders often failed to irrigate their land because they did not have timely information, or they were absent when the water arrived, or else it was already used up. All of this threatens their basic livelihood and wellbeing, because smallholder families must subsist almost entirely on what they grow in their fields while the remittances from their male partners can be unreliable and insufficient. The lack of recognition of smallholders families in the WUA is thus especially problematic. Although WUAs were inspired by inclusive and democratic principles (Abdullaev and Mollinga 2010:85–100), my analysis of the translocal organization of water management shows that even the most well-intended social and managerial policy can routinely produce unexpectedly harmful consequences.

49The translocal organization of smallholder families’ livelihoods in Uzbekistan is invisible to them, yet it systematically affects their lives. Regardless of the individual choices these families make every day, their experiences are shaped externally by forces that are not immediately obvious to them, preventing them from fully understanding the challenges they face. Translocal power is coordinated by, and operates materially and discursively through, institutional texts and the institutional actors who use them. This is how translocal institutions shape the day-to-day realities of those on whose behalf they claim to function. Water governance then, as a routine work process, is based on exclusionary practices that lead to increased vulnerability, uncertainty and profound social inequality among smallholders.



Abdullaev, Iskender, and Peter Mollinga. ‘The Socio-Technical Aspects of Water Management: Emerging Trends at Grass Roots Level in Uzbekistan’. Water 2 (2010): 85–100,

Abdullaev, Iskender, Mark Giordano, and Aziz Rasulov. ‘Cotton in Uzbekistan: Water and Welfare’, paper presented at the Conference on ‘Cotton Sector in Central Asia: Economic Policy and Development Challenges’, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 3–4 November 2005:1–19,

Asian Development Bank. ‘Uzbekistan: Ak Altin Agricultural Development Project’. Completion Report (2011): 10–30,

Appadurai, Arjun. ‘Production of Locality’. In Richard Fardon, ed. Counterwork: Managing the Diversity of Knowledge. London: Routledge, 1995, pp. 208–29.

Burawoy, Michael, Joseph Blum, Sheba George, Zsuzsa Gille, and Millie Thayer. Global Ethnography. Forces, Connections, and Imaginations in a Post-Modern World. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000.

Campbell, Marie, and Frances Gregor. Mapping Social Relations. A Primer in Doing Institutional Ethnography. Aurora, Ontario: Garamond Press, 2002.

Campbell, Marie. ‘Institutional Ethnography and Experience as Data’. In Dorothy Smith ed. Institutional Ethnography as Practice. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006, pp. 91–109.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). ‘Uzbekistan’. The World Factbook, p. 1,

Devault, Marjorie L. ‘Introduction: What is Institutional Ethnography?’ Social Problems 53 (2006): 294–98,

Devault, Marjorie L., and Liza McCoy. ‘Institutional Ethnography: Using Interviews to Investigate Ruling Relations’. In Dorothy Smith, ed. Institutional Ethnography as Practice. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006, pp. 15–45.

Deveau, Jean L. ‘Examining the Institutional Ethnographer’s Toolkit’. Socialist Studies 4 (2008): 1–19,

Djanivekov, Nodir, Kristof Van Assche, Ihtiyor Bobojonov, and John Lamers. ‘Farm Restructuring and Land Consolidation in Uzbekistan: New Farms with Old Barriers’. Europe-Asia Studies 64.6 (2012): 1101–26,

Greiner, Clemens, and Patrick Sakdapolrak. ‘Translocality: Concepts, Applications and Emerging Research Perspectives’. Geography Compass 7.5 (2013): 373–84,

Hage, Ghassan. ‘A Not So Multi-Sited Ethnography of a Not So Imagined Community’. Anthropological Theory 5.4 (2005): 463–75,

Herbst, Susanne, Dilorom Fayzieva, and Thomas Kistemann. ‘Risk Factor Analysis of Diarrhoeal Diseases in the Aral Sea Area (Khorezm, Uzbekistan)’. International Journal of Environmental Health Research 18.5 (2006): 305–21,

International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. ‘Human Rights in OSCE Region: Europe, Central Asia and North America — Uzbekistan’ (2004), [as archived on 29/01/2010].

Kandiyoti, Deniz. ‘Agrarian Reform, Gender and Land Rights in Uzbekistan’. Social Policy and Development Programme Paper (2002): 22–60,

Kehl-Bodrogi, Krisztina. ‘Who Owns the Shrine? Competing Meanings and Authorities at a Pilgrimage Site in Khorezm’. Central Asian Survey 25.3 (2006): 235–50,

Khajimukhamedov, Marat. ‘External Labor Migration’. In Evgeniy Abdullaev, ed. Labour Migration in Uzbekistan: Social, Legal And Gender Aspects. Tashkent: UNDP Country Office in Uzbekistan, 2008, pp. 130–83.

Kim, Elena, and Marie Campbell. ‘Violence Against Women and Peace Building: Tracking Ruling Relations in Women’s Development NGO in Kyrgyzstan’. In Aziz Choudry and D. Kapoor, eds. NGO-ization: Complicity, Contradictions and Prospects. London: Zed Books, 2013, pp. 185–206.

Kim, Elena. ‘International Development and Research in Central Asia: Exploring the Knowledge-Based Social Organization of Gender’. Doctoral thesis, Bonn University, 2014.

Kim, Elena, Anna-Katharina Hornidge, and Conrad Schetter. ‘Uzbekistani Agrarian Policy Reforms and their Gendered Effects on Women’s Water-Management Practices’. In Laura Bisaillon, ed. Impact of Public Policy on Everyday Life: The Policy Stories That People Tell. Springer, forthcoming.

Muradov, Bakhodyr, and Alisher Ilkhamov 2014. Uzbekistan’s Cotton Sector: Financial Flows and Distribution of Resources. New York: Open Society Foundations, Working Paper,

Naples, Nancy. ‘Crossing Borders: Community Activism, Globalization, and Social Justice’. Social Problems 56.1 (2009): 2–20.

Ng, Roxana. The Politics of Community Services: Immigrant Women, Class and the State. Halifax: Fernwood, 1996.

Rudenko, Irina. ‘Can Uzbek Farmers Get More for their Cotton?’European Journal of Development Research 21 (2009): 283–96,

Smith, Dorothy E. The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.

Smith, Dorothy E. Writing the Social. Critique, Theory and Investigation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

Smith, Dorothy E. Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press/Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.

The National Cotton Council of America. ‘Ranking’.

United States Department of State. ‘Uzbekistan 2013 Human Rights Report’ (2013),

Veldwisch, Gert J., and Bettina B. Bock. ‘Dehkans, Diversification and Dependencies: Rural Transformation in Post-Soviet Uzbekistan’. Journal of Agrarian Change 11.4 (2011): 581–97,

World Bank. ‘Uzbekistan’. World Bank Group (2015),

World Food Programme. ‘Poverty and Food Insecurity in Uzbekistan’ (2008),

Zanca, Russel. Life in a Muslim Uzbek Village: Cotton Farming After Communism. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2011.

Zavgorodnaya, Dariya. ‘Water Users Association in the Republic of Uzbekistan: Theory and Practice’. Doctoral thesis, Bonn University, 2006.


1 In order to protect my interlocutors’ integrity the real name of the village has been replaced by this pseudonym.

2 Here and hereafter pseudonyms are used.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 4.1 Kontur (monitoring sheet) translated by the author.Image © Elena Kim (2014), CC BY 4.0
Fichier image/jpeg, 132k
Légende Fig. 4.2 A peasant woman working in her field.Photo © Elena Kim (2014), CC BY 4.0
Fichier image/jpeg, 308k


Post-doctoral researcher at the American University of Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan). She received her Ph. D. from Universität Bonn (Germany) and has previously studied in Hungary and Kyrgyzstan. Her current research and publications deal with gender development, women, natural resources, and violence.


Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search