European Commission logo
English English
CORDIS - EU research results
Content archived on 2024-05-28

The Dialogic Emergence of Authority: Ancestors’ Shrines as Healing Sites in Kazakhstan

Final Report Summary - DIALOGAUTHORKZSTAN (The Dialogic Emergence of Authority: Ancestors’ Shrines as Healing Sites in Kazakhstan)

This research on language and power in Central Asia describes how oral expressive culture (poetry, storytelling, prayer) can allow alternate forms of political and ancestral authority to emerge, challenging the totality of authoritarian rule in repressive states. These forms of dialoguing evince a worldview and understanding of power radically alternative to the boundaries of the nation-state. This region is typically cast as part of a failed post-socialist transition, a repository of oil and corrupt governments, or a place where states must suppress so-called Islamic extremism. Ethnographic perspective is critical in order to illuminate the real negotiations of family, environment, economy, belief, and politics that structure everyday life and meaning-making. This project in linguistic anthropology, based upon long-term ethnographic research in Central Asia, investigates the dialogic ways that ancestors come to guide and care for the living. Ancestral authority is desirable for many Central Asians who are seeking not only accountable leaders, but also forms of social welfare and spiritual care.
During her Marie Curie CIG period, Dubuisson conducted field research in Kazakhstan, living with families and working with primary informants and research assistants to record the various contexts in which ancestors become dialogically present – from blessings in the home, to pilgrimages and the miracle stories of caretakers at shrine sites. She compiled recordings of these ‘conversations,’ working to transcribe and analyze their participant frameworks and performative impact. This new material on language and interaction builds upon Dubuisson’s previous focus on expressive culture and her work on the oral tradition of aitys poetry, in which poets regularly praise the great Khans and warriors of the mythic past, criticizing government leaders in the present for their failure to live up to that historical cultural standard. In the first half of the current project (2012-2014) Dubuisson followed the dialogic authority of the aitys tradition to the landscape of the Kazakh steppe, where shrines of poets, politicians, and many other generalized ancestors are part of a sacred ancestral geography that also includes other mausoleums and natural sites like mountains and water springs. Pilgrimage – undertaken as a form of spiritual healing – has become another opportunity for interaction with ancestor spirits, specifically in the form of wishes, blessings, prayers, and conversations at shrine sites. In the first phase of this project, Dubuisson completed a full-length book manuscript in which she explained how forms of dialoguing with ancestors represent a cultural worldview and a sacred geography alternative to the boundaries and authoritarian power of the nation-state in post-Soviet Central and Inner Asia. Using in-depth ethnography across various fields of family, pilgrimage, and performance, Dubuisson showed how ancestors emerge dialogically in many interactions, to protect and care for their descendants and to provide a positive model of rule.
In the second and final phase of this project Dubuisson explored the role of ancestors and sacred geography in broader discourses of land and sovereignty in Kazakhstan. It is particularly significant that pilgrimage to natural sites for the purpose of spiritual and physical healing occurs across the Inner Asian landscape, a geography that has suffered from extreme environmental degradation in the Soviet and post-Soviet periods, due to projects ranging from irrigation and farming, to industry and mining, to extraction and nuclear power. Across such an ecology, how can the land itself be ‘holy’ and a source of healing? How can we understand the connection between land and people, through the lens of language and dialogue? Dubuisson argues that conflicts over environment and resources overlap heavily with notions of cultural sovereignty. Like oral traditions, discourse and conflict over land use and rights (as well as degradation and destruction) clearly becomes a vehicle of political dialogue and participation. Attention to these issues helps us to move our understanding of participatory politics in Central Asia beyond the totalizing discourses of ‘authoritarianism’ and ‘democratic reform.’

In order to understand these questions and to locate an ancestral geography within the context of broader national and global discourses of environment, land preservation and resource use, in the second phase of this project (2015-16) Dubuisson has explored these fields of ecology and geography together with a student research team in several different areas of Kazakhstan.
Dubuisson set up a research affiliation at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan, and with the help of colleagues there created a student research team of senior social science students interested in gaining research experience as well as in environmental issues. The team focused on three primary areas of research: governmental and non-governmental structures of environmental protection, legal and social activism and media, and pilgrimage based fieldwork. Her team’s field research was organized into annual phases, each taking into account different ecological zones of Kazakhstan. Together the team alternated between periods of field research and transcription, and focused on both in-depth interviews with participants as well as the creation of a tri-lingual media archive. Such collaborative research is important because it premises the nature of dialogue in the making of knowledge, a step which brings together method and theory in research; Dubuisson has emphasized dialogic methodology as part of her own writing and knowledge dissemination in this project. In addition to this primary research and transcription, as well as the preparation of materials for publication, Dubuisson’s team focused on the development of a project website to be used as an educational resource for other students of ecological anthropology in Central Asia.

Dubuisson requires the informed consent of all participants and has prepared and distributed an information sheet on the project approved by the Ethics Boards of both Marie Curie FP7 and Bogazici University.