Confusing Social and Cultural History

I’ve nearly finished my preparations for the PhD qualifying exams in Russian History. My dissertation proposal is, I believe, about 80% complete and in need of only a little rewriting and reorganizing. I have also been reading more about the defining of several strands of history past and current in “the academy,” at least in the United States. I’ve had a lot of difficulty compartmentalizing Social versus Cultural History.

Part, or perhaps most, of the confusion arises in changes in day-to-day speech in English-speaking America. In short, I have read that today we speak of culture in a very similar way to how Americans spoke of society a generation ago. Social problems and societal strife were topics of interest not too long ago but perhaps have been replaced by cultural concerns and the so-called culture wars.

At one point, social history meant for some of its proponents Marxist History, i.e., Labor History. It was characterized as “history from below,” in opposition to “Great Men” history, Diplomatic History, Military History, and other brands of writing about the past that did not necessarily put “the masses,” “the workers,” and “the proletariat” at the center. Part of the concern with writing a history from below, however, is that the proletariat and the masses aren’t truly “the bottom” of any society. By nature of being workers, they are among the employed and employable – for much of the industrial revolution, women, the elderly, and the physically impaired were a small part of the overall workforce, pigeon-holed into specific professions. As this has changed, the history of “the worker” may seem to be closer to a “history from below,” but I think sometimes the Labor Historian’s reach may exceed his grasp. This is hardly a negative characteristic, as it showcases a desire to attain the impossible.

In any event, I wanted to share these thoughts because so often a discussion of Cultural and Social History quickly devolves (evolves?) into jargon and terrifying phrases like “discourse,” “dialectic,” and strange alternate uses of common words like “archaeology” and “knowledge.”


Writing this post after reading my last post, I hope I’m not making a reputation for myself as a tactless iconoclast. Rather, I would like to challenge some of the common concepts and ideologies that I have encountered during my education. This is not to say that I perceive a deeper knowledge inside my own brain than exists in the outside world, but only that one should be able to throw certain logical queries at the accepted notions of academia from time to time. In the case of my previous post on Orientalism, I certainly concede that the popularity of Said’s remarks is based in some part on the attractiveness of the argument and its perceived suitability to the purposes of other thinkers. However, I see the infrastructure of the argument as  irreparably flawed in its basic assumptions.

Nomadism as a concept seems somewhat similar to me. Semantically, it serves as short-hand to identify and explain certain characteristics. The nomad is differentiated from the non-nomad, in other words. The non-nomad is much less often the target of a blanket definition, but when such occurs, the term used tends to be sedentary, or some synonym of the same.

I have the unfortunate hobby of etymology lodged in my consciousness. For that reason I will share the following data:

  • The word nomad is attested in the English language from the 16th century, coming from Latin via French. In Latin the term was Nomas in the nominative and Nomadis in the genitive – hence we have the word nomad from misunderstood Latin grammar; alternatively, it could be blamed on poor Greek, which followed the same (nomas in the nominative, nomados in the genitive, nomades in the plural). The term in Greek is given the definition “roaming, roving, wandering” and connected to reconstructed Proto-Indo-European *nem-, meaning to divide, allot, or distribute. This is important as the word originally included the conception of ownership, division, and the importance of land; this in contrast to later characterizations that nomads had no connection to the land.
  • The word sedentary is similarly attested from the 16th century in English, coming again from Latin via French. In Latin the term sedentarius (sitting/remaining in one place) is easily connected to the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European *sed-, meaning to sit.
  • Modern Kazakh generally uses the word koshpendi (Көшпендi) to translate the English word nomad, a practice that predates claims that Kazakh had no word for the concept. I do not know how long the Kazakh language has had this word in its lexicon, but the root meaning is clearly old. In fact, the root (көш/коч) also gives the Russian word for nomad, kochevnik (Кочевник). The verb in question (көшеу/кўчмок) appears in dictionaries as “to move, to migrate, to relocate.” The word is similar in Uzbek: ko’chmanchi.

Etymology is a fun aside, but the deeper problem is what we are attempting to explain with the terminology. From a scientific perspective, the term has been replaced with more specific terminology not yet in common public use; these terms tend to explicitly describe the primary economic occupation of some critical mass within the defined population. In other words, while some percentage of those people previously labeled as nomads did indeed practice a specific type of economy generally requiring frequent shifting of camp to renew the pastureland of livestock, the economies of the people involved were much more complex. Moreover, the various economies of nomadic people differed the point of the word not adequately explaining differences between nomadic populations in different geographic areas. In other words, the nomads of the Sahara Desert are not similar enough to the historical nomadic populations of the Volga region to truly warrant using the same term for both.

Another issue is what, exactly, the term is supposed to tell us about the people thus labeled. Are nomads possessed of a different life outlook in a uniform way different from that of non-nomadic people? History has shown again and again that sedentary people are just as likely to pull up and migrate to new locations; similarly, nomads in various locations are characterized by the regular return to family-owned pasture locations. In addition, many nomadic people have historically been involved in non-livestock herding economies, providing labor for fishing, mining, trading, and other endeavors within their vicinity.
What, then, does calling a people “nomadic” achieve for the historian? Will this explain their actions in a useful way? Are nomadic people blood-thirsty savages that do not share a similar level of civilization (however that might be ascertained) with their sedentary neighbors? Many gallons of ink have been spilled in the cause of just such assumptions, but such crude characterizations of “exotic” populations have become less common. Other assumptions have lasted longer due to their sophistication. For example, that nomads are uninterested in land rights, or at least less so than non-nomads. Similarly, nomads have specific gender-norms that are different from those of sedentary people. Again, nomads practice religion in ways inherently different from non-nomads.
I would challenge any such assumption and would rather we remove the term “nomad” from all but the most general of characterizations to imply regular movement of people. Let us know that knowing this little fact about the changing of addresses will explain the intricacies of their societies. Nomads need not have inherently different political systems: a “nomad” king is different how, exactly, from a “sedentary” king? A “nomadic”democracy is different how, exactly, from a “sedentary” democracy?
Let us challenge such terms the moment they appear.


So what?

The question that many fear to encounter after delivering an agonizingly-constructed, seemingly-whole argument is a powerful tool. The rise of cotton monoculture in the deserts of Central Asia has led to the disappearance of the Aral Sea. So what?

It allows the reader to define the aspects of our experience important to them. For example, if one is concerned with the preservation and protection of so-called natural resources, the disappearance of the world’s fourth largest lake would seem to be a big deal. However, the question “So what?” can also challenge those closely-held beliefs. For example, in a world that believes in the law of the conservation of energy, the resources of the Aral Sea didn’t ever “disappear,” but rather were scattered around the region in unplanned reservoirs and in the cotton that leaves the region. Perhaps the argument can be refocused to include a critique of globalization that allows such a trade to take place. Or a critique of the characterization of the Aral Sea as the “fourth largest lake,” which might obscure the fact that the Aral Sea is vastly different from other large lakes like Baikal, Victoria, and the Great Lakes system in terms of rates of evaporation and average rainfall.

Only a few years have passed since a graduate colloquium introduced me to the work of Edward Said. It has reappeared several times, sometimes in a positive light, at least once in a neutral light, and several times in a negative light. In other words, I have seen criticism leveled at the work itself and at the critics of the work. Defining the work itself can be difficult and often leads to simplified characterizations. For example, one might say Said’s work is anti-imperial; or Said’s work is literary criticism; or Said’s work is a scholarly response to the new problems of a global world; or Said’s work is a product of the Arab-Israeli political turmoil of its time; or Said’s work is a bold uncovering of the corruption of white established ivory tower elite education. In addition, criticism of Said has often been characterized (correctly or not) as defense of Western authority; the largely negative reviews the original work received seems unsurprising considering how easily Said crossed between different scholarly fields and the modern political environment.

So what?

Edward Said is one of those people that is entirely unknown to a large portion of the population and widely known by a dedicated minority. Scholarship often likes to characterize itself as a force, like gravity or disease, that affects the masses whether or not they are aware of that force. Certainly historians have written the same in the past – consider the trite axiom regarding those that fail to learn and are doomed to repeat history.

I imagine the possibility that Said wrote for a different audience than he, in the end, received. The world of scholarly literary review seems to have been less distraught by Said’s contribution. Said would have known very well the meaning of the word synecdoche; a figure of speech where one item stands in to represent the whole. A typical example is the expression “All hands on deck!” I am not the first person to suggest that his critique of Orientalism has turned one specific field of study into a synecdoche for imperialism and the abuses of imperial power through the acquisition of imperial knowledge.

I believe part of the problem is the naming of this webbed, branched totality of knowledge a “discourse,” following the terminology used by Foucault.

What is Orientalism according to Said? There is a set of definitions offered in the book, or more accurately approaches toward a definition. Orientalism is:

  1. what Orientalists do and have done.
  2. a “style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident.'”
  3. an institution for dealing with the Orient, a Western way of dealing with and dominating the Orient.

This leads to Said’s lack of focus, in my opinion, because the first and third involve a dialogue between West and East (or at least the observance of the East by the West), where the second is entirely in the minds of the ignorant, isolated West. This has led to the work easily being borrowed for the critique of cross-cultural scholarship on the whole. The irony is that there, as in the critique of Orientalism, the critics resemble the same essentializing, monolithic cast of the scholarly model they happen to be attacking. One example is Said’s omission of Foucault’s criticism of authorship. In other words, none of the Orientalists are given the benefit of a dynamic career in which their works and experiences are free to shift, change, shrink, or grow. They seem to be portrayed as static representatives of Orientalism.

I don’t want to be overly derivative in my opinions on Orientalism. I am responding largely as a scholar of Kazakhstan – country decidedly to the East of Europe. I grant that in earlier days I would self-identify as an Orientalist in English, as I would even today in Russian, Persian, or Kazakh. If someone were to name me an Orientalist today, I would accept the title, but its reputation is such that I don’t want to start arguments by naming myself as such outright.

And so I return to the eternal “So what?” with regard to Orientalism and the critique against the same made by Said. What would Said have us do? What is the problem, exactly, and how best to solve the problem as such? If it is an unavoidable error of representation (as some have it), there is no action to be taken, only an order to eternal vigilance against taking my observations as an Orientalist to heart without challenge. That much seems easy to take; all scholars should have the benefit of being reminded of their own imperfections and errors. In the case of the Russian empire, the case has been made that much work remains to be done towards understanding the implications of Said’s critique because he made no analysis of German, Russian, or other imperial discourse; which is to say nothing also about Ottoman Orientalism, Japanese Orientalism, and other so-called “imperial” discourses.

So what? What does Orientalism have to do with Kazakhstan? Are Russian scholars past or present immune to the ills of Orientalism? Are Russian-trained Kazakh scholars, or madrasa-trained scholars from the area immune to the same? Is not the nature of representation a reason for caution and the challenging of prior narratives? In other words, could I reiterate the argument of Said as a simple, “Be careful!” spoken in earnest to future scholars of regions other than their own? And shouldn’t those that study their own history and culture be just as careful? I’ve read more ill-reasoned American history than I have Russian history – the market is larger and the barrier to entry is considerably lower.

A Vestige of Soviet Historiography

(This is a restating and paraphrasing of some theoretical work by the scholars Anatolii Khazanov and N.N. Kradin)

Feudalism is a term with such a varied and proliferated usage that it becomes almost meaningless out of context. In that way, it is not unlike the terms fascist, socialist, their derivatives. Modern historians of the Enlightenment and following centuries, largely in the 18th and 19th centuries categorized, explained, and rejected the feudal system of lords and vassals in Medieval Europe. In other words, from its very beginning, the term feudal was primarily used negatively against a precursor ‘other’ system.

In the Soviet Union, the Marxist definition of history was an understood required model for anyone hoping to publish. In this regard, the impossible problem was presented: how to make non-Western histories somehow adhere to a Marxist model. This model was teleological, meaning that it adhered to a belief in absolute progress and backwardness. The term teleological derives from the term telos, one of the four Aristotelian ‘Causes’ of change. Telos is the fourth and what Aristotle called the “Final Cause,” meaning the purpose, aim, or drive of a thing. Thus, a telos in history is the belief that there is an aim or purpose, that all of time is working to produce a specific outcome. In the case of Marx, that outcome was World Communism, a Utopian environment without property, money, want, crime, or the other social ills caused by inequality. Marx believed at the dawn of World Communism, mankind’s history would start anew.

How do we approach Communism? Another hallmark of teleology in history is the belief in linear development. This is likely because a belief in a final cause inspires a belief in steps or levels of progress towards that final cause. Marx identified several such levels, which are the so-called Stages of History. They are, in order,

  1. Primitive Communism, which ends with the development of private property
  2. Slave Society, which ends via exhaustion of resources
  3. Feudalism, which ends with the emergence of a significantly powerful merchant class
  4. Capitalism, which ends when the wage labor working class rises against the ruling class
  5. Socialism, or the “first stage of Communism”
  6. Communism, or the “higher stage of Communism”

I should explain first that it is possible for a person to be a “Marxist” historian without believing in this rigid set of stages or in the tenets of teleology.

In any event, when it came time to write histories of Kazakhstan and the Kazakhs, the impossible problem of fitting 3000+ years of written history in the steppes in this model was surmounted by locking the peoples of the East in a cyclical loop, starting in Stage One and ending in Stage Three before repeating once again.

The problem with this system is that at various times the nomad societies showed characteristics from several of these systems. That is not special in itself, as a univeral system of history is defined more by its exceptions and inaccuracies than anything else. In the case of the various nomad societies of Eurasia, they showed characteristics of various Marxist Stages of History while remaining quite ambiguous on other aspects, due to a lack of historical source material available to historians in twentieth century Kazakhstan.

Both the answer and its primary refutation to this impossible problem came, perhaps ironically, from the Mongols of the Mongol Empire. Thanks to the posthumously published work of Russian Orientalist Vladimirtsov (B. Vladimirtsov, Obshchestvennyi stroi mongolov. Mongol’skii kochevoi feodalizm. [Social Structure of the Mongols. Mongolian Nomadic Feudalism]. Leningrad, USSR Academy of Science Publishing, 1934), Soviet-trained historians managed to produce a thesis of nomad feudalism. This despite the fact that Vladimirtsov used the term outside the context of Marxism and the Stages of History. Rather, Vladimirtsov used the term to describe Mongolian systems of law and the charismatic transfer of power among the Khans. In 1934, the works of Tolstov (S. F. Tolstov, Genezis feodalizma v kochevykh skotovodcheskikh obshchestvakh. [The genesis of feudalism in nomadic livestock-herding societies) in Osnovnye problemy genezisa i razvitia feodalnovo obshchestva (Basic Problems of the Genesis and Development of Feudal Society), ed. by S. N. Bykovskii et al, OGIZ, 1934.) appeared to display both the rhetoric of Vladimirtsov and Marx, explaining that pastoral nomadism was, in fact, feudalism similar to that found in agrarian, backward Medieval Europe.

This quickly became the standard categorization and explanation of nomadism with regard to Western forms of economic and social history. Appearing in the first major non-Russian history in the Soviet Union (Pankratova et. al, Istoriia Kazakhskoi SSR, 1943, and its similarly ill-fated second edition in 1949), the terminology of Feudalism (lords, vassals, etc.) became standard in the history of the Kazakhs and other nomadic societies. And it remains to this day in at least some work published in the CIS and in collaboration with scholars from the CIS.

Kazakh History in the 1940s

I recently requested Istoriia Kazakhskoi SSR s drevneishikh vremen do nashikh dnei [History of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic from ancient times to our days] from ILL [Inter-library-loan]. I’m writing up this blog post in between scanning the work to PDF.

Regarding the scanning of books to PDF, I am trying to put most of the important reference works in this format for easier travel and use while away from my office. I do wonder what format will come next, however, and whether using my time in this way is actually an efficient use of my time. That being said, I’m at a loss to imagine what a next-generation PDF file would offer, but I suppose that lack of imagination will not be standing in the way of whomever ends up inventing the new format.

This particular book that I am scanning is quite special and potentially very useful for my work in the history of Kazakhstan. It is the second such general history published in the Soviet Union in the 1940s, following the 1943 publication of a work of the same name. After I have read this book, which was published in 1949, more closely I will be able to ascertain more about the political and ideological movements of that period and how they manifested themselves in the editing and omission of various events in history.

The 1943 Istoriia Kazakhskoi SSR is itself an important monument to Soviet historiography. Too often historians operating outside the Soviet Union have criticized the entirety of the historical profession working under Lenin, Stalin, and their successors. While many sacrifices were made to keep in line with the party and avoid official disapproval, much of what we take for granted in the history of Central Asia was pioneered through the work of historians of that place and era. The 1943 Istoriia Kazakhskoi SSR is a prime example, though its authors quickly faced official disapproval of varying intensity. Labeled either writers prone to make mistakes of bourgeois nationalism or, much worse, being themselves at heart bourgeois nationalists, the authors of the 1943 Istoriia Kazakhskoi SSR that were able and willing to recant published the 1949 Istoriia Kazakhskoi SSR, a work profoundly different from that which they originally put to pen.

One example close to my previous research stems from the characterization of the period of history known in Kazakhstan today as the Aktaban Shubyryndy (Barefooted Flight) in Kazakh and Gody Velikogo Bedstviia (Years of Great Calamity) in Russian. In the 1720s the territory now called Kazakhstan was inhabited by ancestors of the modern Kazakhs, but also by Oirats ruled by Choros/Junghars (in the east), Baraba Tatars (in the northeast), ancestors of modern Kalmyks (in the northwest), and Cossack communities strung along the northern regions. In 1722 or 1723, the Junghar/Choros Oirats came West into lands controlled by Kazakhs, crossing the Chu, Talas, and Chirchik Rivers, until they controlled lands nearly up to the Syr Darya River. They sacked, or at least took control of, the cities of Sairam, Karamurt, and Tashkent. This historic event can be found in contemporary sources and is remembered in the oral histories of Kazakhs and Kalmyks to this day.

There is limited continuity in the remembrance of this disastrous historical event among the Kazakhs. When the Russians were first bringing certain Kazakh elites into the fold of the Empire, one military leader of the Kazakhs appears to have used the violence of the 1720s as evidence for the necessity of joining forces with the Russians. However, by the end of the 1750s the tables had turned on the Junghar/Choros Oirats, who were almost utterly destroyed by the Chinese, with the help of the Kazakhs. In fact, many of the Kazakhs who today live in China are descendants of those who nomadized in the steppes vacated by the retreating and re-settled Junghars. These Kazakhs remain outside the bounds of official history in Kazakhstan, outside the historical categories of the three Juz/Zhuz (Horde, literally Hundred) of the pre-19th century Kazakhs, though one can surmise they came entirely or largely from the so-called Uly Juz (Senior Horde).

In the early 19th century, a Russian official who lived for a short time among the Kazakhs collected much of their history for the first time for a Russian audience. Then, in the middle of the 19th century, the Russian-educated Chingiz Valikhanov, a descendant of the line of Kazakh nobility stretching back to Chinggis Khan, also mentioned in passing the events of the 1720s in one of his essays on the history of his people.

In the late 19th century, Russian and Russian-educated ethnographers came to Central Asia following the expansion of the Russian Empire in the middle of the 19th century collected folk songs and histories. Thanks to their work we have the oldest known recording of the great national folk song today known as Elim-ai (Oh, my homeland). In that first documentation we unfortunately only have a Russian translation titled Karatau (Black Mountains), after the chain of hills that the Junghars crossed in 1722 or 1723 to take the cities then ruled by the Kazakhs.

Perhaps independently of that work, Mukhametzhan Tynyshpaev wrote in the 1920s a series of essays on the same events in the 1720s and 1730s. He likewise published a rendition of the same song, without a title and including the original Kazakh. He shared oral histories passed down by his father and those collected during his years working on the railroads that crisscrossed the region in the last decades of the Russian Empire.

What made the 1943 Istoriia Kazakhskoi SSR so special was its inclusion of much of the foundational work of Tynyshpaev, though without citation or mention. The authors included even the story passed down by Tynyshpaev’s father without citation. I assume this was done out of necessity, as the same volume of history included Tynyshpaev’s name among the so-called bourgeois nationalists. In fact, Tynyshpaev was arrested several times, served as a railway man in exile, until being finally executed as an enemy of the people in 1938.

The 1943 Istoriia Kazakhskoi SSR suffered a similar fate, being lambasted by party officials for bourgeois nationalist arguments. My curiosity regarding the 1949 Istoriia Kazakhskoi SSR extends to its breadth of publication and its inclusion and alteration of certain narratives. The 1943 Istoriia Kazakhskoi SSR was denounced in time, but its initial publication was accompanied by a nomination for the Stalin Prize in history. It survives today in many libraries, including Indiana University’s own Wells Library. The 1949 volume, however, is difficult to find. This seems counter intuitive to me because it was edited specifically to better mesh with the party’s ideological demands for history.