Women Entrepreneurs in Kyrgyzstan: An Institutional Ethnography


A review of An Institutional Ethnography of Women Entrepreneurs and Post-Soviet Rural Economies in Kyrgyzstan, by Deborah Dergousoff.

Among the five post-Soviet states of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is distinctive in the degree to which internationally funded non-governmental organizations (NGOs) figure in the social landscape. Whereas scholarship of the 1990s often celebrated the presence of such organizations and the local initiatives that they supported as an index of Kyrgyzstan’s comparative freedom and a harbinger of a vibrant, reformist “civil society,” others have pointed to the international presence as a sign—and perhaps even a catalyst—of state failure and popular discontent (Mathijs Pelkmans, “On Transition and Revolution in Kyrgyzstan,” Focaal–European Journal of Anthropology 46, pp. 147–57). Many formerly core aspects of state provision in healthcare, education, law, and security are now underwritten by international donors working through local (often donor-created) partner organizations. Writing in 2005, anthropologist Boris Pétric went so far as to describe Kyrgyzstan as a “globalised protectorate” having, as he put it, “the particularity of being an independent state in which many prerogatives of the state are ensured by foreign actors” (Boris Pétric, “Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan or the Birth of a Globalized Protectorate,” Central Asian Survey 24(3), p. 331).

Despite the oft-noted role of INGOs in domains as diverse as higher education, electoral reform, legal training, pasture management, and conflict prevention, there have been comparatively few ethnographies in Kyrgyzstan that have explored such organizations from the inside, and fewer still that have foreground the work of translation that occurs between donor organizations, local NGOs, and the presumed beneficiaries of their interventions. Deborah Dergousoff’s sensitive institutional ethnography of rural women entrepreneurs’ interactions with an internationally funded NGO thus provides a valuable and welcome contribution to regional scholarship.

Dergousoff’s dissertation explores how initiatives developed by INGOs come to organize processes of economic and social development in a region of rural Kyrgyzstan characterized by high rates of poverty and extremely harsh climatic conditions. Her analysis is nuanced and insightful, drawing on a year of ethnographic fieldwork between Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, and Jerge-Tal, one of the villages in the mountainous Naryn district where programs to support women entrepreneurs are implemented. Using ethnographic interviews conducted with the help of interpreters (many of whose insightful observations are woven into the text), Dergousoff’s core argument is that the standardizing practices of rural development “come to preclude alternative practices and functions from entering the scope of what can legitimately be imagined” (p. 98).

The dissertation consists of eight chapters and a conclusion. This is coupled with eight appendices including project proposals, the interview schedule used, and sample field notes. Collectively, these give an insight into the process through which Dergousoff negotiated access to the field site and the complex relationships that can blur the lines between scholar, activist, and international partner in collaborative organizational ethnography. Throughout the dissertation, Dergousoff is refreshingly honest and frank about the process of becoming “enfielded,” including the negative reaction among secular Kyrgyzstani scholar-colleagues to her initial framing her research in terms of a study of “Muslim women;” the limitations posed by having to work through interpreters in fieldwork; and the divergence between her conception of her role as participant-observer within WESA and that of the organization’s director.

The first chapter outlines the theoretical concerns underpinning the dissertation, introduces the women’s NGO that was the focus of the study, and critically explores the author’s own position as a scholar and researcher employed by the American University-Central Asia (AUCA). The chapter provides a valuable discussion of the institutional contexts within which scholarly research in Kyrgyzstan occurs and the historical development of sociology in Kyrgyzstan. It also provides an insightful analysis of the ambiguities of field research that critically interrogates neoliberal development agendas while being conducted under the auspices of institutions, such as AUCA, that are themselves enrolled in projects of neoliberal transformation.

This chapter also lays out Dergousoff’s approach to the study of international development as a “social relation that can be grasped ethnographically in the work people do to interpret and implement it” (p. 6). Throughout the dissertation, Dergousoff stresses that her aim is not simply to present well-articulated critiques of development interventions as top-down, donor-driven, inflected by neoliberal rationalities, or normatively loaded. Rather, through a detailed exploration of one particular donor-funded Kyrgyzstani NGO, the Women Entrepreneurs Support Association (WESA), her aim is to highlight the dispersed practices through which development initiatives are negotiated and brought into being in a variety of different institutional sites and geographical settings.

To account for this in theoretical terms, Dourgousoff draws on the work of Dorothy Smith and her use of “institutional ethnography” (IE), an approach that seeks to understand how development institutions come to “produce and reproduce institutionally recognised categories such as gender, poverty and need, regardless of locally lived experiences and understandings of them” (p. 12). This approach is laid out in the third and fourth chapters of the dissertation, following a second contextualizing chapter that traces a narrative history of Kyrgyzstan and the ambiguous legacies of the Soviet “liberation” of Central Asian women. Institutional ethnography is committed not only to doing ethnography

in institutions, but also to understanding the dynamics by which certain approaches, habits, and practices become routinized as institutional: that is, the way that they become solidified into an institutional reality that is no longer recognized as strange (or problematically unequal). As such, it seeks to contribute to an investigation of how development initiatives “take on depoliticizing functions through practices that, by design, preclude a dialogic interchange” (p. 14).

Chapter Three, “Institutional Ethnography as a Framework for Investigating Work Processes in the Training of Women Entrepreneurs”, explores this idea in more detail. Engaging closely with feminist scholarship, and in particular the work of Dorothy Smith in her classic text, The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1987), the chapter seeks to describe how particular kinds of institutional settings emerge. Rather than operating with broad categories such as resistance or domination, the task, as Dergousoff puts it, “is to systematically explicate processes that can be discovered in the day-to-day work that people do and the complex of coordinated activities that work is connected to” (p. 85).

This approach is given more specificity in Chapter Four, “How I applied IE as the Framework of Inquiry in My Research.” This chapter translates these broad theoretical considerations into a methodology for approaching fieldwork in rural Kyrgyzstan. Here, Dergousoff describes her arrival in Kyrgyzstan and the process of identifying prospective field sites. She also explores how a critique of neoliberal interventionism might be applied to the case of WESA, and in particular, the continual challenge faced by WESA staff in translating new initiatives and ideas into externally given program objectives. The disjuncture between needs and initiatives, Dergousoff argues, arises not because staff cease to understand needs and issues in terms of local experiences of them, “but rather [because] the frames in which they are able to express what they know from their own experience are limited by the pre-given concepts and categories of international development policies and discourses” (p. 95).

Chapters Five and Six take the reader to the village of Jerge-Tal and the core of the ethnography. Chapter 5, “Heading into the Field,” describes the process of arrival in the key field site and provides a portrait of village life in rural Naryn region. The chapter depicts the institutional landscape in the village and demonstrates the degree to which basic village functions, including maintaining a functioning kindergarten and keeping the school heated and open during the winter months, depend on mobilizing a variety of sources of international grant funding. The chapter also illuminates how such dependencies make local institutions vulnerable to the vagaries of international funding and their shifting priorities.

In Chapter Six, “Interviews with Women Entrepreneurs in Naryn Region”, this focus is deepened through an analysis of women entrepreneurs’ experiences of interacting with WESA. As other studies of the development landscape in Kyrgyzstan have illuminated, Dergousoff found that the women entrepreneurs whom she interviewed in Jerge-Tal and Naryn were skilled in invoking development discourses and successful in mobilizing funding for “piecemeal projects that are essential to the maintenance of at least a minimal level of village economy” (p. 142) (see also Boris Pétric, On a mangé nos moutons: Le Kirghizstan, du berger au biznesmen, Paris: Editions Belin, 2013; Christine Bichsel, Conflict Transformation in Central Asia: Irrigation Disputes in the Ferghana Valley, Abingdon: Routledge, 2009). The entrepreneurs were also acutely aware of the politics of representation in the presence of visiting observers: one prospective interviewee, when requested to talk with Dergousoff about her experiences, asked the UNDP representative who arranged the interview whether she should therefore “talk up” the project or “whether she should tell about the difficulty of her life” (p. 148). The chapter gives an insight into the range of motivations, social and aesthetic as much as economic, that women had for taking part in courses that were ostensibly designed to help develop their entrepreneurial skills. Sewing courses, for instance, came to symbolize access to a certain form of social and cultural capital that allowed for the beautification of domestic space and the creation of “cultured” interiors. As one respondent commented, “I don’t want [my children] to be ashamed of me that I only look after sheep” (p. 150).

As in other settings in which the onus is placed on entrepreneurial self-transformation, the notional outcome of the training course—helping women to access markets for their locally sewn goods—was in fact stymied by a number of structural factors, including poor road infrastructure and lack of places to sell. As Dergousoff alludes, the course may have been more successful in fostering a pedagogy of self-transformation and a simultaneous awareness of lack (of good access to markets, of skills in writing business plans) than in helping women out of poverty. This idea is pursued further in Chapter 7,“Outcomes in Village Economic Development: Disjuncture in End Results” which documents a number of ways in which proposals intended to “empower” women actually had significant counter-effects, because they made women more aware of the structural constraints, including the dynamics of intra-family relations, that limited their capacity to escape poverty.

The final substantive chapter, “Formal Processes of Governance in Jerge-Tal Village,” shifts focus to the role of documents in forging a connection between layers of state governance and the “textual mediation of village need” (p. 202) among government officials and nongovernmental organizations. The chapter outlines the formal organization of local village governance in Kyrgyzstan and provides ethnographic illustration of the disjuncture between discourse and reality in overcoming structural poverty. Among the interview materials included in the analysis, this chapter provides a particularly insightful portrait of the challenges faced by the village social worker, whose role entails navigating a complex documentary and institutional landscape in order to coordinate families’ lived experience of need with the institutional requirements for the distribution of humanitarian aid. What occurs in such encounters is a process of elision and erasure, as “both the social worker and aid recipient, regardless of what they understand about the local situation, come to talk about and understand village poverty and need according to terms given by the discourse of ‘humanitarian aid’” (p. 205).

Overall, the story that emerges from Dergousoff’s dissertation is one that resonates with much recent critique of the ways that practices of bureaucratic inscription reproduce structural violence (for instance, Akhil Gupta, Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India, Durham: Duke University Press, 2012). What this dissertation adds to this literature, I believe, are two critical insights about the form that such processes have taken in the context of rural Central Asia. The first is the way that such dynamics, and what we might call the NGO-ization of social life in Kyrgyzstan, undermine both the capacity and the authority of the local state to seek to address questions of acute poverty and growing rural inequality. The second is the way that such processes lead to a kind of critical awareness of being “caught behind,” or not progressing “well enough” in the temporal logics of developmentalist modernity. One of the most poignant comments in the dissertation comes from a WESA activist, a Soviet-trained agronomist, who expressed her exasperation with the entrepreneurs with whom she worked, who had little knowledge of business planning or the calculation of profit. Her comment was simply: “Kyrgyz people cannot count—no matter what you teach them they themselves do not count, thus bankruptcy again and again” (p. 145). Logics of future-oriented transformation premised upon individual self-refashioning, in other words, end up reproducing an awareness of one’s own marginality and transforming a simple absence (of particular calculative skills, for instance) into an index of failure or lack. Dergousoff’s poignant and accessibly written dissertation, which situates these processes in the context of Kyrgyzstan’s post-Soviet experiments in neoliberal transformation, will be a valuable—if sobering—reading for scholars of international development and practitioners alike.

Madeleine Reeves
Lecturer in Social Anthropology
Social Anthropology, School of Social Sciences
University of Manchester

Primary sources
One year of ethnographic fieldwork in Bishkek, Naryn city, and Jerge-Tal village, Kyrgyzstan.
Ethnographic interviews and official documents of the Women Entrepreneurs Support Association (WESA).

Dissertation information
Simon Fraser University. 2014. 260 pp. Primary advisor: Ann Travers.

Image: Osh Bazaar in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. From WikiCommons.

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