Photograph by author.

Place & Well-Being in Central Asia


A review of Moral Geographies in Kyrgyzstan: How Pastures, Dams and Holy Sites Matter in Striving for a Good Life, by Jeanne Féaux de la Croix.

In her dissertation, Jeanne Féaux de la Croix explores the significance of place and time for well-being in Kyrgyzstan. Based on extensive anthropological fieldwork in the Toktogul valley, Féaux provides a detailed ethnography of historical and contemporary physical and social landscapes. Presented in nine chapters and three different sections, these landscapes most prominently include mountain pastures, holy sites, and dams, but also touch upon genealogies, Soviet collectivisation, post-Soviet privatisation, as well as songs, poetry, and celebrations.

In the introduction, Féaux situates her study in the anthropology of place by reference to Arjun Appadurai, Tim Ingold, Doreen Massey, Bruno Latour, and Anna Tsing. In this regard, Féaux’s central objective revolves around the question of how these approaches allow us to make sense of Kyrgyz mountain pastures (jailoos), dams, and holy sites (mazars), and of where “people’s relations with these places [can] feed back into theory” (p. 23). In order to point to the interconnectedness of landscapes and practices concerning personhood and “a good life,” Féaux proposes the use of the term “moral geographies” (p. 31). To link landscapes and morality by employing this term, Féaux argues, helps one to make sense of everyday comments in the Toktogul valley such as “‘only good women go to the jailoo’” (p. 32), as well as of the strong feelings evoked by holy sites and dams.

Photograph by author.
Photograph by author.

In section I of the dissertation, Féaux introduces mountain pastures (chapter 2), the Toktogul dam (chapter 3), and holy sites (chapter 4) in detail. Each of the chapters deals with the different ways of knowing these places, with their connection to a “good life” and with their potential impact on people’s interactions and thoughts. With regard to mountain pastures, Féaux shows that they are locally perceived as “a source of wealth and health” (p. 71) and generally attributed to jakshylyk, the Kyrgyz term for well-being. Similar to mountain pastures, Féaux argues, hydro-electric dams also have a powerful effect on people’s minds. But while jailoos “derive their meaning primarily from being lived” (p. 94), the dams’ importance results from absence which is reflected in inaccessibility and control by few, the disappearance of land, and the remembrance of people’s displacement. Focusing on holy sites in the last chapter of section I, Féaux argues that mazars are places which too have a strong impact on people’s lives. While mountain pastures are mainly perceived as a good environment from a (secular) scientist point of view, the role of holy sites as acting places is interwoven with contemporary discourses on religion in Kyrgyzstan. Linked to terms such as “purity” (tazalyk) and “Kyrgyzness” (kyrgyzchylyk), mazars are central but also disputed elements in the pursuit of a “good life”.


Photograph by author.
Photograph by author.

In section II, Féaux adds the dimension of time to people’s notion of place. After focusing on continuity between past and present, and the role of kinship and descent (chapter 5), she then turns to the commemoration of change from collectivisation to privatisation after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 (chapter 6). In doing so, Féaux shows how her interlocutors connect their own biographies to larger frameworks which include genealogies and particular visions of development, such as the idea of becoming cultured (p. 166). In addition, she also points to the meaning of the Soviet past and the role of nostalgia in its commemoration (p. 149). In reference to this, Féaux concludes that “nostalgia is a common human mood,” however one that has become “strong” in public discourse in the post-Soviet region (p. 183). In this context, she convincingly demonstrates that “the landscape telling of Soviet ruin” (p. 186) is not just one thing, but is explained and timed through a broad range of stories.

Section III of Féaux’s dissertation deals with working (chapter 7) and enjoyment through poetry, songs, and celebrations (chapter 8). Féaux analyses these different activities as contributing to a good life. In regard to work, she applies a broad definition of the term in order to be able to ethnographically explore its use in Kyrgyz contexts (p. 190). As a result, Féaux argues that “[d]ifferent kinds of work have different effects on the scale of kul’tura [civilisation] or according to alternative frames of being a good person” (p. 221). As a last step in her exploration of moral geographies, she then focuses on activities which result from work and which are conceptually closely intertwined with it. Forms of enjoyment, such as hosting guests and going on picnics, are a means to celebrate places, and they are often enriched by music and poetry addressing “questions of beauty and creativity” (p. 256). Natural beauty features prominently in the songs and poetry which Féaux’s interlocutors enjoyed and she argues that they are ideals which often connect human emotions, language, and land.

In the conclusion, Féaux reconnects her ethnography to the theoretical framework presented in the introduction by reference to Tim Ingold, Bruno Latour, Doreen Massey, and Anna Tsing. She shows that places are processes, but that their definition as “nothing but a social construct [is] insufficient” (p. 267). In this regard, Féaux argues that materiality is an aspect of place which can make a difference. The state’s ownership of a dam, for instance, is quite different from the state’s ownership of mountain pastures. Féaux furthermore challenges notions of homogeneity of place which can be observed in ethnographies that put specific “ways of interacting with land” (p. 267) (e.g. “Mongolian”) in the forefront. Thus, the recognition that places like mountain pastures do not simply have economic dimensions but also a broader cultural significance is not only of great importance to scholars but also to policy-makers and development planners.

Till Mostowlansky
Central Asian Studies
University of Bern

Primary Sources

Participant observation in Kyrgyzstan
Qualitative interviews in Kyrgyzstan

Dissertation Information

University of St. Andrews, UK. 2011. 296 pp. Primary Advisors: Stephanie Bunn and Roy Dilley.

Image: Photographs by author.

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