Research projects of MA students

 Meiirzhan Baitas, Kazakhstan


Social Identity and Class-forming Practices of Small-Scale Traders in Kazakhstan

Graduated with Honors from Nazarbayev University in 2017 (MA in Eurasian Studies); Zakharova Prize for the best Eurasian Studies MA thesis in the Social Sciences.

This project will focus on the emergence of a distinct social identity among small-scale traders, or torgovtsy. In Soviet context, there was only very limited social discourse that would define and shape the formation of a social class consciousness, and trading activity in both official and popular discourses was often assigned a negative social and moral value. In the years since, the phenomenon of informal trade has exploded, and a variety of kinds of engagement have now become relatively stable phenomena. The question then is whether it is possible to identify torgovtsy as having unique characteristics that distinguish them from other social classes. Where do they fit in the system of social stratification? One key issue is that torgovtsy might have distinctive characteristics, such as the condition of being insecure in a sense that there are nearly no guarantees of having constant job position or stable source of obtaining goods that are further resold by torgovtsy themselves, which is similar to Standings’ idea of Precariat that lacks of job security. This project will further focus on this group’s informal work practices — i.e., the way torgovtsy arrange and organize their businesses, the role of networking in their activities, and how they engage in actual selling and buying of goods. Can we identify particular coping strategies and tacit skills that they develop to deal with their work, such as having knowledge of favorable places for obtaining and reselling their good, and methods of filling the time gaps in their work practices? Data will be gathered along two complementary tracks: participant-observation and follow up interviews. Participant observation will aid in identifying particular work practices and activities that torgovtsy treat as important. Interviews, on the other hand, will help in gaining torgovtsy perspective on their activities, and the way torgovtsy self-identify.

Official first supervisor: John Schoeberlein

Arman Mussin, Kazakhstan

Mussin, Arman

Cross-Border Networks in Informal Cooperation in the Border Region of Kazakhstan and Russian Federation

Graduated from Nazarbayev University in 2017.

This study focuses on issues of informal trade across the border between Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation. There are several factors from circumstances of the population for whom this choice is the most viable available source of livelihood to the occurrence of types of goods that tend to be traded informally, to institutional conditions – constraining or fostering informal trade. I argue that strict labor market, low institutional quality, taxation system, various excessive financial regulations are major determinants of the development of informal cooperation between two states. In addition, the high level of informal trade impacts the economic issues such as self-employment and circulation of currency outside the monetary policy. Observation of informal cooperation patterns that emerge on northern border of Kazakhstan and southern border of Russia helps to explore the capability of informal system. It is about how the interacting system responds to changes, including changing market conditions and regulatory regimes, especially today, when there are the adverse social, economic, and even political outcomes of current economic recession. This study can be significant to regional governments that need to know to what extent the informal cooperation can influence formal economic and political systems. The focus here is not on trade in particular commodities, but on the practices and interacting institutions of trade. Generally, the two states face different affects from domestic regulations within the formal and informal trade development, although both countries recently joined the Eurasian Economic Union trading within the same formal regulations. Therefore cross-border networking between Kazakhstan and Russian Federation is particularly important in the region of Central Asia. Moreover, Kazakhstan, being the dominant nation of this region, is the country that links other Central Asian countries with the biggest import supplier in the region – Russia. Thus, paper also explains why governments intentionally allow traders to involve in informal cooperation and how it is beneficial for states to sustain such political and economic mechanisms to cope with current economic recession. So, there is a balance between formal policy and informal cooperation that is beneficial for both parties. This study is based on an on-the-ground investigation of formal and informal cross-border trade, including interviews with representatives of companies, civil servants of this field (officials), and other interest groups.

Official first supervisor: John Schoeberlein

Aigerim Sarsenbayeva, Kazakhstan

Sarsenbayeva, Aigerim

Informal Export Trade in a Multi-million Dollar Medicinal Herb in Kazakhan

Graduated from Nazarbayev University in 2017.

This project examines the informal trade in medicinal herbs harvested in Kazakhstan. In particular, it looks at Cistanche deserticola, which much in demand in China, and increasingly, globally for use in herbal-based remedies and tonics for a wider range of health issues. Because the plant is officially listed as endangered and is included in lists of plants that may not be exported in raw form, this creates an illegal trade worth multi-millions of dollars annually. This project will look at the economics of informal trade in conditions very conducive to such trade. For practical and ethical reasons, the project will not investigate the illegal aspects of this trade, which include illicit transport across borders, falsification of the composition of transported materials and associated corrupt activities of both traders and officials. Instead, it will focus on the part of this informal trade that is not illegal. The harvesting of the plant is not legally restricted, nor is trade within the country and even export of processed material; only export of the raw material is restricted. Very little of what is harvested, meanwhile, is processed within the country, though this could lead to legal export. Thus, it is evident that for producers and traders, dealing on the informal market oriented toward raw-material export is more efficient and profitable. While trade by primary producers and trade on the domestic portion of the trade networks involved is not illegal, the fact that the material is traded onwards for export drives this as an informal market.

The project will look at the parameters of this informal market activity — how production is carried out and the material is traded in an informal trade system that exists in parallel with entirely legal though also partially informal forms of trade in harvested wild plants, but in this case, the informality is driven in part by the conditions of trade that is destined to cross the border illegally. Given the tremendous demand, and the degree to which this is a lucrative trade, it would seem to be possible to promote more processing of the product within Kazakhstan in order to allow for legal export, but the conditions of the informal trade evidently make this likely to occur. The project will explore these conditions which give form to this trade activity through fieldwork in the contexts of both extraction and primary trade of the plant materials.

Official first supervisor: John Schoeberlein

Gulinza Taalaibekova, Kyrgyzstan


Graduated from Eberhard Karls University, Tübingen in 2017.

Gulinza Taalaibekova has written her BA thesis on Kyrgyz labor migrants, which links her to the subproject of Yulia Antonyan. She will be enrolled in the master program of the Department for Social and Cultural Anthropology in Tübingen and supervised by Susanne Fehlings. She is planning a master thesis on how political alliances/politics of the state affect local markets in Central Asia and/or the Caucasus. She will start her research at Dordoi market in Bishkek, sharing her research site with Hasan Karrar. Dordoi faced a sharp decline in trade while Kyrgyzstan had been preparing to enter the Eurasian Economic Union. Gulniza Taalaibekova will look into what changes have occurred within last 2-3 years at Dordoi, and see if the predictions/hysteria that Dordoi will collapse are well-grounded and how traders at Dordoi as well as Dordoi association perceives its future in the country and in Central Asia.

Official first supervisor: Susanne Fehlings (Co-supervisor: Hasan Karrar, Yulia Antonian)