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Demographic Turn

Demographic Turn in the Junction of Cultures

Coordination: Sophie Roche


Leaving the hospital after birth, Tajikistan © Swetlana Torno, 2012

Similarly to Iran and the Middle East, the Muslims in Central Asia have entered the demographic transition since the 1970s with a sudden acceleration since the second half of the 1980s. Such a demographic turn is accompanied by an increase in population maintained by the young age structure of society that changes only gradually towards replacement level (Keyfitz 1971 and others). Hence these populations enter a world-wide trend that juxtaposes countries of the south to the north which trace their demographic turn as far back as the industrial revolution in England in the 18th century.

Until the socialist revolution which went along with an increased control of the Bukharan Emirate, fertility in Central Asia seems to have been rather low with high infant mortality. The population considerably increased after the establishment of the Soviet Union, influenced by the introduction of its health care system. Lublin (1991) states that throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the total population of the three Central Asian republics – Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan – grew ‘at least three times faster than they had during the previous two decades’ (p. 37). Whereas the north of the Soviet Union responded to the new political system with a radical turn in demography and a drop in fertility within one generation, the Muslim southern tier recovering from the losses of the 1930s and 40s experienced a demographic boom peaking in the early 1980s. This different response to similar demographic events and politics cannot satisfactorily be explained by ‘cultural filters’ (Jones and Grupp 1987). Beyond social reforms and changes in the politics of family, the Soviet Union has been affected by famines (in the 1930s) and costly wars (World War II and the Afghan-Soviet war). The effect of such large-scale events can be felt many generations later. However, to what degree such demographic changes also affect cultural practices and more importantly religious beliefs demands a careful investigation (project by Sophie Roche).

Since the end of the Soviet Union, Central Asia (including northern Afghanistan) has developed into a dynamic place of emigration. In fact, economic migrants, students, or refugees have turned the region into a global network of cultural entanglements. While Tajikistan only recently entered the global migration market, Afghanistan has remained the biggest source country of refugees for 32 consecutive years, accounting for one out of every four refugees world-wide (UNHCR 2012: 14). This has allowed Afghan refugees to establish dense networks stretching all over the world. In contrast, much of the labour surplus in Central Asian states migrates northwards, especially to Russia, which needs it for economic development. The Russian north is, however, no more the only place to which young Tajiks migrate. Other Muslim countries have increasingly attracted young migrants in search of work (most importantly Dubai) and education (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, the US, Europe, etc.). The impact these migrants, refugees and those remaining in Afghanistan have on family concepts and more generally on the demographic changes in the region and among migrant families are central questions that will be discussed within the research group (project by Said Reza Kazemi).

A central factor shaping demographic developments is the change in the status of women.. The Soviet Union pushed forward social reforms since the early 20th century placing women’s public status in the forefront of its reforms. This public change in women’s status and her participation in the labour market did however not affect her role within the household much, further leaving open the question of how far these policies affected marriage behaviour and fertility. Unlike other Central Asian countries, labour migration in Tajikistan is predominantly done by men, leaving back home women and children. Migrants’ long absence from home alienates them from everyday hardship and the banal of everyday at home which women take over.  Furthermore many migrants spend their lives in child-hostile conditions (construction fields, in bazaars etc.) and low fertility countries (Russia, Europe, US, Japan) with a relatively high standard of living. These factors have considerable effects on the negotiation of gender identities, more specifically on female life course and the accompanying life cycle rituals (project by Swetlana Torno). All these influences affect the way families engage in reproduction, conduct rites of passage such as marriage and birth, and shape the country’s demographic development.

Assuming that observed changes must also be measurable (at least to some degree), this project suggests approaching the question of changing family models through demography. This includes a solid comparative approach with one ethnographic census from each research location and the focus on specific historical periods that we consider key moments in the demographic history of the region.

The results of the project will soon be available here.

Jones, E. and Grupp, F. (1987). Modernization, value change and fertility in the Soviet Union. Soviet and East European Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

Keyfitz, N. (1971). On the momentum of population growth. Demography 8, 71-80.

Lublin, N. (1991). Implications of ethnic and demographic trends. In: William Fierman (ed.), Soviet Central Asia. The failed transformation. Oxford: Westview, 36-61.

UNHCR (2012). Displacement. The New 21st Century Challenge.

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