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The Family in the History of Central Asia. Understanding Cultural and Demographic Changes.

Symposium | Details | Programme |Abstracts Location


Organizers: Sophie Roche, Said Reza Kazemi, Swetlana Torno from the Junior Research Group "Demographic Turn in the Junction of Cultures"

The symposium takes place from November 26—28, 2014 at the Internationales Wissenschaftsforum Heidelberg (IWH)

Publication: The Family in Central Asia: New Perspectives

(Russian version soon to be found here)

Symposium Description

In pre-Soviet Central Asia, the main distinction in family types went along economic niches. While Turkic nomadic populations maintained large clan structures, urban centres in the Ferghana valley and the Bukharan Emirate were organized hierarchically with some families maintaining a strong sense of lineage belonging (e.g., religious families, aristocratic families, and specialized craftsman families), and especially Persian speakers derived concepts of belonging from minimal lineages but strong territorial identities. With the establishment of the Soviet Union, new theories of kinship were introduced coming from German and Russian ethnographic traditions and eventually fixed in the Leninist idea of the five-step-development model (pyatichlenka). These theories developed along with an ethnicization of the region and Soviet-Russian concepts of culture. In this concept the Russian family (small family) was seen as the higher civilizational attainment which Central Asian Muslims had not yet reached (large undivided patriarchal family). The demographic development was interpreted as a proof of this theory of cultural hierarchy. The population of Central Asia considerably increased after the establishment of the Soviet Union. 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 (the Soviet Union) 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 and from famines (1932/33) 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 & Grupp 1987) and concepts of civilization.

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, p. 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.).

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 life which women take over.  Furthermore many migrants spend their lives in child-hostile conditions (construction fields, 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. 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.

This symposium aims to bring together new research and old experiences and theories around the concept of family. On the one hand, we want to recall how Soviet scholars interpreted the changing family in Central Asia and contrast this with the history writing after the Soviet Union and new methods of GIS (the Geographic Information System) to measure population movements and changes. Ethnographic examples and micro-census approaches shall give the general picture another dimension and add a local perspective to the more general demographic data. Taking into consideration migration which is the reality for most families in Central Asia and Afghanistan today, the workshop has a strong focus on migration’s effect on family which shall be approached from two sides: on the one hand those who leave and on the other hand those who stay behind and move in-between.

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

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.



Please register with Said Reza Kazemi until November 24, at

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