20 May 2022

The Normative Implications of “Development” in Kyrgyzstan

In 2016–2018, Aikokul Arzieva conducted a multi-sited ethnography to explore how her fellow Kyrgyz people experience and make sense of “development”. When development values and norms are disseminated without proper consideration of the historical context, the diversity of cultural philosophies and the heterogeneity of people within those cultures and knowledge systems, development tends to produce tensions and conflicts, argues Dr Arzieva, who hopes her PhD thesis will invite policymakers to rethink how to engage with human lives without trapping them into predefined categories and methods.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

My interest in “development” was driven by my own sense of disorientation, moral incoherence and existential questions such as what to be and how to live in this ever-changing, uncertain world. Moreover, I grew up in a small country where people’s ways of knowing, relating and being has been shaped by competing and contested normative orientational-knowledge systems broadly framed as “Kyrgyz traditional culture”, “Islam”, “Soviet socialism” and “Western liberalism”. I was six years old when the Soviet order collapsed, but many people internalised values, beliefs, norms and aspirations through formal education, which was shaped under the ideology of “Soviet socialism”. I also experienced my grandparents’ “world”, who pursued a semi-nomadic lifestyle. They had a deep respect for and gratitude to Life. My grandparents also believed in the power of words, blessings, prayers, and Divine nature within every person. Their simple living reflected the philosophical basis of a nomadic way of life in syncretism with Islam. They did not talk and frame their views and ways of life in broad categories such as “culture”, “tradition” or “religion”. For them, their practices were simply a way of life which was relevant within their contextual reality. 

Despite the richness of various life ways and knowledge systems, I grew up when my country had to go through the fall of the “Soviet socialist” system, which organised social, economic and moral order, and thus the very meaning and purpose of life for millions of people. As a nation we lost precious people to depression and alcohol, which resulted in family violence, divorces, conflicts and suicides. These lived experiences allowed me to see that knowledge has a power to give meaning to lives, but it can also take it from them. I observed many people struggling to adapt to a new normative order broadly known as a “liberal” system. To understand my own as well as societal life within these changing landscapes, I turned to social science with sincere hope for answers. Taking into consideration that Kyrgyzstan has served as a social lab for market-driven reforms and transformations in the name of “development: our common well-being” in the last 30 years, I situated my interest within the field of “development” in anthropology.

How did you formulate your research questions and what was your methodology?

In my study I tried to understand how people living in different contextual realities make sense of “development” in their own terms. In seeking answers to my question, the scope of this research was left shapeless. Both scope and methodology have been defined and redefined by the interlocutors throughout the study. 

Considering highly different contextual realities, I conducted multi-sited ethnography for 15 months in 2016-2018. I followed people’s daily lives and talked with them about their social relations within transformations. I paid attention to the quality of their lives, their ways of knowing, relating and being. 

I believe “development”, or a certain conception of “good life” for our common wellbeing, had to come with the so-called transition to a market economy. Taking into consideration the normative and teleological nature of the concept “development”, I did not treat development as a destination to be achieved in the future, nor did I use it as a normative scheme for verifying the reality and making value judgements. I did not talk with my interlocutors about development projects per se unless the subject was brought by them. Proceeding from my own experience and from experiences of heterogeneous social agents who shared their lives with me, methodologically I treated development as a normative horizon lived here and now. I focused on how the transformations brought by a liberal market are experienced and perceived by various people in their daily lives as a process in the present. I used the new moral turn in anthropology as a theoretical framework. It allowed me to take a more inclusive approach and consider moral propositions of different sides.

As a researcher born in Kyrgyzstan, I was not isolated from the transformations and lived experiences of people which I attempted to examine. Thus, I acted as an interlocutor as well as a Kyrgyz anthropologist in this study. Mutual misunderstandings, prejudices and normative judgements were also an inescapable part of my research journey.

What are your major findings?

Treating development beyond the field of development cooperation, projects, professionals and reified power relations within a polarised view of world populations elicited new insights. Following daily lives, talking to people, attending different sociocultural events revealed that development policies favouring the “liberal market” have created conditions which brought new encounters with Islam/s, the reinvention of Kyrgyz nomadic culture/s, reinterpretations and deconstructions of the Soviet past/s. The moral philosophies of these “traditions/cultures” are known not just for being different but also for historically conflicting and competing relations aimed at orienting human lives. When analysed from the perspective of different possible sides, these orientational-knowledge systems provide not only meaning, hope and moral grounds, but also misunderstandings, tensions and conflicts within a person, families and broader interrelationships. So, I argue that the complex realities, conflicts and moral incoherence need to be seen as normative implications of “development”-driven orientational knowledges, reforms and transformations.

Do you hope to convey a message to development actors through your thesis?

I think my work is inviting scholars, policymakers and others to critically rethink how we engage with human lives without trapping them into various predefined categories and methods, so that we do not further contribute to existing tensions and conflicts.

What are you going to do in your postdoctoral life?

I just completed my research position at the Royal Academy in Bhutan. Bhutan is reforming its education system by designing culturally and contextually relevant education based on grounded and action research. The country is referring to its centuries-old wisdom to deconstruct and enrich many conceptions which orient human lives today. In doing so, I think they are trying to expand the boundaries of knowing, relating and being. As an anthropologist I found it unchaining and inspiring. In coming years, I want to continue my career in academia and join debates in the new moral turn in anthropology, which in recent years have raised many political questions on how methodologically to engage with so-called “traditional” societies experiencing transformations and interventions and thus no longer suited to our earlier assumptions and conceptions.

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Aikokul Arzieva defended her PhD thesis, “Tensions, Disorientation, and Search for Moral Grounds: Development Driven Order and Conflicting Value Systems in Kyrgyzstan”, in December 2021. The jury members were Associate Professor Graziella Moraes Dias Da Silva (chair and internal examiner), Professor Alessandro Monsutti (supervisor) and Dr Jeanne Féaux de la Croix, Junior Research Group Leader, Department for Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Tübingen, Germany (external examiner).

Access to the PhD thesis:
Members of the Geneva Graduate Institute can access the PhD thesis on this page of the Institute’s repository. Others may contact Dr Arzieva at

Citation of the PhD thesis:
Aikokul, Arzieva. “Tensions, Disorientation, and Search for Moral Grounds: Development Driven Order and Conflicting Value Systems in Kyrgyzstan.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2022.

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an illustration by Valerii_M/