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Central Eurasian Studies in the United States

English original of the public speech printed in translation as “Amerika Birleşik Devletleri'nde Orta Avrasya Araştırmaları,” in Türkoloji ve Türk Tarihi Araştirmalari, vol. 1, Siyaset/Dil ve Edebiyat/Kültür (Ankara: Yeni Türkiye, 2002), pp. 30–32.

Eurasia is such a broad area, and the scholarly disciplines implicated in its study are very wide. I started out as a specialist in Soviet foreign policy, which at the time meant mainly Russian affairs. After the Soviet Union fell apart, I turned my attention to Kazakhstan, because it seemed like an interesting place, because nothing was known about it, and because I met some Kazakhs at Columbia University in New York and became good friends with them. Once I became interested in Kazakhstan, my attention was drawn to the geopolitics of the energy resources in the region. Then, so to speak, I fell into the Caspian Sea; and when I came up for air I found myself in Azerbaijan, still following the energy export routes.

That is how I discovered that I was interested in the Turkic world. So there is no doubt that every one of you here is greater expert on Turcology than I am. I hope therefore, that you may allow me to limit remarks to what I feel I know best: and that is "Central Eurasia," which is what the former Soviet republics are often called in the North American scholarly community, but not excluding such regions as western China and northern Afghanistan. May I begin by suggesting an historical perspective on the current sociology of knowledge.

The first wave of scholarly societies focusing on geographical regions came towards the end of the nineteenth century, for example the Royal Central Asian Society in Britain. The original impetus for this organization was the "Central Asian question," which grew out of the "Great Game." The second wave came after the beginning of the Cold War in the mid-twentieth century. In both instances, it was believed that scholarship could be strategically significant through creating knowledge about territories over which Great Powers or superpowers competed. The development of area-study societies for Latin America and the Arab world are examples of this trend. Towards the end of the Cold War, it seemed that the nineteenth-century Great Game was definitely over, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan drew new attention to the region.

Of course, outside the social sciences, which have increasingly sought over the decades to be "policy-relevant," there are and always have been scholars focusing on histories, cultures and languages of the peoples of inner Eurasia. Nevertheless, with the end of the Cold War, area studies scholarship entered a general crisis. The time necessary to develop deep expert knowledge over years of study became a luxury for most scholars, with the exception of beginning graduate students. The reduction of funds available for training and research led to arguments that raise abstract theory above fidelity to the object of research. Policy-makers want answers today, not after five or ten years of study. They are less concerned with the best answers and more concerned with satisfactory answers. As a result, a trend emerged in the academic world that explicitly sought to devalue contextual knowledge of foreign cultures, even arguing that ignorance was a virtue because it guaranteed an absence of bias in favor of the culture and the people being studied.

The North American scholarly community on Eurasian affairs has been divided because of the professional need to specialize. The region has often not been treated as an integral field of scholarship. Parts of Eurasia have been attached to other area studies domains, no matter how weak the connections or how low the priority they receive in that context. The whole northern part of Central Eurasia has been claimed by the field of "Slavic Studies" simply because this territory has been under Russian domination. Regions such as Mongolia, Tibet and Turkistan are attached to "East Asian studies," but scholars of China, Japan and Korea have little interest in them and typically ignore them. What was once a unified domain called "Soviet Studies" has fragmented into many autonomous country-specific specializations, and scholarly exchanges between, for example, specialists on Ukraine and specialists on Kazakhstan have diminished to almost nothing.

During the Cold War era, research on Central Eurasia was concentrated in a small number of institutions, such as Columbia University, Harvard University, the University of Michigan, Indiana University, the University of Washington and a few others. Their momentum spread out among smaller institutions that lacked strong area-specific programs, but happened to have the strong young scholars trained at the major institutions. The development of a community of scholarship during the Cold War era suffered greatly from the divisive impact of personality conflict among the senior scholars at the most elite institutions who competed for preeminence. This tendency fostered competition rather than community. The influence of these strong personalities has now faded, and a more broadly oriented generation is appearing on the scene. Partly because of the emphasis on personality, the once-important universities generally failed to build institutions that could genuinely sustain the research communities after the disappearance of the old generation. It turns out that this trend has created the circumstances for a healthy broadening of the field. Individual scholars have become less beholden to their own universities and institutions for the pursuit of their research, and consequently they are motivated to contribute more to building a stronger and wider scholarly community.

Nevertheless, there have been difficulties even for scholarly societies seeking to establish themselves in the new context. To take Central Asia as an example, the Central Asian Studies Society in London has for some decades produced an important journal but appears not to have a membership. Two North American societies dedicated to this region appeared in the 1980s, the Association for the Advancement of Central Asian Research and the Association for Central Asian Studies. However, they each lost momentum and appear no longer to have solid organizations, although the former still continues to produce a journal. The European Society for Central Asian Studies organizes a conference every two years but appears not to have a life beyond the conferences and the conference volumes.

In this context, all I can do is to draw your attention to a new opposing trend that seeks to create and re-create these scholarly dialogues, not only across geographic specializations but also across disciplines. In North America, the Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS) was formed only recently by younger scholars dissatisfied with the trends I have just described to you. It grew out of a series of annual workshops held at the University of Wisconsin towards the end of 1990s, and just this past autumn it held its first annual meeting. The first issue of its Central Eurasian Studies Review has just been published.

CESS defines itself as a North American organization first of all, and took the deliberate decision to focus on building its foundation there. However, it welcomes the participation of scholars throughout the world. Indeed, CESS conceives itself partly as a "cyber-society," seeking to take advantage of new forms of electronic communication through the Internet and new possibilities for networking presented by it. CESS is small by North American standards—it has only 500 members but is growing—but it does have members from over fifty countries, including all the countries of Central Eurasia. As a newly elected member of the Executive Board of CESS and chairman of its Committee on International Linkages, I can tell you that the organization is so young, that we are mostly full of ideas, and consequently there is not a great deal that I can tell you about its real activities. But I can certainly thank you for your interest and invite your cooperation, as the Society grows and matures.

[Note: Parts of this text rely heavily on John Schoeberlein, "Setting the Stakes of a New Society," Central Eurasian Studies Review, vol. 1, no. 1 (Winter 2002), pp. 4–8. Schoeberlein is the founding and current president of the Central Eurasian Studies Society.]

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