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date: 21 November 2017

Ethnicity in Turkic Central Asia

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. Please check back later for the full article.

Defining ethnic identity is a difficult task. This is true for Central Asia as for any other place in the world. The fact that, for earlier periods of history, the Central Asian records—both native ones and foreign—used a great variety of terms for human ethnicity in Turkic Central Asia populations, does not make it any easier. It is largely unclear, which of the tribal groups or early statehoods correspond to a contemporary understanding of ethnicity.

Anthropological scholarship on Central Asia has, by contrast, stressed the rather vague and floating categories that people in the region used to define themselves and others. According to this view, the creation of ethnic groups was largely a product of more or less artificial engineering during Soviet times. Before that, local communities and extended kin groups, regularly reshuffled and redefined in history, were of much greater importance for people’s identification and alliances than language or assumed genetic ties.

While there is some truth in that, the picture is more complex. In particular, among the Turkic-speaking groups in the region, a steady process of consolidation set in following the decline of the Mongol Empire, resulting in the emergence of the contemporary ethnic groups out of earlier configurations. The underlying concepts of attachment and self-understanding vary, however, and can be distinguished in two different modes, roughly corresponding to the nomadic-sedentary divide. While among the former, the idea of patrilineal descent, or a genealogical model, is at the bottom of internal divisions as well as external demarcation, in the oases the prime criterion is proximity and shared culture, or a territorial model of ethnic identity.

Processes of ethnic demarcation were, indeed, greatly accelerated during the Soviet period and its aftermath. Today, we observe a hasty search across the region, for national identities, that, while following lines of Soviet ethnicity concepts, fundamentally changed their understanding as well as their inter-ethnic and majority-minority relations. This is still a very open and dynamic process leading to new (inter-)ethnic constellations and political power relations.