According to salt. An ethnography of customary law in Talas, Kyrgyzstan (Completed Project)
Over the course of five years (2005–2009) this project investigated emic notions and observable practices of the Kyrgyz concept of salt (customary law) and analyzed these from a legal anthropological perspective. The guiding question of the project was “How do the inhabitants of two villages in the northwestern province of Talas order their relations with one another ‘according to salt’?” Peoples’ invocations of and interactions according to salt draw on shared knowledge and embodied practices and help people achieve a sense of normativity, continuity, and orderliness in their lives and their relations to one another. Salt is a legal repertoire which has normative and cognitive elements and which exists alongside other legal repertoires. In comparison to state law and Islamic law, however, salt is perceived of as dominant by people in Talas as it is inherently connected to everyday interactions and performed in utterly mundane as well as highly ritualistic ways. Thus, a no less important question of this project was “How is the perception of salt as dominant achieved and maintained?”
This voiced dominance of salt required reflections on terminology and methodology: I argue that salt is usefully conceptualized as “customary law” because of its capacity to ‘customize’, that is, to gradually integrate elements of non-customary (legal) repertoires and so to sustain itself. The term takes into account that all the while people are invoking salt’s purported stability they are in fact dynamically adjusting its principles and rules. I refer to this process as “customization” and view this phenomenon as a reflexive cultural technique people have known and applied for a long time, leaving scholars and policy makers confounded when trying to get a grip on what seemed to be chaotic modes of livelihood. This hierarchically ordered legal plurality is methodologically addressed by interpreting ethnographic data, which were gathered between 2005 and 2010 from an interactionalist point of view. In doing so, this project not only presents new ethnographic material on rural everyday life in Kyrgyzstan as well as people’s perceptions on issues such as law, history, socialization, authority, ritual, religion, politics and economy, but also challenges contemporary writings on the so-called post-socialist societies, among which Kyrgyzstan is usually counted.
The project resulted in several publications, among these three monographs: a Ph.D-dissertation which was successfully submitted and defended in December 2009 at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (author: Judith Beyer); a photoethnography portraying rural everyday life in Talas, published in German and English language in 2007 with Hirmer Verlag (authors: Judith Beyer and Roman Knee) and a life history of a Kyrgyz key informant, published in Kyrgyz language in 2010 (authors: Judith Beyer and Zemfira Inogamova).
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Department Law & Anthropology