Tribalism in Kazakhstan as well as in Central Asia is a hotly debated topic. Many authors claim that tribalism is a phenomenon that belongs to Central Asian countries where economical and political hierarchy depends on belonging to the appropriate network or kin (cf. Poliakov 1992; Schatz 2004; Cummings 2005). And, indeed, there are many kinds of networks where relatives are included in business management or supporting political careers. But there are also different kinds of networks not based on kinship. Still it is very difficult to split those networks from one another. In social life sometimes it means to join a specific network and the meaning of “clan” here is more or less symbolic.

One reason for this is that kinship patterns and specifically the role of patrilineal descent in Kazakh society today is not well studied. While the existence of clans and lineages on different levels, starting with the three hordes (in Kazakh: zhüz) maybe without doubt, their practical meaning and functioning is not. In addition, other kin relationships, most importantly affinals, as well as non-kin relationships also play prominent roles in society. I intend therefore to study the relevance of patrilineal descent in contemporary society by looking at three aspects: 

  • What type of kinship model exists today? What is the understanding of different types of relationships?
  • hat is the economic and social importance of kinship in general and patrilineal descent in particular?
  • How do kinship models and identity link together? This deals with the question of unity and difference within society. Genealogies (in Kazakh: shezhire) has both aspects – it draws boundaries between groups and it unites all in one.

In my research I want to focus on south-eastern Kazakhstan as the most dynamic part of country. It also harbours Almaty city, which was the capital of Kazakhstan till 1997 and is still the largest, economically most developed, and culturally most diverse city in Kazakhstan. Located along the historical Silk Route, it is close to several Central Asian capitals, namely Bishkek and Tashkent, as well as to the Chinese border. Thus, it is also a magnet for people from other regions to come to Almaty for work. Among these are also many of the so-called oralman, Kazakhs originating from China, Mongolia and other places. In addition, sizeable numbers of Russians and Uygurs live in the Almaty region, also due to the closeness to China. Many Chechens, Turks and Kurds also moved to this region during Stalin`s repressions. There are also Karakalpaks, Karachays, Bashkirs, Turkmens, Tatars, Azeri and many others.

The region is also interesting for its internal diversity within Kazakh society. According to Vostrov and Mukanov (Vostrov, Mukanov 1968) the Kapalsky Uezd (roughly corresponding to modern Almaty province) was the meeting point of the territory of the Bigger Horde (Uli Juz) and the Middle Horde (Uli Juz), each represented by some of their major clans, like the Kangly, Jalayr or Nayman. But their were also numerous smaller clans from both living here. From their report we also know the approximate location of settlements, or patterns of pastoral mobility, during that period. And there are also members of the former elite, the tore and khoja, who are not part of the three hordes.

The main thing that changed during Soviet time in regard to Kazakh society was the turn from a nomadic type of household and kinship to a settled one. That also caused changes in social structure and interaction. Of course, it should be noted that not all Kazakhs were nomads, some part were semi-nomads and a small part were settled. While the changes may not have been immediate, in the course of time the Soviet institutional system started to function and also had an impact on the understandings of norms and values connected to kinship. 

After the collapse of Soviet Union there was obviously no chance – and no intention – to go back to a form of traditional nomadism but some aspects of the traditional system of values regained prominence. While knowledge of clan belonging and patrilineal ancestry was limited especially among the urban population, there was some revival since then. Books on all the major clans have been published. In rural areas memories of patrilineal belonging always had more of a role and are important also for organizing economic and social interaction.

Zarina Mukanova, M.A.
PhD Candidate, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Department Integration and Conflict