The Politics of Customary Law. Courts of Elders (Aqsaqal Courts) in Kyrgyzstan, 2006-2009 (Judith Beyer)

Funded by the VolkswagenFoundation and the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology.

Village entry shield in Kyrgyzstan

The project investigated how ordinary people in Kyrgyzstan make use of law in the context of their everyday life. Based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork, this book demonstrates how actors switch legal repertoires in concrete social situations, invoking customary law, state law and Islamic law in order to state their case or lend their arguments authority. While legal texts are seldom consulted in the case of village conflicts, importance is being credited to skillful invocations of “the law”. Legal repertoires are hierarchically ordered in Kyrgyzstan with custom (Kyrgyz salt) being presented as the most dominant force in the village context. What counts as “custom”, however, is not age-old tradition or orally transmitted legal knowledge. Beyer argues that her informants constantly reinterpret the concept of custom in order to cope with more large-scale political, economical and social change they have been confronted with. This rhetorical coping-strategy has not begun only when they became citizens of a newly independent state in the 1990s, but consisted way earlier during pre-Soviet and Soviet times. In her book, Beyer thus not only presents fresh legal anthropological insights on “custom” as an established legal anthropological concept but also critically reflects on the common usage of the label “post-socialist” under which all Central Asian societies have been subsumed so far. Her focus lies neither on the abrupt changes that set in when the Soviet Empire collapsed, nor on the social continuities that survived. Instead, she emphasizes peoples’ creative ways of dealing with change and continuity by invoking custom as a powerful agent. A significant enrichment to Central Asian and post-Soviet studies, this book also makes a sound theoretical contribution to debates in political and legal anthropology.

Sveral older and mid-aged men and one woman sitting around a table signing papers in Kyrgyzstan.

The project culminated in the following publications:

- a PhD Dissertation (Judith Beyer. 2009. According to salt. An ethnography of customary law in Kyrgyzstan), defended in December 2009 at the Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg.
- a photoethnography on Northwestern Kyrgyzstan (Judith Beyer and Roman Knee. 2007. Kyrgyzstan. A photoethnography of Talas. Munich: Hirmer).
- a book on the life history of a Kyrgyz key informant (Judith Beyer and Zemfira Inogamova. 2010. Baiyz Apa Zhashoo Tarzhymaly. Bishkek: Gulchynar).
- an anthropological monograph, based on a decade of fieldwork and scholarly engagement with Kyrgyzstan (Judith Beyer. 2016. The force of custom. Law and the ordering of everyday life in Kyrgyzstan. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press)
- several research articles in peer reviewed journals and edited volumes