Social and Cultural Anthropology

Environment and Society in Central Asia

Junior Research Group, funded by the Excellence Initiative University of Tübingen

1. Group leader: Dr. Jeanne Féaux de la Croix

2. Term: 2018 - 2020 

3. Group members: Dr. Flora Roberts, Nurzat Sultanalieva, M.A., Xeniya Prilutskaya (M.A.)

4. Research location: Central Asia


Central Asia displays a huge range of environments, from glaciated mountains and large lakes to steppes and intensely cultivated oases. This research group focuses on the recent impact of an ‘Anthropocene’ era of intensified human-generated change, starkly evident in the disappearance of the Aral Sea, but also in less visible ‘creeping catastrophes’ such as urban air pollution, growing water pressures and glacial loss. The areas that we focus on in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan experienced huge transformations during the Soviet period as new factories, mines and major dams were built, and as steppes were put under the plough for large-scale farming. Since the 1990s, the independent Central Asian republics have taken increasingly divergent political and economic paths, despite their common Soviet legacy, shared water basins and entangled energy and transport infrastructure.

Grounded in social anthropology, researchers in this team draw on environmental history and political ecology to examine how different kinds of human actors, political and economic structures have faced the elements: especially water, soils and air. We enquire how these elements have been affected by Soviet era policies such as the planting of thirsty cotton crops, discontinuities such as disintegrating irrigation networks, or new industrial and transport projects by Chinese investors. Drawing on new directions in Environmental Humanities, our team treads the boundaries of where ‘society’ and ‘environment’ begin and end, and where they cease to be distinguishable, taken-for-granted research objects.

Group leader Jeanne Féaux de la Croix is currently completing an ethnography on ‘Disappearing Dams and Emerging Glaciers: materialising hope and fear on a highland river in Kyrgyzstan’. Nurzat Sultanalieva is producing a study of everyday water uses on holy lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan (PhD project since 2014). She shares an interest in Soviet health tourism with Dr. Flora Roberts (PostDoc since 2016), who is pursuing an environmental history centred on the creation of a large dam and reservoir, dubbed the "Tajik Sea” in the 1950s. Xeniya Prilutskaya is examining health issues and protest movements around air pollution in the cities of Almaty and Bishkek (PhD project since 2017). In ‘Facing the Elements’, this research group takes common-sense elements of the environment, and traces their effect on human societies. In ‘Facing the Elements’, we bring the long-term relations and inter-dependence of humans with their environments in Central Asia into full view.


The group intersects closely with two other research groups on soil and rivers:

> Volkswagen Project "The “Social Life” of a River: environmental histories, social worlds and conflict resolution along the Naryn-Syr Darya" [link]

> Collaborative Research Center 'Threatened Orders (CRC 923): "Salinization and soil degradation as threats to the agrarian orders in Russia, Kazakhstan/Tajikistan and Australia since 1945" [link]

> Collaborative Research Centre "ResourceCultures" (SFB 1070) [link]

Overview Open Discussion Events 2018-2020

Junior Research Group Environment and Society in Central Asia


January 2020 Departmental Writing Workshop

January 2020 Rituals: Performance, Symbolic Communication or Habit?

March 2020 Attempts to define Sacredness

April 2020 From Eco-Nationalism to Eco-Racism?

April 2020 Public Emotions

May 2020 Methods Discussion around the red-letter Word ‘Bias’

May 2020 Visual Media and Affect

June 2020 Formal Debate: Post-Socialism – a useful category?

June 2020 Anthropology of Futures and Uncertainties

June 2020 Animal Agencies

October 2020 Soft Infrastructures

December 2020 Departmental Writing Workshop

December 2020 Virtual Ethnographies


February 2019 Environmental Anthropologies: Writing Workshop with Eveline Dürr

March 2019 Differentiating Toxicity and Pollution?

May 2019 Departmental Writing Workshop

October 2019 Climate Change and the Adaptation Discourse

October 2019 The Anthropology of Hydro-Sciences

November 2019 Postcolonial Takes on Environmental Philosophy

December 2019 Environmental Values


January 2018: Ethnographies of Air Pollution and “Slow Violence”

November 2018: Relating Latour’s Work to Environmental Ethnography

March 2018: Nature Writing: where from, how and what for?

May 2018: Multi-Species Anthropology

October 2018: Departmental Writing Workshop

February 2018: The Soviet Sanatoria Tradition and Post-Soviet Health Practices