Social and Cultural Anthropology

The “Social Life” of a River: environmental histories, social worlds and conflict resolution along the Naryn-Syr Darya

Funded by the Volkswagen Foundation

Project Summary: This three-year long research project involving anthropologists, political scientists an historians from Central Asian states under the lead of Dr. Jeanne Feaux de la Croix will produce a social and environmental history of the Naryn and Syr Darya river - the longest river in Central Asia, and second-largest feeder of the now divided Aral Sea. Its water allocation has been a central source of conflict between upriver and downriver republics in the independence era due to opposing interests in hydropower and irrigation. Part of unlocking the impasse over regional water management in Central Asia must be a re-appreciation of the Syr Darya as an object of enquiry, interaction and management.

Click on the map to get the details for each project.

Cooperation with other projects (overview):

The Team: The team comprises the leader, two postdoctoral fellows and two doctoral students each investigating an aspect of the social worlds around the great river. Our team will work with archival documents, oral histories, ethnographic fieldwork and visual materials to document a multi-faceted history of how humans have viewed, understood and engaged with the Naryn-Syr Darya up to the present.

Dr. Jeanne Féaux de la Croix (project leader) will conduct an ethnographic study of the effect of 21st century hydropower projects on the upper Naryn in Kyrgyzstan.

Dr. Adham Ashirov (postdoctoral fellow) will investigate relations with the Syr Darya in two farming communities in the Ferghana valley, covering both micro-management practices as well as artistic and cultural forms of interaction with the river.

Dr. Mokhira Suyarkulova (postdoctoral fellow) will research how knowledge about the Naryn-Syr Darya is produced by global, regional and national water experts, and how these discourses affect relations with the river in the Tajikistani city of Khojand.

Gulzat Baialieva, M.A. (doctoral student) will use ethnographic and historical methods to uncover the memories of establishing hydropower and attendant industries on the lower Naryn in the Soviet era, and their post-industrial afterlife.

Aibek Samakov, M.A. (doctoral student) is conducting a a twelve month ethnographic study in the Syr Darya delta and Northern Aral Sea, Kazakhstan. He focuses on common-pool resources such as fishing and reed beds on the river.

Building Partnerships and Sharing Knowledge
Rooted in the social sciences, this project seeks a sustained conversation with the water-related applied and natural sciences in Central Asia and beyond. We will collaborate with select partners in the region to boost research and teaching on political ecology, environmental anthropology and history. We will host two international workshops in Central Asia, as well as offering curriculum components and advice to local universities. The research findings will be widely shared through a range of publications targeting various audiences. Part of this effort in widely presenting research results will be a ‘Syr Darya Knowledge Hub’ (multimedia website and database) and associated exhibition that will travel along the river.

Online Vernissage: Social Life of the Naryn-Syr Darya Rivers

13:00 CEST, 11th June 2021 (RSVP)

We are very excited about the launch of ‘The Social Life of the Naryn-Syr Darya River’, a virtual exhibition in six languages. We cordially invite you to our vernissage on Zoom, 13:00 CEST, 11th June 2021

Zoom Meeting:
Meeting ID: 957 6800 5926
Meeting language: Russian with simultaneous interpretation in English

This virtual exhibition draws attention to the key role of these rivers as sources of drinking water, hydropower, and irrigation water in Central Asia. A playful exploration of the ‘social life’ of these rivers aims to inform and stimulate public debate about the state of these vital water-ways. We tell three key river stories: how humans experience the Naryn and Syr Darya, how non-human beings interact with these rivers, and what kind of alternative river lives we can imagine. From glacier sources to the river delta, these stories connect five research locations in four countries. Funded by the Volkswagen Foundation and Open Society Foundation, this exhibition is rooted in five years of ethnographic research by a German-Kyrgyz-Uzbek team.

The opening event is conceived as a guided tour of the exhibition with river researchers, artists, musicians, and riverbank residents. The meeting will first receive a blessing from riparian community leaders, which is a tradition shared by all communities living along the Naryn and Syr Darya. Local scholars such as Dr. Adham Ashirov and artists such as Cholpon Alamanova who contributed to the exhibition will also share their experiences.
Please join us in celebrating the diversity of fishing, farming, and urban communities along three thousand kilometres. Let us find new ways to reach out to each other and envision more equitable and imaginative solutions to key issues of water supply and quality in Central Asia. We look forward to exploring real and possible river lives with you online! Feel free to distribute this invitation among your networks.
Please RSVP to aisamakovspam

Exhibition curatorial team
Gulzat Baialieva
Aibek Samakov
Jeanne Féaux de la Croix

Overview Open Discussion Events 2018-2021

Junior Research Group Environment and Society in Central Asia


March - April 2021 ASA2021 #Responsibility


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