• Report

Knowledge production and knowledge transfer in and on Central and Inner Asia

Report of: 


Tuesday, 5 August 2014 to Wednesday, 6 August 2014


Ulaanbaatar University Ulaanbaatar

Organized by International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden (Andrew W. Mellon Foundation); International Unit for Central and Inner Asian Studies; Ulaanbaatar University

Hosted by: Ulaanbaatar University

Convenors: Dr. Irina Morozova, Humboldt University, Berlin; Academician Jigjid Boldbaatar, Ulaanbaatar University, Ulaanbaatar; Dr. Alexander Cooley, Columbia University, New York; Dr. Willem Vogelsang, International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden.

Funded by: International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden / The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, New York;  Ulaanbaatar University

Authors of report: Irina Morozova, Alexander Cooley, Willem Vogelsang

Context of seminar:
The seminar Knowledge Production and Knowledge Transfer in and on Central and Inner Asia was organized by the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS; Leiden, The Netherlands) within the context of the IIAS programme Rethinking Asian Studies in a Global Context, which is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, New York. The seminar, actively supported by the International Unit for Central and Inner Asian Studies and hosted by Ulaanbaatar University, immediately preceded a large international congress, also in Ulaanbaatar, on Changing Patterns of Power in Historical and Modern Central and Inner Asia (7-9 August).

Objectives of the seminar:
The seminar was organized to discuss knowledge production and transfer in the field of Central and Inner Asian Studies, in a rapidly changing world of new states, new alliances, new world views and national narratives, and new modes of information collection and transfer. In keeping with the overall aforementioned Rethinking Asian Studies programme, the seminar aimed at strengthening a dialogue between American/European and Central/Inner Asian scholars. In doing so, the seminar focused on identifying the contemporary institutional obstacles and challenges posed towards a more integrated and transnational development of Central and Inner Asian Studies.

Structure of the seminar:
The seminar discussed four strongly related topics in four consecutive panels, namely:

  1. The evolution of the study of Central and Inner Asian history and society in the past and in recent years, highlighting the problems being faced in a rapidly changing world.
  2. Information collection and information accessibility for scholars worldwide in the field of Central and Inner Asian Studies (libraries, archives, digital resources, oral information).
  3. The contextual and technical problems in publishing research findings by Central and Inner Asian scholars for a global audience.
  4. The future of institutional academic research in and on Central and Inner Asia in view of recent global events and new political structures and ideological constraints (in America, Europe, including Russia, and in Central and Inner Asia).

The participants presented a 1500 word abstract before the start of the seminar, and received some 20 minutes during the seminar to elaborate upon their paper, before the floor was opened for a general discussion. 

Participants of the seminar:

  1. Dashdondog Bayarsaikhan (National University of Mongolia)
  2. Academician Jigjid Boldbaatar (Ulaanbaatar University, Mongolia).
  3. Alexander Cooley (Columbia University, New York)
  4. Timur Dadabaev (University of Tsukuba / University of Tokyo).
  5. Askar Djumashev (Karakalpak Institute of Humanities, Academy of Sciences, Uzbekistan).
  6. S. Dulam (National University of Mongolia).
  7. Svetlana Jacquesson (AUCA, Bishkek, Kyrghyzstan).
  8. Ablet Kamalov (Institute of Oriental Studies named after R.B. Suleimenov and University ‘Turan’, Almaty, Kazakhstan).
  9. Nargis Kassenova (KIMER University, Almaty, Kazakhstan). Abstract: The future of Institutional Research .
  10. Academician Nikolai Kradin (Russian Academy of Sciences, Vladivostok, Russia).
  11. Irina Morozova (International Unit for Central and Inner Asian Studies/Humboldt University, Berlin).
  12. Morris Rossabi (Columbia University New York /The City University of New York).
  13. Ainura Turgangazieva (Kyrgyz Russian Slavic University, Kyrgyzstan)
  14. Tolganai Umbetalieva (Central Asian Foundation for Promoting Democracy, Almaty, Kazakhstan).
  15. Willem Vogelsang (International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden, The Netherlands)
  16. Andrew Wachtel (AUCA, Bishkek, Kyrghyzstan).

Discussions and outcome:
The two-day seminar in Ulaanbaatar, perfectly hosted by Academician Boldbaatar and his team of Ulaanbaatar University, led to a large number of observations that were acutely summarized by Alexander Cooley at the end of the second day. One of the main points, not unexpected but unfortunately still of paramount importance in the study of Central and Inner Asia, is the fragmentation of academic research. If there is any change in this situation, it is for the worse.

A number of factors that play a major role in this development came up during the discussions time and again, in all four panels. These include the tension between ethno-nationalistic historiography on the one hand, and on the other a more objective, and international academic approach to the study of the history and modern developments in the region; the Soviet legacies and the differences in academic traditions; the problems of access in studying archival materials; the collection and interpretation of orally transmitted information; the new assumptions after the period of perestroika; the geopoliticisation of Central and Inner Asia area research and its use for intelligence and security-related purposes; the problems for Asian scholars in gaining access to international debates, to online sources and databases, and in having  their research findings published in international peer-reviewed journals and book series.

On top of these problems, the decline for the last 25 years in post-Soviet and post-socialist countries in educational standards and in previously developed academic traditions paralleled the destruction of social institutions. Secondly, Central and Inner Asian scholars find themselves in an academic environment that lacks funding for independent research.  Funds available for independent academic research in Central and Inner Asian countries are limited (or even worse: when funds are available, as in Kazakhstan, the distribution is heavily censored). There is also, in many countries, a fear of attracting foreign (Western) funds and expertise. This specific problem is exacerbated by the dwindling interest in the US and Europe in Central and Inner Asia in general, which translates itself in less funds being available for research.  In a vicious circle, promising students in Central and Inner Asia are thus discouraged from pursuing independent research, in this way in the end negatively affecting the number and quality of future researchers.

What also became clear during the discussions was the lack of cooperation and dialogue between the Asian scholars themselves. They only seem to meet at roundtables and conferences that are being organised from the outside, by mainly Western organisations. This situation strengthens the relative isolation of Asian scholars, who, as emphasised above, often have to compete with more nationalistically minded scholars, who are far more supported by politicians and the ruling establishment of their respective countries.  The initiative of the newly founded International Unit for Central and Inner Asian Studies (IUCIAS), which, together with IIAS and Ulaanbaatar University, organised an international conference immediately succeeding the seminar (7-9 August), and which has the specific aim of regularly bringing together Asian scholars in an international context and has a regional centre established in an Asian country (Mongolia), would in this respect be a step in the right direction.

Discussed at length during the seminar, on the basis of papers with sometimes very different topics, was the often rather ‘colonial’ relationship between Western researchers on the one hand, and local Asian scholars on the other. In many cases, because of their deficient academic training, lack of funding, and perhaps a lack of prestige in their own country, local scholars find themselves in the position of assistants to Western researchers, who not only have the funds, but also the academic background and training, and language skills, to ‘dictate’ the research programme and to publish their finding in international peer-reviewed journals, thus delegating the role of Asian scholars to that of informants. The reverse problem is the appropriation by some Central and Inner Asian scholars of the ‘anti-colonial’ rhetoric in order to hide their own shortcomings and the lack of results in collective projects. Soviet or Russian trained scholars often find themselves in a better position, since their academic training is in general far better than that offered to the younger generations in the Central and Inner Asian states, but they, when working in these states, are often regarded with some suspicion, not only because of their background, but also because they, and American and European scholars in general, tend to go against the ethno-nationalistic approaches that have been adapted by many of the governments in Central and Inner Asia. What is clear therefore, is that the tension between American and European research on the region and that by Asian scholars is not a clear-cut East-West  division, but far more a tension that is felt in Central and Inner Asia itself.

What to do? The difficult situation in which more internationally minded Asian scholars have to work, with lack of funding, training, and prestige, are regarded as paramount obstacles to the development of Central and Inner Asian Studies. The establishment of IUCIAS is seen as a step in the right direction, because it will help in bringing Asian scholars together to exchange their research results and in general to exchange experiences and find mutual support. Non-Asian scholars and institutions can also play a role, in making sure that their research on Central and Inner Asia is not only shared with their Asian colleagues, but that the Asian scholars are also actively included in the research, and receive the credits for their work and contribution on collaborative projects. Asian scholars should in this process be encouraged and assisted in preparing their own research findings in international, peer-reviewed journals. In this way, Central and Inner Asian Studies will become a truly global enterprise, with a large input by Asian scholars who receive due credit for their work, and may thus raise awareness among the ruling classes of their home countries, including their scholarly institutions, as to their value in international dialogue and the proper understanding of their country.

Outside assistance remains important. The dwindling interest among European and American countries towards Central and Inner Asia, which are rapidly becoming the playing field between the Russian Federation and China, is a sad, and in the end self-defeating policy. There is the geo-political issue, but also the knowledge and experience in Central and Inner Asian Studies collected in Europe and America, the wealth of archives and other research materials, constitute an enormous reservoir for further study, by both Asian and non-Asian scholars. With a decrease of European/American funds being made available, with the loss of government-funded programmes like Title VI (also for American/European scholars conducting research in their own countries), and the concurrent dwindling number of Western scholars studying the region, many of these resources will become understudied or even inaccessible.

The IIAS/Mellon seminar in Ulaanbaatar thus provided a somewhat pessimistic picture of Central and Inner Asian Studies. However, critically, the seminar moved beyond platitudes and general assumptions to pinpoint the specific problems so that future steps can be taken to remedy the situation.  Among the participants of the seminar, and among those who participated in the ensuing  international conference, there was a feeling to live up to the challenges posed. The next IIAS/Mellon seminar, which will place in Germany in the spring of 2015, will again bring together Asian and non-Asian scholars, while IUCIAS will continue its endeavours, together with IIAS and the institutional assistance by Ulaanbaatar,  to turn the first conference of August 2014 into a biennial event.

The abstracts presented and discussed at the seminar will be published in a separate focus section of the IIAS Newsletter in early 2015.