This article points out that anthropological concepts such as “segmentary lineage organisation” and the contrast between tribe and state are increasingly being employed by social scientists studying Central Eurasia, with mixed results. The author provides an overview of the institutional history of social anthropology in the field of Central Asian studies, both in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, and examines the reasons for the marginality of Central Asian studies to anthropology and the underdevelopment of anthropology within Central Asian studies (language barriers for Russian academics, lack of access to field sites, absence of institutional support until the 1990s, etc.) Then the author explores the history of the anthropological concepts in question, highlighting the contributions of anthropological research on the Middle East that challenged theories of both “state” and “tribe.” However, the author cautions us about the application of insights from the Middle East to Central Eurasia based on assumptions that Muslim societies have certain fundamental similarities. Drawing on the work of Thomas Barfield, the author argues that Middle Eastern tribal organisation tends to be egalitarian and inward-focused because of close kin marriages, with no strong perennial leadership, whereas in Central Asia, tribal organisation follows a more hierarchical, Turko-Mongolian type with strong dynastic leadership and cross-clan linkages.
In the second part of the article, the author uses her own research on the Qataghan-Uzbeks of north-eastern Afghanistan to illuminate how tribe-state relationships in Central Asia exhibit a mixture of “egalitarian” and “hierarchical” segementary lineage organisation, and to point out the political importance of networks other than kin networks, such as patron-client relationships, regional and professional networks, ethnicity, political parties, and religious brotherhoods. The author highlights the importance of the term qawm, a term for a solidarity group that implies a variety of kinship and non-kinship ties and brings with it an obligation of mutual assistance. Another concept the author explores is the way that personhood is understood in relation to political agency, especially as exemplified by the batir, or hero of the oral epic. The article ends with recommendations for ways to further improve both the social anthropology of Central Asia and the study of political life in the region. Both parts of the paper contain lists of references.