Bernd Steimann: Making a Living in Uncertainty. Agro-Pastoral Livelihoods and Institutional Transformations in Post-Socialist Rural Kyrgyzstan. Zurich 2011. 245 pp.
To come straight to the point, the presented study fulfills Bernd Steimann goals in every respect. He manages to clearly shed light on "the existence and emergence of socioeconomic disparities" (pp. xiii) of rural households in post-socialist Kyrgyzstan; to present the characteristic frame conditions of the transition period and, finally, to elucidate the interrelations between these two by examining former and current livelihood strategies practiced in two rural settlements. For this reason, the book is a valuable contribution to empirically informed geographical development studies. Additionally, it offers a wealth of suggestions for the design and implementation of future surveys.
At the beginning, the author develops his basic understanding of the processes and the institutional framework of the post-socialist society through a critical discussion of the simplistic and normative understanding of transformation as an inevitable transition process of former socialist societies. Following this understanding of transformation, these societies were characterized by a command economy and an authoritarian political system, and are seen as moving towards a democratic and constitutional market economy. By promoting the Washington Consensus policy prescriptions, this paradigm was propagated by several important donor agencies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and applied in many post-Soviet states in the 1990s. Utilizing the example of Kyrgyzstan, Steimann works out that contrary to the promises, social participation, wealth through economic prosperity and legal certainty could not be claimed by the entire population. Rather, the transition has been characterized by a multitude of differentiated processes that generated highly unequal outcomes. He thus shows that a normative definition of transformation predating the course of the processes is not helpful. By following his critical way of thinking, the author advocates considering relevant historical preconditions and specific spatiotemporal contexts for the analysis of social transformation processes, and recognizing the open-ended nature of these developments. As a consequence, he invokes the concepts of path dependency, hybridity, bricolage and uncertainty, and incorporates them into his interpretation of the collected data. Steimann places his study within the livelihood research school and calls it, in reference to de Haan and Zoomers (2005), an "optimistic" (pp. 34) analysis of the people's dealing with the challenges of the post-socialist period. In this sense, the actors were identified by Steimann not in a fatalistic way as passive people exposed to the structural frame conditions. Following Anthony Giddens (1997), Steimann sees them rather as active human agents who are able to deploy and to influence the preexisting circumstances within their means, that is to say, to structure them.
The strength of the investigation lies in the fact that the author addresses his theoretically informed statements with his empirically gathered micro-level data from individual households that was gathered using quantitative and qualitative research methods. So, he is able to draw a highly differentiated picture of the livelihoods practiced by Kyrgyzstan's rural population. By using different stylistic devices, like digressions arranged in text boxes, portraits of respondents and incisive quotations, he provides systematic and differentiated, as well as living and ostensive representations of the varied agro-pastoral livelihood strategies of the inhabitants of Jergetal and Kyzyl-Tuu - the settlements chosen for the study. The sections on pasture use are complemented with separate maps. Consulting these maps in parallel with reading the text contributes to a deeper understanding of the manifold utilization practices and the pasture-related social relations in the study area. The author's consistent consideration of the overriding institutions and the structural framework contributes to understanding the specific findings generated for the selected settlements, and also helps to establish an understanding of the situation in the country as a whole, where the people are living mainly in rural areas.
There are, however, a few small complaints to be stated. The argumentation looks a little bit redundant in places, due to the repeated mention of already known positions. The concept of transhumance originally described specific pastoral methods in the Mediterranean mountains. Hence, the application of this term in the Central Asian context seems rather inappropriate. It would be helpful if he had provided further details, such the paragraph or article numbers he is referencing for the codified regulations he writes about, in a similar manner to his other references. Thus it is laborious, for example to trace back the descriptions of the judicial adjustment of pastureland relations, in particular the legal pasture categories, the definition of administrative competences or the process of the calculation of pasture areas a user is entitled to on the suitable passages of the legal norms. Maps of the arable lands, for their legibility and for ease of reference, could also have been attached as loose supplements. Lastly, in consideration of the complexity and density of the work a keyword index would have been helpful.
Nevertheless, in view of the high quality of the findings and their stringent presentation these complaints grow pale. Additionally, it has to be emphasized that the author's empathy for his interlocutors as well as his reflected responsibility towards the research object is apparent from the text and the arrangement of the book. Additionally, the summary appears not only in the usual English and German, but also in Russian and Kyrgyz. This increases the practical value of the book for readers in Kyrgyzstan. By printing this book with a Kyrgyz enterprise, the author makes an economic contribution, albeit small, but it also provides a significant symbolic contribution to the country's scientific community.
The study is divided in three parts. The first part concentrates on the conceptual understanding of the post-Soviet transformation processes, the theoretical foundation of the study, as well as the reflected presentation of the methodological approach. The second part, after an introduction to the surveyed area, discusses current income generation strategies of local households, disparities within and between the two selected settlements, as well as the most remarkable diachronic changes since the Soviet time. In the third part, the author turn towards the concrete actors, organizations and institutions related to the utilization of land resources like arable land and pastures.
The book is to be recommended as an example of an exemplarily presented study, particularly for junior scientists for inspirational purposes.
de Haan, L. and Zoomers, A. (2003): Development geography at the crossroads of livelihood and globalization. In: Tijdschrift for Economische en Sociale Geografie 94 (3), 350-362.
Giddens, A. (1997): Sociology. Cambridge.