Domesticating Youth: Youth Bulges and their Socio-Political Implications in Tajikistan

In her insightful study of youth in Tajikistan, Sophie Roche investigates the relation between demography and political mobilization.  She wishes to understand whether so-called youth bulges, or the presence in the population of a high proportion of young people vis-à-vis adults, equals a higher risk of social unrest.  Her ethnography is a timely response to those theorists who claim that large youthful populations, and especially young men competing for scarce resources and status, put a country at greater risk for criminal and political violence. These theories have been used to explain the Arab spring, and youth-led uprisings have been viewed as countries’ supposed failure to domesticate (control, integrate) young men.

For Roche, the problem with this body of work is that it often assumes that young men are naturally (psychologically) prone to violence, and that therefore, their demographically significant presence automatically translates into social unrest.  How can scholars reconcile this view of youth as a natural, universal, and decontextualized category with the increasing tendency in scholarship to focus on the constructed nature of youth (here I am thinking of Ariès’s Centuries of Childhood, Durham’s view of youth as a “shifter,” and Honwana’s  analysis of “waithood”)? A “demographically minded anthropologist” (p. x), Roche succeeds in bringing these two seemingly incompatible strands of scholarship into conversation with one another.

She does so by examining the connection between demography and youth political mobilization in a way that both re-contextualizes youth (socially, politically, and above all, culturally) and deals centrally with the malleability of the youth concept.  What she proposes is that scholars distinguish between youth as a category (typically constructed by a state or other form of authority) and youth as a social group (that is, a group comprised of actual relationships and social bonds).  The author states that “categories do not act” (p. 220) and that mobilization depends, rather, on successful group formation.  In her view, mobilization is likely to arise when a segment of the young population comes to think of themselves as a “vanguard group” (p. 20), that is, a small group that stands for (and is ready to fight in the name of) youth in its totality.

Roche seeks to explain both the conditions of possibility and the constraints on the emergence of vanguard groups.  To do so, she offers an historically informed demographic and ethnographic analysis of Tajikistan, focusing on four urban and rural sites.  Roche claims that Soviet-style paternalism can be evidenced in the post-Soviet state’s attempts at managing its politically and economically excluded youth bulge.  This is done through domestication, which the author defines as “the way authority [‘social seniors’] views and deals with youth [‘social juniors’]” (p. 18).  The government thus presents itself as both educator and civilizing force, wielding power through schools, military service, or police discipline and punishment.

The societal institution of kinship also functions as a domesticating force, and the author offers rich details on its dynamics in Chapters 3 (on sibling and parent-child hierarchies) and 5 (on marriage practices). The author convincingly demonstrates young people’s negotiation of this particular form of domestication, and the ways in which changing local and global conditions can redefine concepts of youth and maturity to young people’s advantage.

For example, Chapter 2 examines how the young men (officially from 17 years old, but some as young as 14) who took part in Tajikistan’s civil war (1992-1997) as combatants were able to enjoy rights and respect that they might otherwise have gained only in advanced adulthood.  Their participation in the violence also empowered them to marry early and freely choose their partner, thus doing away with the usual restrictions of birth order and parental approval.  Roche states that by redefining the very concept of maturity, the conflict allowed young people to act as agents and evade kin-based domestication efforts.

Chapter 4 introduces new youth realities that work against domestication. Faced with high unemployment at home, an important proportion of young Tajik men have taken to working in Russia, and many continuously circulate between the two countries.  Roche shows how migration results in a visible “indentation” (p. 157) within the country’s youth bulge, and suggests that this mobile segment of young men could eventually form a political group with the capacity to mobilize against the government.  So far, widespread migration has resulted in local re-conceptualizations of youth, based on the view that young men who travel mature faster.  What is more, the money that migrants bring back home at times reverses the relation of dependency between youth and their kin, thus also increasing young men’s status within the community.

In addition, Roche shows that religious ideologies can also provide paths to emancipation. For example, the new Islam preaches that a young man should be submissive only to God and should assume social responsibility for himself.  Global Islam’s notion of a brotherhood that transcends kinship, combined with its framing of youths as “vanguards of a future Muslim nation” (p. 145) may eventually succeed in mobilizing Tajik youth for mass action.  While the author addresses the ways in which reconfigurations of youth could lead to a greater potential for political mobilization, it would have been interesting to see whether these new conceptions could also minimize the chances of political upheaval by empowering individual youth and thus making their predicament more bearable.

“It is through challenging and negotiating categories by concrete youth groups that youth bulges become successfully mobilized” (p. 225), claims Roche.  She adds that Tajikistan has seen only sporadic political mobilization, and that the country’s small youth groups have yet to adopt vanguard identities of the kind that recently emerged in countries of the Middle East and North Africa.  Overall, this is a valuable study that will be of interest to scholars and students working on youth, conflict, and social movements in post-Soviet countries and beyond.  One of the strengths of the book is its attention to the critical connection between participation in social movements and power relations within the family, and thus it will also appeal to scholars interested in the relation of kinship structures to politics more broadly.

Anna Fournier, University of Manitoba

Roche, Sophie. Domesticating Youth: Youth Bulges and their Socio-Political Implications in Tajikistan. Berghahn Books, 2014. Read more at Berghahn Books.

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