Border Work: Spatial Lives of the State in Rural Central Asia


At the lived edges of political maps, who has the right to impersonate the state, uphold its law and represent its authority? When an eighteen-year old in an army uniform is manning the border, under what conditions is he vested with state authority and when is he mocked and ignored? How do borders erupt and disappear? How do people live with and benefit from borders’ arbitrariness? It was not long ago that questions about statecraft and bordering began motivating anthropologists to interrogate the solidity of the state and render its practices and effects accessible to ethnographic inquiry. In this new book, Madeleine Reeves explores the complex social landscape at the merger of three post-Soviet states in Central Asia: Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Historically, these so-called “chessboard” borders (p. 3) have been the playground of political games which subjected them to cartographic and infrastructural interventions. While the national-territorial delimitation under the Soviet rule carved out aspirationally mono-ethnic republics in the region, contemporary global discourses describe this heterogeneous space as particularly conflict-prone (konfliktogennyi). As a result, the region has lately become the target of preventive programs of the grant-giving international community. Reeves examines the state as a claim rather than a finished project, showing the contingency of legitimate authority in the legally ambiguous and practically complicated everyday life in the border zone.

Among Reeves’ central concerns are the stakes involved in “fixing the bounds of the state” (p. 5). Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the space in this border region became increasingly appropriated as the territorial foundation of independent states. However, Reeves shows that “new manifestations of border do not simply erase older ways of apprehending and doing space,” produced by habits of trade, land irrigation, seasonal migration to pastures, visiting relatives, and burying the dead (p. 49). For the residents in the Ferghana Valley, assertions of state territoriality made by governments of neighboring countries created new kinds of encounters with state authority. Border officials instituted administrative obstacles that cut across lines of kinship, friendship, worship, and work. Doing so fostered local anxieties over the right to access land and water. Customs controls, regulations of cross-border movement and state-led infrastructure projects undermined traditional socialities, informal practices of shared resource management, and local structures of dispute resolution. New roads are now built to exclusively connect Kyrgyz towns and villages without crossing over into the territory of Uzbekistan and, unlike the older routes that winded back and forth across international boundaries, no longer create opportunities for people from different ethnic backgrounds to casually interact while sharing seats on the bus.

Borders here are characterized by eventfulness––they materialize in response to political dynamics occurring far from where they are located––and multiplicity: the border of the map, the border guard, the state official, the trader is not one and the same. Reeves explores how and when borders acquire social salience. She follows multiple trajectories that link towns and villages in the Ferghana Valley with sites across the post-Soviet space, attending to “the diverse practices––of provisioning and the cutting-off of provisioning, of incorporating and deporting, of legalizing and illegalizing––through which limits were and are produced and erased” (p. 104). Through fascinating accounts of encounters on detour roads at the states’ unmarked edges, Reeves shows how people habitually transgress borders, such as when they use informal crossing points located in homes with front and back gates facing different countries, profiting from unequal regimes of value. These violations of the law are justified by references to yntymak, the language of familial inter-dependence, but Reeves refuses to call them acts of resistance toward a sovereign state and instead interprets them as “border work, in which the territorial state is both invoked and undermined” (p. 145).

A border is both a paradigmatic state space and a site where the repeated performative reenactment of its singularity is most palpable. Writing about border guarding, Reeves examines how the impersonation of state authority works and when it fails. In her account, the state is a work-in-progress and sovereignty is “a more-or-less contested, more-or-less violent process of assertion––not an a priori fact” (p. 180). She exposes the embodied performance and contingency of state authority through a series of questions that interrogate the normative model of the state: How do certain kinds of violence come to be seen as legitimate? Why are some law-breaking activities seen as corruption and why are others locally accorded moral legitimacy? Recognizing statecraft as processual and performative leads Reeves to question the boundary between state and society and legality and illegality. Instead she focuses on when and how authoritative claims are efficacious. These arguments are not new: other anthropologists have already done important work in de-essentializing the state. Reeves builds on their insights, confidently inserting her own analytical voice in the ongoing conversations. The book’s main strength and contribution, however, lies in the author’s exceptional weaving of theory with meticulous ethnographic detail.

Despite its performative character, the state, Reeves reminds readers, should be seen “as the locus of intense emotional investment, […] as the source of legitimation, and as an object of hope” (p. 238). This point is critical in the context of current political and military conflicts between countries that were formerly part of the USSR. Reeves argues that residents of the contested borderlands of Central Asia wish to enact normative statehood with clearly demarcated boundaries. Their local concerns are being framed within official discourses of territorial sovereignty and national independence, especially during times of political upheaval. Before becoming an ethnographer, Reeves worked for the Ferghana Valley Development Program, and her extensive knowledge of the region’s complex history and reality underlies the book’s critique of conflict prevention programs in the area. The important lesson for policy-makers is that more accurate delimitation and enforcement of contested borders are counterproductive. Technical and military solutions to problems that are fundamentally political, and grounded in unequal access to resources and power, undermines routine borderland conviviality.

This book is an important analytical and ethnographic intervention in the contemporary anthropology of the state, where the analysis of the state neither presupposes functional sovereignty over a given territory nor assumes being coterminous with the domain of the licit. As such, it is an important read to anyone interested in broader processes of state governance and legal authority far beyond the valleys of Central Asia.

Ieva Jusionyte, University of Florida

Reeves, Madeleine. Border Work: Spatial Lives of the State in Rural Central Asia.  Cornell University Press, 2014. Read more at Cornell University Press.


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