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



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6 Minutes

Post by Rimple Mehta, Faculty Member of the School of Women’s Studies at Jadavpur University, India.

Review of Border Work: Spatial Lives of the State in Rural Central Asia by Madeline Reeves (Cornell University Press, 2014).

Madeline Reeves’ Border Work: Spatial Lives of the State in Rural Central Asia is an important contribution to the literature on borders and borderland cultures. It also makes an important methodological contribution and presents to the reader what Clifford Geertz refers to as ‘thick description’ of what goes into the making of a border. The most striking aspect of the book is the vivid descriptions of the complex geography in Central Asia, which is brought forth through a careful choice of words and articulated with the help of lucid semantics. Based in two regions of post-Soviet borderland at the southern rim of the Ferghana Valley in Central Asia where Krygyzstan and Uzbekistan and Krygyzstan and Tajikistan meet, the book doesn’t follow an a priori disjuncture between state and society but points out how multiple actors are competing to perform a state. The ethnographic work, which reflects personal recollection, official history, and shared history, is carried out across borders and not merely from one side of the border. Each chapter begins with a story of an individual or an incident, which becomes the linchpin of the discussions that ensue in the chapter. The nuances and the subtlety with which these stories are presented set a pleasant tone for the rest of the chapter.

The complex and dynamic empirical realities of rural Central Asia question the two-valued logic on which a modern state is premised. Having gone through several processes of delimitation and reconfiguration both during the Soviet and post-Soviet era, Central Asia is now witnessing a number of social, political, and economic issues which don’t have a simple explanation but present a complex play of different rationalities. Reeves points out that the work of fixing a border isn’t only the work of state officials but also the complex everyday realities of people inhabiting and using that border. It emerges out of a constant negotiation between the two. She therefore suggests looking beyond merely ‘seeing like a state’ (as per James Scott) and focuses on the making and working of new borders in Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Reeves shows how space is gradually transformed into territory through what she refers to as ‘border work: the messy, contested, and often intensely social business of making territory “integral”’ (p. 6). The book, therefore, has two core arguments—one on the contingency in the materialisation of a state boundary and the other on the work involved in spatialising the state.

The introductory chapter discusses how borders shift through time and the historical contingencies of Central Asian borders. The second decade of independence of Central Asian states (2001-2011) was a phase of building new national infrastructures, translating a spatial imaginary into concrete arrangements on the ground, and marking the territory with finite geographical coordinates. The introductory chapter discusses the impact of new international borders and how borders disrupt fixed identities of gender, race, and class. In addition, it also turns ethnographic attention to bordering itself because borderland cultures are produced by an interaction between particular regional and political configurations. It elaborates on the ways in which topography merges with international borders—adding to uncertainty in the everyday life due to intersections of ecology, lived geography, and political formations. In chapter 1, Reeves emphasises the plural nature of the border rather than viewing it a singular object. She explores ‘how space is made into territory when geographical contours of the state and the entailments of independence are themselves contested’ (p. 37).

Through Border Work, Reeves suggests that instead of looking at what the state does, it’s important to look at situated practises in which the state is done and undone, invoked and ignored. She also suggests looking at the border as a zone of possibilities where opportunities for connection and limit are intensified. The state survives because ordinary people normalise the idea of the state, which is able to continue its existence through bureaucratic practises. The epistemic gaps—places where ideas don’t quite coincide, the coordinates don’t add up—are where, the author believes, some insights emerge.

In chapter 2, the author discusses the ways in which space between two ethnically similar and often mutually cooperative communities is delimited by borders to form states. Reeves discusses the ways in which this delimitation is carried out, how it affects populations living around the border, and how different interest groups make this a political issue and often use it to further their benefits. In the mid-2000s, livelihood in the Ferghana Valley depended to a large extent on the money remitted from seasonal work abroad, which was impacted by the obstacles in local cross-border mobility and trade. Chapter 3 discusses the risks and benefits of young men migrating from Sokh for undocumented work in Russia. Stories are shared about the movement of people and things and the way it affects the life of the people who don’t move, for instance, the families of the men migrating for work. The chapter highlights the uncertainty of migrant existence in Russia where migrant illegality is institutionalised and normalised. Moral indignation, including escaping the police each day, turns out to be more taxing than the indignation faced due to the work migrants perform. The chapter shows how the state becomes a part of the licit but illegal activities that are carried around undocumented labour and undocumented residence of immigrants. While actual deportations are few, it’s the threat of deportation upon which the survival of a number of state and non-state agents depends.

Sections of chapter 4 make for a particularly good read, offering cathartic and flamboyant narratives of how border controls come in the way of people’s filial duties. For instance, Firuza’s narrative about her teacher’s 120 mile journey from Tajikistan, with her father’s dead body, along with a small group of relatives to the village of her father’s birth in Uzbekistan, makes for an interesting commentary on the irrational inhumanity and arbitrariness of border controls and how borders can appear as violent limit points. The state needs a certain external recognition, a recognition that’s empirically variable and spatially contingent. How does the state come to be impersonated? Who gives meaning to the guard at the border? Is the border guard embodying the state’s authority or mimicking its effects? These are some of the questions that are raised in chapter 5. An exceptional contribution of the book is its insights into the lives and experiences of the border guards. There is negligible work on people who are ‘doing’ the bordering and personating the border. Reeves, in chapter 5, insists that we look beyond the corruption framework whilst thinking about the activities of the border guards and focus on how these informal activities constitute the state and sustain its survival.

In several sections of the book Reeves reflects on how her status from an outsider to an insider position changed the meaning of her own mobility and immobility across her fieldwork spaces. Though a measure of self-reflexivity is evident in her work, one is left wondering how her class, marital, and educational status impacted the relationships she had in the field. The gendered dimensions of her experiences as well as the experiences of the women she spoke with could have been explored further in the book. Although chapter 6, entitled ‘Separations,’ elaborates on the gendered aspects of the anxieties around female mobility, it does so in the sub-section titled ‘The Border Guards and the Gynecologist,’ which in some ways typifies the ways in which women are ‘added’ in academic discussions only in relation to issues specific to them. It implicitly suggests that gender doesn’t play a role in the discussions on limits and gaps, trajectories and impersonations. Having said that, it needs to be mentioned that the story of Tajik women negotiating their visits to the gynecologist in Sogment’s medical centre in Krgyzstan, is a rather poignant one.

The book concludes by emphasising that people in borderlands don’t only resist borders, as most works on borderland would like to believe, but also invest in the state along with official discourses used to articulate local concerns, especially in times of crises. There is a constant flux between conflict and co-existence and it’s imperative for studies on borderlands to take this into account. Reeves doesn’t leave the reader with definite answers on what constitutes border work but offers a plethora of experiences of various stakeholders who engage in this ‘work,’ paving the way to make meaning of borders within the ‘messiness’ of everyday life.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Mehta, R. (2015) Book Review: Border Work: Spatial Lives of the State in Rural Central Asia.  Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2015/09/book-review (Accessed [date]).


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