Measuring Societies and Life-styles in Central Asia: Beginning of the Process
Timur Dadabaev
 (Associate Professor, Institute of Oriental Culture, University of Tokyo)
Central Asian culture, history, art, politics and economics are the predominant fields which attract the international community of scholars to this unique region. This interest is enhanced by Central Asia's rich heritage at the heart of the Silk Road as a hive of cultural exchange and a melting pot of various peoples and civilizations. The demise of the Soviet Union and the advent of independence for Central Asian states further opened up the region to foreign scholars, and also motivated regional scholars to intensify their research thereby putting modern Central Asia on the global academic map. Yet the challenges faced by these states are reflected in the relatively restricted conditions and limited opportunities for local scholars to reach their counterparts abroad. The complex economic situation does not leave much latitude for increased public financing to enhance the research resources for local scholars, leaving them to seek funding opportunities from abroad.

On the other hand, foreign scholars face problems in getting first hand information about their respective Central Asian countries: the difficulties are often due to the unavailability of or limited access to various documents in these countries. This is especially true of statistical and social data on the societies in question. These obstacles naturally result in an imbalance of research, favouring areas which do not require statistical and social data, and research work that is thus methodologically easier to conduct in the conditions of Central Asia. The damage is most acutely felt in sociological research where data on incomes, lifestyles, views and concerns of local population is often difficult to obtain due to logistic and other reasons. Consequently, conclusions on the views of population on lifestyles, regional development and future perspectives of Central Asian states are either made prematurely, without the required data, or based on individual impressions gained in the course of field work. While the importance and implications of such findings are unquestionable, there is no methodological guarantee as to whether, for example, they are merely typical for some particular locality of the country concerned or can be made about the whole society as such. In addition, regional generalizations are almost impossible to make due to the high levels of diversity within and between Central Asian countries and their societies. Above all, although such findings may adequately model a general structure of societal life, they are not conducive to the comparative analysis of Central Asian societies with societies from other countries, and leave scholars, both local and foreign, to make only hypothetical conclusions on the similarities and differences between the particular cultures and their paths of development.

There is thus an urgent and ongoing need to collect verifiable statistical and other types of data in Central Asia for the compilation of open data-bases that will enhance both regional capacity-building processes and international knowledge about Central Asian societies. The two data-bases detailed below - "AsiaBarometer" and "Local Neighborhood Communities - Mahalla", both projects conducted at the Research and Information Center for Asian Research, Institute of Oriental Culture, University of Tokyo - are constructive responses to this challenging academic agenda and aim to address this shortfall of data and knowledge.
The Central Asian Focus of the AsiaBarometer Data-base: Measuring Life-styles and Values in Uzbekistan

The AsiaBarometer is one of the most ambitious attempts hitherto to build a data-base of values and life-styles in Asia. While its focus goes far beyond the Central Asian region, by encompassing countries of South, South-East and East Asia, this project attempted the rare analytical exercise of looking, firstly, at what the post-Soviet realities of the Central Asian states are, initially exemplified by the case of Uzbekistan and then conducting its comparative analysis with other Asian societies. Methodologically, the AsiaBarometer data-base comprises the results of demographic polling in 10 Asian countries, registering the views of Asian populations on their everyday lives, concerns, dreams and hopes. In 2003 the polling was conducted in each of these countries, including Uzbekistan, following similar procedure and asking (40) similar questions to a limited group of (800) respondents.

As mentioned above, the first Central Asian country to be demographed on the "AsiaBarometer" was Uzbekistan. The main conceptual drive in conducting this survey was to compensate as much as possible for the lack of detailed sociological data and inaccessibility of ordinary perspectives, in order to offer a clearer and more quantifiable picture of the post-Soviet realities, needs, hopes and aspirations, and also of traditional social institutions and methods that may help to deal with new and global demands. The axiom behind AsianBarometer's approach to Uzbekistan, as with the other societies covered, is that both imagination and reliable data are required to perceive and understand the essence of the processes taking place in this region.

The main set of questions addressed in the cases of Uzbekistan and the other Asian societies were: firstly, what basic living conditions do residents of Uzbekistan experience in this transitional period? And secondly, do Uzbekistanis feel satisfied in their every-day lives? If not satisfied, what are their main concerns, frustrations, hopes and aspirations? More specifically, how do Uzbekistanis regard their present socio-economic conditions? What are their views with respect to their families, societies, states and the region as a whole? Are these views different from those held by people in the past? If so, how have views changed?

In more general terms, the project attempted to compare Asian societies, including Uzbekistan, and thereby draw a wider regional picture of contemporary Asian society.
Another significant feature of the project is that the questioning and final analysis of the data-set was not conducted by "outsiders" but by regionally-based scholars in close collaboration with each other. In the process, the AsiaBarometer data-base has grown to become not just a compilation of vital data, but more importantly, a data-processing knowledge exchange in itself, eventually leading to a capacity-enrichment in all countries and institutions involved. As an outcome, the English-language volume Values and Life-styles in Urban Asia:A Cross-cultural Analysis and Sourcebook Based on the AsiaBarometer Survey of 2003 (Takashi Inoguchi, Miguel Basanez, Akihiko Tanaka and Timur Dadabaev, eds., Mexico: Siglo, 2005) with CD-ROM attachment has been published, which includes not only articles interpreting the data but also the raw data itself (in SPSS format), a feature which will allow other scholars to compare their own perceptions of the data collected.

"Central Asian Local Neighborhood Community - Mahalla" Data-base

Another data-set which is in the process of being developed is the one on Central Asian local neighborhood communities specifically focusing on the mahalla. The importance of this project is also rooted in the same reasons for which the AsiaBarometer data-base has been started. The lack of data on local societies and indigenous structures in Central Asia leaves a huge gap to be filled in. While Central Asian societies are seeking new yet tradition-based forms of dealing with their challenges, little is known about the informal indigenous mechanisms and networks which played and still play a vital role in regional societies. These indigenous institutions often prove to be highly efficient vectors of communication and implementation, and offer many options in addressing social, economic and political issues, primarily at the community level. Data on these mechanisms and networks has till now not been properly collected and analysed, and so their implications and possibilities have remained poorly understood.

Methodologically, this Mahalla data-base differs from AsiaBarometer in that it builds on the tremendous data-value of social demography by combining original polling with data collection from other regional sources on the local neighborhood community, and also with photographic and archival documentation, both historical and contemporary, on this topic. Eventually, it is planned that this project will feature year-by-year demographic surveys on the role of the mahalla in the Uzbek society, legal documents and relevant amendments to them regarding the status of the mahalla neighborhood community, statistical data on the number of mahallas in Uzbekistan, their structure and the amount of assistance they provide to the local population. This data-base is also expected to include a detailed description of region-by-region differences between mahallas in various parts of Uzbekistan, details on the local sub-cultures of each of regions, photo and video documents (weddings, religious and other celebrations within communities), as well as a comprehensive bibliography of the literature published in Uzbekistan and Central Asia on this topic. Thus this project attempts to study the mahalla neighborhood community in the context of other social, religious and political institutions operating in the same geographical region. Ideally, the Mahalla project will become a space for students and younger scholars to receive their initial and, for logistical reasons, otherwise often unavailable information from an array of direct sources and use this data for further explorations. This work is already proceeding with help and assistance from local educational institutions in Uzbekistan, providing an academic forum for future research on the mahalla.

Eventually both AsiaBarometer (which is already in a developed state) and Mahalla data-bases are expected to be put on-line to enable scholars from Japan, Central Asia and internationally to take advantage of their findings. It is also planned that the present focus of both projects in Central Asian region on Uzbekistan will be widened and, with time, will include all Central Asian countries.