Friday, 8 February 2013


What I find most fascinating about studying developing countries is the identity politics that have a strong basis in their social constructs. For example in many Central Asian societies the clan has formed a backbone through which society regulates itself. As social identity construct the clan effects many areas of the society. In Kazakhstan for example it maybe how you get a job, car, house or even a wife. It often how business deals are arranged and it has far reaching side effects on the political and economic systems.  So what is a Central Asian clan ? To answer that question here is an abbreviated explanation from my dissertation.

Clan - the merging of Kith and Kin

By Dr. Victoria Kelly-Clark

the horde that had ceased to be independent by becoming an element in the more extensive group and that of segmented societies with a clan base to peoples who are constituted through an association of clans. We say of these societies, that they are segmented in order to indicate their formation by repetition of like aggregates in them..... and we say of this elementary aggregate that it is a clan, because this word.... expresses its mixed nature at once familial and political, (Durkheim, 1964, 175)

The term clan has been classified in a variety of manners throughout the development of the social sciences and anthropological studies. To the scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries the term clan[1] conjured up images of tartan, blue paint, kilts and war. Primarily this conceptual image is because the study of clans was first pursued in relation to the families of the Scottish highlands and their hostilities. Inherent in this European notion was the concept that a clan was a unique family group that had formulated a hierarchical structure bound to a specified territory. Those in the group claimed unilineal descent from a historical or mythical maternal or paternal ancestor (Parkin, 1997, 17-18; Adam, 1970, 98). As argued by Grant a clan was essentially thought of as a ‘hybrid institution, a mixture of tribal tradition clustering about the ipso facto land holder of the soil’ (Grant, 1930, 101-103).

Yet this description of clans is deficient when applied to the case of Central Asia. Essentially this is because it does not take into consideration the unique features and environment of Central Asian clans. These clans, while accepting that patriarchal and lineal descent are an integral part of belonging to a clan, were also noted for their adoption of those outside the line of descent and their inclusion of clients who were beneficial to the clan. They were also noted for their reformation of a clan based on regional instead of familial groupings.  As a result the above definition or explanation is a fairly etic[2] approach to such social groupings.

The problem with the initial definition is because the inclusion of kith in the original understanding of clan structure was overlooked. Adam argues this was because clients were often presumed by anthropologists and ethnologists to be part of the clan via the assumption that all members living on or within the clans' territorial boundaries must be kin (Adam, 1970, 152). Therefore the concept of clan did not take into account the fact that clans or the social groups we label clans can also include large numbers of individuals who are not consanguineously related.

In Central Asia the structure of the society is unique in that there were settled and nomadic societies and although both still functioned around the principle of family they each developed in specific ways. Ask a Tajik, Kazakh, Uzbek or Kyrgyz about his or her clan structures[3] and one will find that they can be either regional or familial based, or even both. They are more than just an extended family; instead they are an ascriptive solidarity unit that functions like an imperium in imperio or an empire within an empire with the family unit being the core. Within the clan, ever expanding circles are linked through patron and client relationships binding members together in an intricate web. (Krader, 1963, 149-155; 157-160)

These smaller groupings often include clients (friends, cousins, trusted associates) within the network. In the Mongol state for example the Keshig Chinggisid’s personal guards were regarded by the leader as close members of his clan. Yet in reality these men were drawn from all the clans within the horde. This allows individuals who may not be related, through trust and personal patronage, to become part of a clan regardless of blood ties.  Similarly in Central Asian states today many networks have clients who are tied into a clan by key communal foundations of continuity, security, locality and welfare of the group (Gulliver, 1971, 4).

An example of this can be seen in the friendship rituals of young male Kazakhs who will even call their group of non related and sometimes ethnically diverse masculine friends by the phrase “their boys” and as brothers.[4] These bonds often form an integral part of the Kazakh youths access networks.  As they see no issue in utilising their friends personal networks to gain further access to fulfil their diverse wants and needs as they go throughout their life.   This illustrates that while membership in Central Asian clans is often familial based this is not an individual’s sole network.  Instead familial ties form a core which is then surrounded by an individual’s, work, university, school and childhood alliances, as well as local or mestnichestvo ties, and ties from the mahalla or neighbourhoods.

Furthermore, elites within the clan often establish a beneficial patrimonial set of alliances outside of the traditional patriarchal structure. This in turn brings clients into the clan as they are adopted from outside the supposed blood line. This adoption will of course provide some fictitious link to the clan and will also expand the set of networks available to the clan (Krader, 1963, p.157-166)[5]. Thus members of a clan in Central Asia come from a variety of social, political and economic strata. The ties invariably run horizontally and vertically through the society linking both elites and non-elites (Collins, 2006, 16).

An important characteristic in each of these formations though is the member’s recognition of jus familiare and patria potestas both of which are argued to have kept these societies as a cohesive social, economic and legal entity (Adam, 1970, 117-140) for generations. In this model the Central Asian clan corresponds to Weber’s idea of patriarchal authrority in that a clan’s community does not just see its leader as a figurehead that represents their interests. Instead they believe and expect a measure of control over how the clan is ruled, the distribution of goods and resources and the how the clan’s interests are governed through their patrons and clients within the network.

These rights are regarded as significant by members of the network and as such proving one’s legitimacy as a clan member is important. Thus verbal knowledge of one’s genealogical ancestry dating back several generations or regional grouping was and to some extent still is an important factor in gaining membership of a group. It is also significant in an individual’s placement within the overall social structure. As argued by Krader,

In Central Asia a clan may be very large, compromising thousands of members spread over a wide area. Clansmen can often not have met others of their clan and on meeting they establish their relationship as clan members, their relative seniority and precedence, authority over each other and their claim of hospitality and support. Each clan member legitimates his membership through his genealogy and establishes his position, both in regard to other individuals and to the group (Krader, 1963, 156).

Thus the social structure of the clan meant that the society had a pre-existing set of norms and values through which they could regulate themselves and those in the world around them. The successfulness of this arrangement provided such a strong civic framework that the clan’s political structure ran congruent with the existing social structure. One only needs to look at three of Central Asia’s major historical state structures to understand that social and political worlds have always been intertwined. The Kök Khanate, Turkic Khanate and the Chinggisid State each illustrate that a perceivable lack of boundary between the social and political life is not necessarily a negative influence on society or the state.

The Kök were the architects of a bicephalous state system which relied heavily on the nomadic clans to organize and create a functioning state. The Kök used the clan social infrastructure to choose a new leader, to maintain control over their vast territories and the large clan confederations. To the Kök, clan or tribal law was tantamount to state law and the management of the society’s affairs indisputably was the role of the tribal leaders. 

Likewise the Turkic Oghuz principality functioned in a similar fashion. The state was theoretically headed up by a clan-endorsed candidate but in reality power was shared with other elders from within the clan. The reason behind this being that other clans within the confederation did not feel isolated from the state and unable to interact with the state infrastructure, which again was, based loosely on the society’s informal institutions.

Furthermore the Chinggisid period of states that occurred some two centuries after the demise of the Oghuz Principality also based its state around the tradition of the clan. Under the leadership of Chinggis Khan many tribes or clans who did not support his leadership were split up and reformed into new units as part of the military infrastructure of the tumen (nominally the 10, 000 warriors). Likewise each of the sons of Chinggis was granted a patrimony which they ruled over with their own blood brothers, supporters and kinsmen. Thus again recreating a clan-confederations which were loyal to Chinggis and to his successor Oghutay.[6]

Consequently clans in Central Asia have played a significant part in governing the society by establishing systems of civic governance. Despite this lack of separation between the web-like structure of state and society that is Central Asian clan’s hierarchical system, clan members still recognised that a social contract exists between members. In other words a patron-client relationship will function between the elites and the rest. The elites are then expected to protect and look after the welfare of the ordinary members within their clan via their access to the state and territory’s resources. Clients are in turn are expected to support and keep the elites in their position of power and influence (Antoun, 2000, 441- 446).

This patriarchal version of the social contract means that as people are helped to achieve positions of authority by the clan, the clan is able to utilize this connection to benefit their members. In modern times this has meant that the informal institutions must pervade the state’s formal institutions. The bureaucracy, state financial institutions, security services, media outlets or the state owned resources are all areas in which clans in Central Asia have located themselves and from such positions are able to influence and manipulate the state. Thus, as argued by Kathleen Collins, ‘a clan is an informal organization’ which, similar to any state-run institution, operates to allow the population access to political, economic and social resources (2004, 231).

[1]          The term clan itself comes from the Scottish Gaelic word clanna which means children and as such referred to the children of a single patriarch. European anthropologists distinguished it as an offspring of the constructed tribes or in Gaelic tuath by the fact that it predominantly refers to members of a singular descent rather than a society that shares customs and beliefs. (Adam, 1970, 143)
[2]          The term etic comes from Thomas Headland, Kenneth Pike and Marvin Harris's work Emic and Etic: the Insider/Outsider Debate. Headland, Pike and Harris argue that an etic perspective is defined the intrinsic concepts and categories that have meaning for a scientific observer. In other words in an etic perspective scientists or social scientists are the sole judges of the validity of an etic account. While in an emic perspective focuses on the cultural distinctions that are meaningful to the members of a given society. As a result only the native members of a society or culture can provide a valid description or definition (Headland, Pike and Harris, 1990)
[3]          It important to note here that Central Asia is not a region with a single community living within its boundaries, various manifestations of civilisations have existed within the boundaries of present day Central Asia. Along the oases and more fertile areas such as the Fergana valley, Samarkand or Bukhara the idea of a clan has taken a different conceptualisation due to the sart (settled inhabitants) or merchant social and economic environment of the area (Bacon, 1966, 3).
[4]          Often these associates are met during the first years at work, university or college (Robbins, 2007, 66-72) .
[5]        Fieldwork Notes by Author
[6]           For a more comprehensive look at how clans were a integral part of each of these civilisations please contact author for full document


Adam, F, 1970, Clans, Septs and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands, Johnston and Bacon, Edinburgh.

Bacon , E.E, 1966, Central Asians Under Russian rule,  Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York.

Barthold, W, 1968, Turkestan Down to the Mongol Invasion, Lowe and Brydone Ltd, London

Collins, K , 2006, Clan Politics and Regime Transition in Centrla Asia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Durkhiem, E, 1947, The Division of Labour in Society, trans. George Simpson, The Free Press, New York

Grant, I.F, 1930, The Social and Economic Development of Scotland before 1603, Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh

Gulliver, P.H, 1971, Neighbours and Networks the Idiom of Kinship in Social Action among the Ndendeuli of Tanzania, University of California Press, Berkley.

Headland, T, Pike, K, & Harris, CC, 1990, Emics and Etics: the insider/outsider debate, Sage Publications, Newbury Park.

Krader, L, 1963, The People of Central Asia, Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Parkin, R, 1997, Kinship: An introduction to Basic Concepts, Blackwell Publishers Ltd, Oxford.

Robbins, C, 2007, In Search of Kazakhstan the Land that Disappeared, Profile Books Ltd, London.


Antoun, R, 2000, ‘Civil Society and Tribal Process, and Change in Jordan: An Anthropological View , International Journal Middle East Studies, Vol.42, 441-463.

Collins, K, 2004, ‘The Logic of Clan Politics Evidence from the Central Asian Trajectories’, World Politics, Vol. 56, January, 224-261.

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