The Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center sat down this semester with two of our former students. Kristoffer Rees (Assistant Professor of Political Science, Indiana University East) and Nora Webb Williams (Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign) have published a number of articles together over the years—a collaborative process that dates back to their time at Indiana University and at the IAUNRC—and most recently co-authored “Territorial Belonging and Homeland Disjuncture: Uneven Territorialisations in Kazakhstan,” (Europe-Asia Studies, 2021) along with Alexander Diener.
We catch up with them below; the conversation has been lightly edited.
What brought you to IU for your studies?
Nora Webb Williams: For me, IU had the appealing combination of a dual MA/MPA program. I was glad to find a program that combined area studies with professional skills. I got to study languages and Central Asian culture while also learning how to conduct cost-benefit analyses. Ultimately, however, I ended up pursuing a PhD instead of a public affairs career!
Kristoffer Rees: I was based in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic, working in an international development organization as part of the administrative support staff when I decided to explore opportunities in graduate training. I wanted to add an academic grounding to the practical knowledge and experience I had gained through over three years of living and working in the Kyrgyz Republic. Ultimately, it was CEUS that attracted me, because of the opportunities to study the regional languages of Central Asia.
What did you study when you were here?
NWW: I took classes in SPEA for my MPA degree and courses in CEUS for Central Asian languages, history, and politics. As far as languages, I studied Kazakh and Uzbek.
KR: I completed an MA in CEUS, which refined my interest in contemporary nationalisms in Central Asia, and it was through the courses in contemporary Central Asian politics that I took from Professor Fierman and the courses in social theory and nationalism that I took from Professor Bovingdon that centered my disciplinary interest in political science. I was accepted to the IUB Political Science PhD program, which was great because it allowed me to integrate and continue to pursue my area studies focus.
How did you two meet and begin co-authoring together?
NWW: Kris and I were both graduate assistants at the IAUNRC! My job as a first-year graduate student was working on the newsletter. We shared an office and connected over our shared research interests.
KR: I would only add here shared and complementary research interests!
How did the IAUNRC support your research and studies?
NWW: As a graduate assistant for my first year, the IAUNRC supported me with tuition and a stipend. I also received a full-year FLAS fellowship and summer funding for language studies. Without IAUNRC support, I likely would not have been able to complete my degree.
KR: IAUNRC support was essential for me as well. I served as a Graduate Assistant for most of the time that I was pursuing my MA in CEUS and was supported by an IAUNRC-awarded FLAS for language studies while I studied for my PhD. Not only would I have been very unlikely to have finished my degree without IAUNRC support, even if I had, my trajectory would have been much different. The language study that IAUNRC supported made possible the qualitative interview and survey-based research that I conducted in Kazakhstan to inform my dissertation project.
Several papers you have co-authored invoke the idea of a “supraethnic” identity. Can you say something more about what this means and why you are interested in it?
NWW: Kris is better than me at the conceptual aspects of our research, so he might have a better take than me on this, [but to] me, supraethnic identity means an aspect of a person’s identity that is above ethnic identity, in terms of being broader and arcing over ethnicity. For example, we might talk about supraethnic identity of someone from Europe being their sense of belonging to the European Union. We’ve argued that “Kazakhstani” identity can be thought of as supraethnic. It’s an identity that citizens of Kazakhstan might have that is broader than Russian, Kazakh, German, Tatar, etc.
KR: Nora’s discussion here is right on. One of the things that we were especially interested in is understanding the extent to which these state-constructed identity categories can be instituted to establish a common civic identity across a multiethnic and multinational population. Basically, we are probing the limits of the nation-building capacity of the state at the level of the individual. In addition to the broader theoretical considerations of how liberal multiculturalism can be reimagined by elite actors as part of what Ed Schatz calls “the soft authoritarian toolkit,” our work also seeks to go beyond generalizing “post-Soviet” categories of analysis to explore the evolution of state-society relations in Kazakhstan in the 21st century.
You note that many people living in Kazakhstan are reluctant to adopt the aforementioned supraethnic identity that you term “Kazakhstani.” Why is this?
NWW: Kris and I are both political scientists, so we often think of identity as being tied to the state (or the government). In our research, we talk about how the state in Kazakhstan has constructed what it means to be Kazakhstani. That construction might resonate more or less with different populations in Kazakhstan. For example, the state has walked a line between saying that all Kazakhstan citizens should be proud Kazakhstanis and simultaneously elevating aspects of Kazakh identity, such as the Kazakh language. There’s a tension there that we see reflected in responses to surveys. According to our research, those who speak Kazakh tend to have a slightly higher affiliation for the Kazakhstani identity. In our latest piece, with Alexander Diener, we also see geographic variation. In some places, the state-framed conception of identity has caught on more than in others.
KMR: Nora summarizes our research here better than I would! Again, I would just highlight too, that this outcome shows the limits of the state in advancing specific identity politics agendas.
Do you have plans for future projects together?
NWW: It’s been fun to collaborate on this interview. 😊 Lately we’ve both been working on other projects. But I’m back in the Midwest now – I’m in my first year as an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – so perhaps our closer geographic proximity will spark some new projects!
KR: I’m looking forward to our next projects too! We both have other projects in the works right now (keep an eye out for them!), but, especially now that Nora is back in the Midwest, and we have the excellent library resources of both IU and UIUC at our disposal, I can’t imagine it will be too long before we are working together again.