«We need to look into the past in order to understand the present and foresee the future»

Reciprocity and Adaptation in the Contemporary Guest Practices of Kazakhs

The paper examines the forms of reciprocity that characterize contemporary Kazakh practices of visiting and hospitality.

The paper examines the forms of reciprocity that characterize contemporary Kazakh practices of visiting and hospitality.  The paper is based on fieldwork conducted between 2011 and 2013 in Northern and Central Kazakhstan with support from a grant from the Open Society Foundation.  Research methods involved interviews, participant observation, and visual (photo and video) data. The contexts of hospitality there were studied included funeral and memorial feasts, the various phases of wedding celebrations, and Muslim festive cycles (Ait, Kurban Bairam), as well as less formal, private hospitality practices.

Hospitality practices are played out in a complex of partially complementary, partially competing normative or moral frameworks.  The matter of hospitality is assigned great importance in context of Kazakh culture, with strong appeals to its deeply traditional and essential character.  At the same time, hospitality is practiced in contexts in which changing moral frameworks related to current circumstances also condition the values that underpin these practices.  Thus, there is a continuous process of adaptation, the pace of which has accelerated in the rapidly changing social circumstances of the post-Soviet period.  In this paper, I analyze how practices reflect changing values but at the same time evoke social memory, and reflect appeals to the enduring features of Kazakh culture.  The reciprocity of hospitality is articulated in events that are played out in the present -- and a present that is experience often as highly unstable -- but contain mythical reference to an unchanging historical past.

Receiving guests involves a number of ritualized procedures and roles.  Key phases include receiving of guests, serving them meals, sometime providing them with accommodation, and seeing them off.  Meals are central, and in them one can see the combination of elements that are conceptualized as rooted in ancient tradition, such as the dividing of the meat according to social status, and other elements that are seen as valuable and essential but not historically rooted, such as serving of alcohol and tropical fruits.  Similarly, the key roles include those which are seen as rooted in Kazakh values and tradition, such as those who read prayers and offer blessings, and others that represent active innovation, including the tamada, or master of ceremonies, who orchestras a program that should reflect the latest trends, including varieties of dancing, clowns, and photo-shoots.  Funerary and memorial events reflect the greatest conservatism, but even here one can observe change.  Much of the innovation and change in hospitality practices can be associated with the changing economic circumstances, including rising incomes, changing capacity of the family to mobilize and pool resources, and new patterns of consumerism.  Every major event of receiving guests involves a complex web of reciprocity, that determines social possibilities, and defines a moral landscape of social relations of mutual commitment and alternating indebtedness.

Zubaida Suraganova, L.N. Gumilyov Eurasian National University