Nathan Light

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I am Docent in Cultural Anthropology at Uppsala University. I trained as anthropologist and folklorist and research Central Asian history, social organization, cultural politics, ritual, kinship, economics, and language. Through fieldwork, textual and online research, I investigate Uyghur and Kyrgyz practices related to temporality, heritage, sociality, communication, and technology.


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------------ Completed project --------------

My current research project Embedded in History investigated Kyrgyz ideas about history and the past, and their use in community social and political life. The aim of the project is to develop a more inclusive approach to historical experience that recognizes the complex variety of Kyrgyz communal and personal histories without subordinating them to objectifying structures of time and space.

"History" is widely thought of as the dominant processes shaping shared political and social experience, and neglects much of personal, concealed and unrecognized histories of individuals and communities. Recognizing individual histories often requires identifying a category that gives the individual value as part of a larger whole for which he or she stands.

Fundamental to my current project is investigating the distinctive and unique, or at least the little noted patterns that characterize so much of human experience, memory and social relations. Personal experience and unusual community events become the source of remarkable, witty, or tragic accounts, while most social and economic activities are characterized by efforts to conform to shared expectations about work, ritual, and social interaction. Managing the ongoing mix of repetition and disruption is the core of life itself, and relates to concepts of identity in relation to collective and personal transformation.

Kyrgyz concepts of self and community revolve around concepts of personal autonomy, toughness and determination, as well as cooperation, reliability and responsibility. Personal and community historical knowledge highlights these aspects of social relations and personal actions but in ways shaped by a rich cultural repertoire of concepts and practices.

This project is based in fieldwork on the ways Kyrgyz create and use historical knowledge, but also allows me to synthesize my prior work on historical narratives and ideologies into a coherent analysis linking theories and philosophies of historiography and anthropological and folklore studies of the construction and use of history in social life.

------------ Previous work --------------

I have taught and lectured on Central Asian history and culture at Uppsala University since 2013. I have also been continuing my program of research and publishing on heritage, historical representations and expressive culture, particularly the ways that oral and written language reflect political, social and spiritual experience and concepts. My research also engages with exchange and solidarity around gender, economy, and interpersonal alliance, and the ways these are represented in narrative. Through close examination of expressive and material interaction I work to deepen theoretical analysis of social practices.

From 2007 to 2012 I was a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany, where I conducted two research projects: Exchange Relations, Kinship Organization and the Cultural Reproduction, and Making Economy and Ritual in Kyrgyzstan. From 2012-13, I worked on the VolkswagenStiftung-funded project Genealogy and History: collective identities in independent Kyrgyzstan at the Center for Interdisciplinary Regional Studies (Martin Luther University, Germany).

At the Max Planck institute I also rewrote and published my study of the re-making of the Uyghur muqam performance tradition, with a focus on the lyrics within the context of Central Asian Islam and Sufi literary traditions. Excerpts of the resulting volume can be read here, Intimate Heritage, or through my page.

My publications from these projects and related work on history, society and language are also available on my page, and on my personal website. A detailed list is below. The more significant publications have examined:

  • the place of quoted speech in historical narrative (8th Century Turkic Narrative, 2006)
  • strategies used by Uyghurs to subvert China's political controls on public discourse and performance (Cultural politics and the pragmatics of resistance, 2007)
  • the problems of essentializing representations of Islam (Participation and Analysis in Studying Religion, 2007)
  • the concept of genealogy in pre-modern myths and histories of Central Asia (Genealogy, history, nation, 2011)
  • the different ways Muslim historians have represented Chinese history (Muslim Histories of China, 2012)
  • Uyghur online culture on a now-defunct social networking site in China (Uyghurs on Chinese Social Networking Sites, 2015)
  • the raising of crops and domestic animals, rituals and the interplay of autonomy and interdependence in Kyrgyz households (Animals in the Kyrgyz Ritual Economy and Self-sufficiency is not enough, both in 2015)
  • the use of habitual or iterative linguistic aspect to characterize past events (Being Specific About Generalization, 2016)


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Previous Projects

Embedded in history: A study of Kyrgyz historicity and historical consciousness (Riksbankens Jubileumsfond)


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Nathan Light