On September 22, 2016, Dr. Douglas Blum gave the REEEC New Directions Lecture entitled “Explaining Cultural Globalization: A Synthesis of Bourdieusian Critical Realist Approaches.” This lecture addressed both the theoretical issues related to notions of agency, while also engaging empirically with the impacts of globalization on youth in Kazakhstan. He reported on his findings from interviews with young Kazakhs who had lived in the United States, but had returned to Kazakhstan.
In his research, Blum interviewed Kazakh youth in Kazakhstan who had spent a short amount of time living abroad in the United States. He noted the importance of focusing on youth – given how susceptible they are to experiencing change during processes of globalization. In particular, he focused on the ways in which his interviewees viewed American cultural norms, and how this impacted their view of corresponding norms in Kazakhstan. His questions centered on the extent to which American cultural norms were adopted by those who traveled abroad, and whether or not exposure to American cultural norms resulted in Kazakh youth becoming more aware of and reflexive about Kazakh cultural norms.
Focusing on a number of different categories and differences across the people he interviewed, Blum illustrated the ways in which exposure to American cultural norms impacted these Kazakh youth. He discussed how there was an overwhelming and unilateral embrace of a type of cultural norm he termed “functional knowledge” by Kazakhs who had spent time in the United States. This “functional knowledge” related to “how-to” methods and work habits popularized in the United States. On the other hand, he noted that almost all of the young people he interviewed criticized the American cultural norms for sitting because they were in direct contradiction to Kazakh cultural norms for sitting properly, and did not seem to have any inherent value. One example of sitting improperly would be sitting on the floor. In between these two ends of the spectrum were issues related to postponing marriage – which some of his participants embraced wholeheartedly, others remained skeptical of, and still others continuously shifted their perspectives depending on the responses they received within their communities. He also discussed the differences across participants, and the ways in which they could return to Kazakhstan without changing at all or return significantly changed by their time in the United States.
Blum framed this empirical data within the theoretical notion of critical reflexivity. He drew from the work of political theorist Pierre Bourdieu as well as the sociologist Margaret Archer in order to discuss the ways in which critical reflection on cultural norms is one mechanism through which cultural change occurs within globalization. However, he also argued that critical reflexivity was, more broadly, a theoretical way in which to understand how humans are strongly influenced by social and cultural structures, while simultaneously being agentive. He discusses the agency of the Kazakh students who become critically reflexive of Kazakh cultural norms after spending time in the United States as a particular case study of critical reflexivity.
During the question-and-answer section, Blum addressed his participants’ exposure to American cultural norms before coming to the United States – given increased exposure to information via technology worldwide. Blum noted that although many of his participants had watched American movies, it was altogether a different type of experience for them to go to the United States. In particular, he noted that critical reflection on their own culture did not come about through their exposure to American media, but only through time actually spent living abroad. Another question asked specifically about the longevity of the new ideologies adopted by those who had lived in the United States. Blum noted that he could not know the longevity of the perspectives of those he interviewed and that he was not certain that the views adopted by those who had traveled abroad would endure over time or not. He noted that some individuals faced social pressures to change their perspectives.
Blum ended the talk by referencing the importance of moving away from an exclusive focus on nationalism within post-Soviet Central Asia. He called for research that continues to engage empirically and theoretically with questions of the impact globalization has on contemporary Central Asian people – an issue he grappled with himself in this work.
Lydia Catedral is a PhD Candidate in Linguistics at the University of Illinois. Her research interests include language and identity in Central Asia, and among Central Asian migrants in the United States. The title of her dissertation is “Managing Criticism: Gendered Identity and Talk in Transnationalism.” She received a B.A. from Arizona State University and an M.A. from the University of Illinois. Her future goal is to become an assistant professor.