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From courtyards to communal civil society: a study of the mahalla, courtyard clubs, and the institution of ?gap' in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan

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This study presents a comparative analysis of three local forms of civil society in urban and rural Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan based on ethnographic research. First, I focus on the mahalla, a neighbourhood community. My research findings illustrate that despite the transformation of the mahalla into a form of local state authority, its functions extend beyond local administration. As a social construct, the mahalla provides social space for various forms of civic engagement. Second, I examine the Soviet legacy-based organisation ? domestic courtyard clubs which targeted the youth, teenagers and children. Being popular forms of youth engagement in the Soviet era, courtyard clubs ceased their activities by the time of the disintegration of the USSR but were revived in the early 2000s. The findings illustrate direct and indirect ways that courtyard clubs advance public good. Finally, the study investigates the social phenomenon of gap ? traditional reciprocal associations found in modern Central Asia. The Uzbek term gap stands for word or conversation. In most cases, gaps are unofficial regular get-togethers of a group of people of similar age bound by socially acknowledged ties. Gaps represent an informal social safety net whose members rely on each other and receive moral and material support. The research also analyses the functionality of other forms of gaps such as gaps among women and online gap-groups, and their rituals and symbolic meanings. The paper questions whether these forms of associational life can be seen as potent contributing factors in further development of civil society different from the kinds of civil society organisations preferred in Western European societies.

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