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Informal Vows

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Marriage, Domestic Labour and Pastoral Production in Kazakhstan

image of Inner Asia

In post-Soviet Kazakhstan, mobile pastoralism is now a task managed not by collective farms but by individual households: extended networks of kin band together to create flocks, and poor families trade labour for sustenance and a share of the flock’s live offspring. The success of these sheep-herding camps turns on their integrity as domestic units: the camp cannot function without the tasks customarily performed by women, yet relations of blood or marriage remain the only social institutions capable of mediating the exchange of domestic labour. This paper contrasts elaborate marriage ceremonies with more informal unions in which the primary desire is the presence of a woman’s labour. These marriages—unregistered, undertaken from necessity and celebrated by little more than a meal and perhaps a bottle of vodka for drinking toasts—index the conflicts and contradictions implicit in domestic labour being simultaneously fundamental to the household’s economic life and yet treated as a form of labour not to be honourably alienated from the family.

Affiliations: 1: Nazarbayev University AstanaKazakhstan


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