Idealism and the Lure of the Material: Well-being in a Modern Uzbek Mahalla

Document Type


Presentation Date


Conference Name

Central Eurasian Studies Society Thirteenth Annual Conference

Conference Location

Indiana University, Bloomington, IN

Peer Review



It is a commonplace, even among anthropologists, that well-being implies wealth. Any suggestion otherwise risks Marxist critique by those who would remind us (rightfully) how members of prosperous classes use ideology to mute subaltern discontent. Risking such critique, I explore here how one couple, resident in an Uzbek mahalla (neighborhood) in Jalalabat, Kyrgyzstan, lives well even as they live in poverty. For the couple I describe here, Davlat and Samira, living well means the ability to sacrifice material gain for other interests. If Davlat and Samira do little more than materially “make do” (Caldwell 2004:33), they do so while pursuing spiritual reward (savob) and living up to moral ideals in ways that earn them the admiration of others in their community and give their life meaning.

In the paper, I explore the moral and spiritual ideals by which Davlat and Samira live and the way changing historical and global circumstances affect their attitudes about their circumstances. I acknowledge that the two do not always agree about the value of spiritual versus material gain, and consider their ongoing negotiations over ideals and desires. Aware of the danger of romanticizing their lives, I focus on everyday encounters that illustrate how they make choices and live with the repercussions. I consider how this couple defines well-being, how they struggle to attain that well-being (even if doing so means giving up material comforts they would otherwise have access to), and how their ability to achieve their ideal of well-being is circumscribed by local and transnational contexts.


Former Soviet Union, Kyrgyz Republic, economic behavior, well-being, happiness


Social and Cultural Anthropology | Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies

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