Afghanistan as an especially complex field of study

Afghanistan has long oscillated between Western-orientalist projections on the one hand, and military and cultural attempts of appropriation on the other hand. Furthermore, Afghanistan is the topic of a variety of scientific studies, especially in the areas of (developmental) political science analyses, peace and conflict research, sociology, history, or ethnology, and even artistic research on this country is being tested. Moreover, Afghanistan is shaped by its major mass media presence, which is thoroughly global and often quite one-sided. This usually occurs after especially massive attacks with numerous death victims, even though merely a fraction of the attacks and seditious acts is taken up by the short-lived mass media attention.

The wars and violent confrontations which have now been taking place for four decades may be territorially far away from Germany. But due to the absurd conception that our democracy is defended by the military in the Central Asian nation (as stated by then defense minister Struck), Afghanistan has been politically linked to the destiny of Germany not only on a symbolic level. Furthermore, with more than 250.000 people (state: 31.12.2017; Federal Statistical Office of Germany), the group of people with Afghan origin has become one of the largest migration groups living in Germany (with hot spots in Hamburg, Frankfurt, Munich, and Freiburg). There is comparatively little known about this migration group and despite the scandalized violent acts of individual Afghan refugees, they have generally been considered an especially well-integrated diaspora community.

From a historical perspective, the territorial area of Afghanistan is an especially contested area in Central Asia, despite its recent redefinition as a South Asian country. It used to belong to the territory of a high variety of world empires in their respective periods of dominion: There was the immigration of Indo-Germanicsteppe peoples, the Alexandrian conquest, the dominion of the Indian king Ashoka, the heyday of the Kushan Empire, the expeditions of Genghis Khan and Timur Lenk and the Safavid Empire, the Mughal dynasty and Nader Shah, the founding of Afghanistan under Ahmad Shah Durrani, the Anglo-Afghan wars and the highly debated Durand contract, which affiliates large areas of the Afghan territory to today’s Pakistan and continues to be an especially substantial cause of ongoing conflicts (cf. Andreas Wilde’s contribution on the History of Afghanistan in the Afghanistan Country Report of the Federal Agency for Civic Education). It is not to be underestimated how much of the inner Afghan conflicts are hardly comprehensible without the knowledge of the historical developments of immigration and changing dynasties (cf. Laila Sahrai’s compilation on the History of Afghanistan).

At the same time, the topic of Afghanistan is an especially difficult and complex field of work from a sociological perspective. One reason is that in Afghanistan (and thus certainly in the diaspora community as well!), classical societal axes of structure and rule largely overlap and interlock. Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic state with at least 30 different ethnic groups (this is the recurring number in the literature, but some sources name up to 200 different ethnic groups). Ethnic conflict lines between politico-democratic representation and claims to the sole representation of the ethnic majority are just one of many examples. Afghanistan is a Muslim country, but the main focuses of faith differ: A Sunni majority are confronted by a Shiite minority, a Hindu or Sikh minority, or an Ismaili minority. However, the Sunni majority is not a uniform block, but rather represents a “popular Islam” consisting of different traditions; a historically long-standing Sufi tradition partly shaped by Buddhism.

On the other hand, there is the Deobandi as well as a Wahhabist variant of faith, which was violently imposed from the outside in the recent past and has partly been established by now. The oftentimes one-sided reporting suggests that this variant represents the faith of the entire Afghan population. In his book Afghanistan. Chronik eines gescheiterten Staates[Afghanistan. Chronicle of a Failed State] (Berlin 2016, p. 21), Said Musa Samimy, the longstanding head of the Afghanistan editorial department of the Asia program of the Deutsche Welle, brings forth that ‘feudal relationships’, ‘pre-feudal relationships’, ‘archaically influenced areas’ and even ‘capitalistically influenced areas’ are mutually dependent from an economic perspective. With regard to patriarchal structures, there is the burka on the one hand: it can be found on numerous belletristic book productions in Germany and supposedly symbolizes an especially anomalous male dominance. But on the other hand, there are female ministers, Afghan feminists, or armed female nomads who request that the popular imagination of general oppression of the Afghan woman (who is always distinguished from the “entirely emancipated Western woman with equal rights”) be substantially differentiated.

We believe that for social science research on Afghanistan, this conflict situation should first be recognized. Here, it is necessary to have adequate models of social theory which are able to cover the indicated complexity. In our view, this includes intersectional approaches in which the interplay of a variety of structural dimensions is given more weight than the analysis of individual structural characteristics (e.g. economy or gender relations). Adequate models further consist of perspectives that examine the specific mediations of more general power relations in the empirical projects; i.e. approaches which are aimed at the analysis of structural forces which structure the empirically observable phenomena themselves.

Finally, we refer to the tradition of the Critical theory of society as well as postcolonial approaches. Both approaches adopt a perspective that is critical of (not contrary to) education and of power and is, for instance, skeptical of linear ideas of progress, or of the classical paradigm of development (we are referring to the works of Reinhart Kößler, Christian Sigrist and Hanns Wienold). Even if we do not necessarily follow a theoretical approach of “radical narration”, there are analogies on the perspectives of Thomas Loy and Olaf Günther from their preface in their edited book Begegnungen am Hindukusch [Hindu Kush Encounters] (Berlin 2015, p. 6) bringing forth that one should not try to answer complex questions too fast.

Between such general theoretical conceptualizations and specific empirical studies, there is always a sort of theoretical drop. This is because the empirical work, which is often project-like and financed by third-party funds (i.e., limited in time and controlled by output), presupposes compromises. Another reason is that the structural dimensions mentioned above are not directly observable. Nevertheless, we endeavor to conduct theory-oriented research, as described above, in our projects. This includes a postcolonial subject orientation, which does not automatically conclude a lack of health competences from illiteracy (cf. the contributions of Stefanie Harsch et al. on the health literacy research in Ghazni) because literacy does not necessarily determine health literacy. It further includes the intersectional set-up of our health ethnological studies (ELMi, SCURA). Finally, we should highlight that with these merely cursorily presented considerations, we do not claim to represent the only adequate approach to research on Afghanistan. This would be completely presumptuous – we merely laid out our own considerations, which are aimed at doing justice to the especially complex research object Afghanistan, in a clear and thus transparent manner. Criticism and suggestions are always welcome (cf. contact form of the home page).