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Published on November 10, 2023 | Updated on January 12, 2024

Zhanna Karimova

Confluence of Research Worlds - The Collegium Interviews

Oscar Ivan Esquivel Arteaga (Unsplash)

Oscar Ivan Esquivel Arteaga (Unsplash)

A cross talk with the sociologist Zhanna Karimova, who presents the research she is carrying out in 2023-2024 at the Collegium - Lyon Institute for Advanced Studies, and the sociologist Laurence Tain, who highlights the value of this collaboration for the Centre Max Weber.

Zhanna Karimova

featuring Laurence Tain


Read (in English) or listen to this talk (in French):



Music: The Return composed by Alexander Nakarada (CC BY 4.0)
A podcast series created and produced by Bérénice Gagne



Hello Zhanna Karimova. You are a researcher in sociology and a fellow of the Collegium - Lyon Institute for Advanced Studies for the year 2023-24. You are no stranger to Lyon, having completed a thesis at the Université Lumière Lyon 2 in 2021. What was your research topic?

ZK: I worked on the careers of men and women in Mathematics, in France and in Kazakhstan. I compared gender dynamics and social dynamics based on the educational paths of master's students in social sciences and hard sciences. I observed that females less frequently choose mathematics, even when demonstrating good academic performance in the subject. By comparing statistics in France, Kazakhstan, and other countries, I understood that this phenomenon is quite widespread. By studying it in France and Kazakhstan, I aimed to highlight the gendered mechanisms of reproducing educational inequalities that can be observed in the careers of male and female mathematicians.

Hello Laurence Tain. You are a demographer and sociologist, a researcher at the Centre Max Weber. What is your research field?

LT: I am a demographer, true, but first and foremost, I am a mathematician, then a demographer, and finally a sociologist. Broadly speaking, my research field is gender, and more specifically, I have extensively worked on in vitro fertilization and healthcare professions.

Is it mathematics that brought about the encounter between Zhanna Karimova and you?

LT: No, but mathematics did play a role. That's where I encountered gender dynamics: in the 1970s-80s, the University Institute of Teacher Training (IUFM) was founded; discussions on modern mathematics took place there. Within a group focused on "mathematics and society," we particularly looked into women mathematicians and the obstacles they faced.

Zhanna Karimova, what obstacles have you identified?

ZK: There are several. At the institutional level, in terms of public policies – educational and gender policies – for certain generations of women mathematicians, parents may not allow their daughters to go far away for their studies. In Kazakhstan, the state does not provide support mechanisms: for example, it doesn't offer accommodation for young girls and doesn't allocate transportation allowances.

In terms of networks, at the social level, if you come from an academic background – if your parents are scientists – integration is much easier. Conversely, if you come from a modest social background, it's very complicated to pursue a scientific career. Support and encouragement from teachers, certain stereotypes within the school and university system also influence career choices.

At the individual level, there are different action strategies, different logics. For example, girls are sometimes more compliant, hesitating to choose traditionally male-dominated professions. They hesitate to choose a transgressive path.

And in France?

ZK: Interestingly, despite the socio-economic development difference between France and Kazakhstan, despite cultural, religious, etc., differences, we observe similar dynamics. For instance, until the 1970s, there was more state involvement in promoting equality. After 1990, we see less state engagement in promoting young people, and families offer more support. Wealthy families have more resources to provide for their children than disadvantaged families. Even with a strong individual logic, even if you are very determined and ready, as a girl, to choose a traditionally male-dominated profession, without support, it's complicated; there are limitations.

In Lyon, you collaborate with the Centre Max Weber's sociology laboratory. What does this partnership bring you? What resources do you find there?

ZK: In Kazakhstan, during the Soviet era, sociology did not exist; it was considered a bourgeois, "anti-communist" discipline. It was only after the fall of the USSR that the chair of sociology and anthropology was established at Al-Farabi University. During the initial decades, the structuralist vision of social phenomena, in which I was trained, dominated Kazakhstani sociology. When I came to France for my master's in sociology, it was truly transformative for me to explore this new way of approaching social phenomena, from the perspective of action and actor rationality. The Center Max Weber is a laboratory with many researchers – such as Jean-Hugues Déchaux, Corinne Rostaing, Emmanuelle Santelli, Laurence Tain – who have invested significantly in developing this sociological vision. Through this collaboration, I could incorporate a theoretical approach into my research that considers both macro-sociological and micro-sociological aspects when studying social phenomena.

Laurence Tain, what does the collaboration with sociologist Zhanna Karimova bring to the Centre Max Weber?

LT: Zhanna Karimova brings a transnational perspective to the Centre Max Weber. Taking a comparative approach to gender dynamics helps understand how the analytical framework – differentiation, hierarchization, and heteronormativity – produces different trajectories across geographical spaces and historical moments. This refines our understanding of a transnational common foundation of gender effects on one hand, and what can be differentiated on the other. For example, in her thesis, Zhanna Karimova worked on gendered paradoxes between education and career: this is a transnational fact. Whether in France, Kazakhstan, or Spain, women perform better in school, are more qualified, yet have less successful careers. How to explain this paradox? It plays out differently depending on contexts or periods. To generate new ideas, it seems interesting to have a distance and understand how another intellectual tradition approaches a subject or how other research objects can shed light on it. By approaching gender issues from her unique perspective, Zhanna Karimova enriches our perspective.

Regarding gender issues, there is a tendency to have a very Western-centric view, as if the West were feminist and the rest of the world were not. Experience shows that, just like rapes, marital rape, or violence occur in the suburbs in France as well as among lawyers and doctors, and femicides happen both in Mexico and Ciudad Juárez at the border, similarly, women's agency unfolds in Kazakhstan as in France, but in a different way, with different codes.

Zhanna Karimova, for your fellowship at the Collegium, you chose to work on Aljir (Alzhir), a camp reserved for women and children designated as "enemies of the People" during the Stalinist era. Can you present this topic?

ZK: ALJIR (ALZHIR) is an informal acronym not found in archive documents. It was given to the camp by the imprisoned women themselves. In Russian, it means: Акмолинский лагерь жён изменников Родины. It stands for the Akmola camp for the wives of traitors of the homeland. My project focuses on the trajectories of women imprisoned in 1937-38 in the Akmola camp, a forced labor camp in the Gulag system in Kazakhstan for women or family members of "traitors of the Homeland." The term Gulag is also a well-known acronym thanks to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, "The Gulag Archipelago," or Evgenia Ginzburg, "Journey into the Whirlwind," or Varlam Shalamov, "Kolyma Tales." It stands for the State Administration of Camps and was created in 1934 under Stalin as part of the NKVD [НКВД: People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs], the political police. KarLag [abbreviation for Karaganda Lager], the camp management in Kazakhstan, was part of the Gulag system, and Akmola was one of its camps, exclusively for women. They were imprisoned according to the implementation decree of NKVD 2937, which mandated the imprisonment of family members – women, mothers, daughters, sisters – of "traitors of the Homeland," real or imagined enemies of the People. According to this decree, pregnant women and women with infants were not supposed to be imprisoned. However, this rule was never followed.

Today, we know the names of 8000 women imprisoned under this decree, including 1273 women of European origin. My stay in France is the first phase of a broader research project: I will work to reconstruct the trajectories of the four French women who were in this forced labor camp.

When going through your publications, it seems like an entirely new subject. What prompted you to veer towards this theme?

ZK: In my work, I often use trajectory analysis. By analyzing the educational and professional trajectories of mathematicians, I observed transgressive paths that go beyond certain social, cultural, etc., injunctions. I also observed that some women, or men, manifest a more evident capacity for action than others. I wondered if, in the camp, in the repressive context, it was possible to demonstrate this agency. If one can remain resilient, confront, even in this repressive context, what are the sources of this agency? While forced labor camps no longer exist, they can be considered as total institutions. Furthermore, today we observe certain repressive mechanisms concerning women, and I wonder what the sources of their agency are. This is what links my subject to current events.

Can you give examples of action strategies these women employed?

ZK: I am in the process of reconstructing some trajectories, which is quite challenging because you have to delve into archives, collect testimonies – if they have descendants because the imprisoned women themselves have passed away. Some women imprisoned in the Akmola camp and later released wrote letters for 20 years to the entire bureaucratic machinery of the USSR to be rehabilitated, to explain that they were not guilty. For me, this also reflects agency. Other women, considered communists whose testimonies were preserved, write: "I don't understand why I am imprisoned; I am a communist, a Party member." They created a community of communists in the camp and tried to maintain their Soviet citizen position, even in that context. Others relied heavily on their religious beliefs to stand tall, even if it was forbidden. There were representatives of several nationalities in this camp; for example, among the European women, there were religious individuals from the Baltic countries. So, there are several strategies, and one of the goals of my research is to identify these action strategies.

I also aim to identify the gendered forms of repression. Women experienced gender-based violence. In general, the idea is to understand how the Soviet state under Stalin used the gender regime to organize the repression of women and how the camp – as a total institution – contributed to maintaining this gender regime.

One of the challenges of this project is to establish connections between European and Soviet, especially Central Asian, history. In the current geopolitical context, it seems very important to forge links between geographical areas. It is also crucial to make women's history visible as they remain invisible, not only in the historiography of Stalinist repression but in historiography in general.

Today, we lack information about Stalin's repressive policy in the peripheral territories of the USSR. In Europe, research on the Gulag system mainly focuses on Russia and much less on Central Asia. Except for the research initiated by Alain Blum, "European Memories of the Gulag," one of the few examples covering different geographical areas: Ukraine, Central Asia, Russia, etc. While the camps on the territory of Kazakhstan represented a quarter of the Gulag system camps in the 1940s, the KarLag, of which Aljir (Alzhir) was a part, is very understudied, only by researchers from Central Asia and Russia. It is very little studied in Europe, even though the history of this camp is closely related to European history.

So, there is a desire to reconstruct history, to rethink history. It must be understood that the history of Kazakhstan has been written, until today, by Soviet historians heavily influenced by the ideology of that period. There is this desire to rethink history.