Approaches and Focus Topics

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).

Necessity and limitations of educational expansion in Afghanistan

Education is a topic which plays a major role in Afghanistan as well as in Germany. While in Afghanistan, the currently most relevant political groupings associate a significant strengthening of school education with a progress of society as a whole, there is still considerable resistance to sensitive topics such as co-education or the academic education of girls.

But in our view, there exists no solid empirical attitude research in Afghanistan, and in the literature, there are both statements on a sustainably growing acceptance of (girls’) education (even in rural areas) and evidence of counter-ideologies from the Islamic spectrum.

In Germany, however, achieving higher education or an academic title is more or less automatically associated with a successful social integration – especially with regard to migration groups. From our perspective, both (above only cursorily stated) positions are problematic and not complex enough. Thus, the initial focus of our analysis of education in Afghanistan and the education of Afghans living in Germany is to endeavor to conduct a more elaborate assessment of the current situation of the educational system in Afghanistan.

To this end, we conducted a rather big conference on education at the University of Education Freiburg in 2015, the overarching topic being teacher education in Afghanistan. We compressed the different positions in an anthology, which shall be published at the end of 2018. Furthermore, we endeavor to have a continuous exchange within the framework of lecturer and student mobility; among other things in order to determine what we can learn from the Afghan variants of inclusive school education in Germany. The individual projects with further information are listed in the following.

Researching the topic of health in Afghanistan and the health of Afghans in the diaspora is a complicated enterprise, as is anything on the topic of Afghanistan. It becomes especially complicated due to the (at least) two dimensions which, in a certain sense, are in a relationship of tension: The dimension of the “objectively measurable” epidemiology and social epidemiology on the one hand, and the dimension of resources of the lifeworld, resiliencies, and health-related competences on the other hand.

With regard to the dimension of physical, objectively measurable signs, the strong relationship, dependence and influence between the health of the population and Afghanistan’s geography (e.g., the distance to the nearest hospital), agriculture (e.g., available resources of nutrition), economy (e.g., money for the offer and consumption of services regarding supply and health), and level of education (e.g., as the officially decisive determinant for health literacy) becomes especially obvious in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the ongoing civil war (since 1979!) and the concomitant armed conflicts are an especially decisive dimension of the population’s health. Many sources state that the number of death victims is currently at 1 million, but the data situation is convoluted.

There is better documentation of the time right after the drawback of the Soviet troops. Thomas Ruttig calculates a total of 200 316 victims. In other words: extensively independently from the health supply structure, it is hardly possible to detach an analysis of the topic of health from the military conflicts and invasions. Due to the current political situation and the decade long military conflicts including the secondary effects of forced migration, flight, return, as well as the topography of Afghanistan, the common health indicators of the World Health Organization and of the United Nations Developmental Program (cf. HDR 2018; retrieved on 1.2.2019) turn out quite bad.

According to the Human Development Report, the average life expectancy, which has officially increased continually since 2006, is at the age of 64 in 2018 (even in the contiguous Pakistan it is 2 years above, and in Iran, it is more than 10 years above). The rates of infant and child mortality have been among the five highest of the world for years (e.g., in 2015, the infant mortality was at an estimated 54,9 per 1000, as opposed to an estimated 8 per 1000 in Europe (WHO: Global Health Observatory; retrieved on 02.02.2019). Further, there are regional differences with regard to the situation of the provision of health care: Especially in the rural regions, the accessibility of health institutions as well as the availability of medical staff is heavily limited. Especially female doctors, female nurses, and female midwives are missing. Furthermore, the majority of healthcare services (78,38%) are paid by the population itself (and 54% of the Afghans live below the poverty line) or are co-financed by international sponsors through the large-scale projects BPHS and EPHS. Thus, it is majorly influenced by international geopolitical developments.

In summary, Afghanistan is regarded a clear problem case with regard to healthcare. However, the situation is a bit more complicated at second glance: First, substantial effort has been made in order to improve the health situation in all regions in Afghanistan, which has led to a substantial increase in medical staff and health institutions in the cities (by public as well as private providers). Second, the data published in the relevant reports are extremely vague. For instance, there is currently no saved data as to how many Afghans live in Afghanistan and it is hardly possible to estimate it in a reliable and sustainable way due to the high flight mobility. Thus, when data about the average life expectancy or sickness rates are presented, their validity is highly limited. Here, a medium-term set-up of regional or communal health statistics which are closer to the actual relations than data collections usually controlled and managed from Kabul would be reasonable.

And third, the picture of Afghanistan as a health problem case is at least incomplete because the familial or neighborly health care, the traditional healing procedures, and the present health competences are either ignored or devalued as deficient from the start through the lens of the Western healthcare. We do not wish to deny the real problems, but a picture of Afghanistan which makes do with a deficit-based inventory of Western criteria is anything but helpful. In this sense, we believe that the focus should be to pay more attention to the health competences (despite the illiteracy!) and the health-related everyday actions of Afghan families. In our view, this is crucial because most of the decisions and behavior patterns relevant for health are not made in the clinic or in the hospital, but in everyday life.

With our research, we would like to contribute to a broader understanding of behaviors, conceptions, attitudes and decision-making processes relevant for health. In short: to a theoretically and empirically comprehensive understanding of the health situation in Afghanistan. In addition to our interest in health in Afghanistan, we would also like to contribute to the (health) situation of people with Afghan origin who immigrated to Germany, which is hardly researched thus far. We would like to approach this topic by way of various research plans which are conducted within the scope of health literacy research financed by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

In Germany, our research interest does not focus exclusively on the long established and mostly well-integrated group of those Afghans who immigrated to Germany many years or decades ago, but it also considers the most recently immigrated people. In a three-year research plan, we accompanied young Afghans in their everyday life and conducted research on their resources, competences, behavior relevant for health (cf. the elaborations on the ELMi-project). In the following project, we considered the Afghans in their language courses and how these educational settings touched upon their resources, competences, etc. and how this contributes to the strengthening of health (you can find details on the SCURA-project here).

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