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2008 Student Paper Prize Awards

This fall the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies held its second Student Paper Competition. Undergraduate and graduate students in all disciplines were invited to submit scholarly works that focus on Afghan culture, society, land, languages, health, peoples and history. Submitted papers were judged based on the quality of scholarship, application of extant literature, and overall contribution to Afghanistan studies.  The prizewinner received $750 award and the opportunity to have the paper posted on the AIAS Web site.


Best Paper (2008) - “The Political Economy of Customary Village Organizations in Rural Afghanistan.” Jennifer Brick, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Abstract: Afghanistan is at best a fragile state and at worst a failed state. Nevertheless, public goods are provided routinely and effectively in villages throughout the country. What explains the provision of public goods in such a context? I argue that customary organizations are the primary source of order in Afghanistan not only because they can extract and redistribute resources from villagers, but because they are constrained in their ability to do so. Constraints such as the separation of village powers and local checks and balances facilitate local predictability despite national-level chaos. By analyzing the productive role of informal organizations in the provision of public goods, this research brings local politics into the study of state building in post-conflict or fragile environments. State-building strategies that build on productive informal organizations may improve their long-run prospects for success. The first step in the investigation of the potential for a bottom-up state-building strategy is determining what works locally.


Honorable Mention (2008) - "Qaum: Conceptualizing Potters in the Afghan Political Arena." Noah Coburn, Boston University.

Preview: In Afghanistan international military forces, government agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have all struggled to grasp the nuances of local political alliances, feuds and hierarchies. Examples abound of international military forces and NGOs claiming to bring democracy to local communities and instead simply reinforcing traditional power structures. These range from tribal leaders using development funds to install wells in their front yards to the way that local warlords have been able to ‘pass on information’ to American troops about ‘Taliban activity’ in order to induce American air strikes on their own personal enemies (Tanner 2002, 313 and more recently Straziuso 2008).

The purpose of this paper is two fold, first to try to understand and classify one specific political group, the potters of Istalif, and to use this example along with other ethnographic accounts to complicate and reinvigorate the debate over exactly how local politics in Afghanistan actually function outside of the major urban centers. I will suggest that while in many ways local politics in Afghanistan appear to be a classic case of segmentary opposition, in fact, by using Fredrik Barth’s understanding of ethnicity as a boundary marker, we can see how flexibility allows the potters and other groups to create manipulable definitions that they use to differentiate themselves as a political group.


Honorable Mention (2008) - "Negotiations in Performance: A Study of the Storytelling Performance of Two Adolescent Afghan Storytellers." Benjamin C. Gatling, The Ohio State University.

Abstract: This paper examines the storytelling performance of two adolescent male Afghan narrators. From conventional stories similar to those found across the Islamic world to obscene afsAneh or märchen, the boys’ performance encompasses items across the spectrum of oral, Persian fictive genres. During the performance, various negotiations occur. In this paper, I discuss two: "appropriateness" and "othering."

By looking at how concepts of appropriateness are negotiated during the storytelling event, this paper illustrates movement along a performance continuum: from perfunctory performance to more authoritative tones. Performance, then, is understood as a matter of degree. After issues of appropriateness are resolved and a "breakthrough into performance" is realized, the performance discussed here moves towards the pole of "full" performance.

Similarly, the narrators parse conflicting ideas of identity in a joke cycle. Their highly ambiguous handling of the joke material reflects their relationships to the categories named in real life.


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