Tanish-bilish (Uzbekistan)

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Tanish-bilish 🇺🇿
Uzbekistan map.png
Location: Uzbekistan
Definition: Acquaintance networks used to access resources
Keywords: Uzbekistan FSU Central Asia Personal connections Network Access Need Problem-solving Favour
Clusters: Redistribution Substantive ambivalence Instrumentality of sociability Economies of favours Getting things done
Author: Rano Turaeva
Affiliation: Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Germany
Website: Profile page at MP

By Rano Turaeva, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Germany

Tanish-bilish is an Uzbek term for networks/contacts used for extracting both material and non-material resources, or just for ‘getting things done’ (ishingni bitirish). Tanish-bilish literally translates as ‘acquaintance-known’, and may thus be considered a form of social capital. Schatz has described tanish-bilish as ‘access networks’, but claims they are often mistaken for clan networks[1].

In tanish-bilish networks, families and other forms of kinship play a primary role in terms of affiliation and strength of the ties. However, other ties cross cut or overlap within the networks, including sub-ethnicities, regional identity, clan identity, professional belonging and various kinds of friendships (tanish, dost, chin dost). Tanish refers to an acquaintance, dost or jora refers to a friend and chin dost to a close friend.

Etymologically the term tanish-bilish consists of two full words: tanish (acquaintance), and bilish, which is a gerund form of the verb bilmak and can be translated as ‘getting to know’. It can also be written without in unhyphenated form – tanish bilish. Related terms in other Turkic languages include tanish orqilu in Kyrgiz, tanis bilu in Kazakh, daniş biliş in Turkmen, tanysh-bilish in Tatar, and tanysh-bilish in Kumyk[2].

The Uzbek Explanatory Dictionary[3] defines tanish-bilish as, ‘Individual(s) who know each other and have some degree of contact’ (‘Bir-birini tanijdigan va ma’lum jihatdan aloqa munosabati bor shahs(lar)’). It gives the following example of usage: ‘Well, doctor, nowadays whichever institute/university you go to only the children of tanish-bilish pass the entrance.’ (‘Endi, dohtir, hozir qaysi institutga borsangiz, tanish-bilishning bolasi kiradi’). The term can also be found in Uzbek sayings, proverbs, and songs. The Uzbek proverb Bir ko‘rgan — tanish, ikki ko‘rgan — bilish can be translated as ‘once seen is tanish, twice seen is bilish.’ The meaning is that tanish-bilish can be established having met a person just once or twice. In contemporary Uzbek poetry one can also find such sayings as: ‘Таниш-билиш сотиб олишинг мумкин, лекин до'стларни эмас…’ This can be translated as ‘one can buy tanish-bilish but not friends’. The Uzbek film ‘Burilish’ featured a song called ‘Tanish-bilish’, sang by Ruslan Sharipov and Dilshod Abdullaev, which included the lyric ‘Tanish-bilish bular borki bitar har bir yumush, dostum buyogini ozing kelish’ (‘If one has tanish-bilish one can accomplish any task, achieve things and from there on, my friend, you handle it’).

The term tanish-bilish is used both as a noun to refer to the networks themselves, and as a verb for describing the actions/exchanges involved. As an example of the former, the travel writer Christopher Alexander relates the following comment by a newly-made local acquaintance, who offered to help Alexander when he was struggling to find a place to live:

‘I understand that it is very difficult for you newcomers without tanish bilish here in our country, and yet you are our guests and you have come to help us. I have lots of tanish bilish and I will help you find a house. Come and live in my house until we find somewhere for you to live.’[4]

The term tanish-bilish may also be used as a verb for describing how something was achieved, for example, ‘Qanaqa qilib kirdi okishga qizingiz, tanish-bilish qildingizmi yo ozi kirdimi?’ (‘How did your daughter pass the university entrance exams, did you do tanish-bilish or did she enter by herself?’)

There are two important aspects of tanish-bilish networks which are central to understanding their content and functioning principles. Firstly, there is the hierarchical dimension of social relations. Generational differences often overlap with social status, which is known locally as katta (big) and kichkina (small). Kichkina refers to a person who is generally perceived to occupy a lower social position, and katta a higher one. Particular duties and responsibilities are expected of individuals according to their perceived status within a given community. For instance, younger females of any family are always expected to help and cannot appear in public: if they are guests they stay in the either the kitchen or a separate room with the children and other young women. Elderly people are always respected, while young men are expected to earn money and support their families. Both of the terms are relative to the person or community by which the individual is perceived. In one relationship or context a person can be kichkina and in another katta. The status of a person can be defined either in reference to another person, or within a given community. In both contexts the status of individuals depend on the social relations with others.

Secondly, there are the dimensions of strength and duration of social relations: superficial/short-term (bardi-galdi/come-go, yuzaki/superficial, vaqtincha/temporary) and more intensive and long-term (boshqacha, muhim)[5]. These are based on various reciprocities; balanced (qaytarish garak), generalized (ot dushi, savab, sadaqa) and negative (paydalanish). In bardi-galdi (short-term) relations mainly two kinds of reciprocities are chiefly involved: qaytarish garak (balanced) and paydalanish (negative reciprocity), whereas in muhim (long term, important) relations ot dushi, qaytarish garak (balanced) reciprocities predominate[6].

Qaytarish garak’ is literally ‘must be returned’ and could be compared to a balanced reciprocity; ot dushi/from the soul (in other words, ‘with pleasure’) is synonymous to a balanced reciprocity; ‘savab’ and ‘sadaqa’ are part of religious almsgiving as an obligation of every Muslim (har bir musulmon burchi). Paydanalanish(from the Arabic word faida, meaning utility) literally means ‘to make use of’ and can be compared to negative reciprocity; it has a negative connotation which resembles free-riding. These different types of reciprocities are important in any kind of exchange but particularly important to distinguish for tanish-bilish networks of exchange. For instance, if one uses very important type of contacts in one’s tanish-bilish then this would suggest a form of balanced reciprocity.

Tanish-bilish networks usually have a strategic character and are used to extract resources of various kinds while avoiding formal rules as much as possible, as well as to solve problems. They enable informal exchanges which resemble the Soviet practice of blat, inasmuch as exchanges are based on favours of different kinds and not limited to informal payments (‘I scratch your back and you scratch mine’)[7]. Blat is described by Ledeneva as an informal exchange within personal and kinship networks, through which both material and non-material capital flow. Sometimes tanish-bilish is translated into Russian as po blatu, for instance in media reports.

One of the strategies used within tanish-bilish exchanges is what can be called the ‘politics of naming’. This strategy involves naming a very influential person or key official within the relevant sphere/field where one needs to ‘get things done’ (ishni bitqazish) as a door opener or a problem solver. A typical example of this strategy is if one gets caught by traffic police in Uzbekistan. The first thing a driver does is demonstratively telephone someone either real and influential, or somebody fake who pretends to be an important person. The second step is to offer the phone to the police officer. If the strategy is successful the driver will be free to go without punishment; if he is not, more phone calls are made and as a last resort a bribe may be negotiated.

Informal networks have long played an important role at all levels of social and economic interactions not only in Uzbekistan but in Central Asia in general[8]. Under Soviet rule they was particularly important as the elite was divided into regional clan groups which played a decisive role in the political development of Uzbekistan. Although the Soviets influenced the social and political make-up of the Central Asian societies, undermining pre-Soviet social structures, they also had to work with those structures to some extent. Clanship together with other kinship and friendship networks played a crucial role in people’s orientations within their professional and social lives, and in Uzbekistan in particular political leadership was designed around clans and regional belonging[9].

Tanish-bilish networks are strongly based on the principle of patron-client relations. Clientelism governs these networks’ efficiency. Eisenstadt and Roninger[10] identified such variables as hierarchy, asymmetry, inequality, autonomy, spirituality, power, kinship and friendship when analysing patronage and clientelism. The patron-client relations they described are the relations of power and asymmetry which direct the flow of resources and structure societal relations. If the social status of a person who is seeking to use tanish-bilish is lower (kichkina) than that of the person providing the favour, then by definition the latter acts as a patron and the former as a client in this specific transaction. The same client and the same patron can very well exchange their roles depending on the circumstances and also depending on who is providing the service for whom.

Post-Soviet social and economic crises coupled with growing uncertainties about the future have led people to rethink their survival strategies and social navigation through societal and political systems. Trust networks of tanish-bilish served to support the needs of their members and reproduced social relations of patronage and clientalism. Regional groups which formed during Soviet rule[11] have persisted as the basis of tanish-bilish networks. Since the state legal system and state administration collapsed or became defunct after the collapse of the Soviet Union, alternative (informal) systems of patron-client relations have served as an alternative space for ‘getting things done’ in post-Soviet Central Asia. The networks of tanish-bilish have filled the void left by the state legal system and state administration, to accommodate the basic needs of ordinary people, as well as ‘getting things done’ at the higher level of state administration and politics.


  1. Schatz, Edward. 2004. Modern Clan Politics: The Power of "blood" in Kazakhstan and Beyond. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
  2. Alekseev М. Е. 2011. ‘О некоторых общих моментах в словосложении тюркских и дагестанских языков' (‘About some similarities in word formation of Turkic and Dagestan languages’), Vestnik VEGU, 1(51): 88-94.
  3. Uzbek tilini izohli luģati, 3 djildi (Uzbek Explanatory Dictionary, third part). 2007. ‘Ŏzbekiston milliy entsiklopediasi’ Davlat Ilmiy Nashriayoti (‘Uzbekistan National Encyclopaedia’). Tashkent: State Scientific Publishing House.
  4. Alexander, Christopher. 2009. A Carpet Ride to Khiva: Seven Years on the Silk Road. London: Icon Books.
  5. Boshqacha literally means ‘another kind’, the meaning of the adjective expresses particular things and matters that are close to the meaning of German ‘etwas besonderes’ ‘something special’. Muhim means ‘important’ and comes from the Arabic word with the same meaning.
  6. Sahlins (1972) for studies on reciprocity and exchange
  7. Ledeneva, A. 1998. Russia’s Economy of Favours: ‘Blat’, Networking and Informal Exchange. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  8. Schatz, Edward. 2004. Modern Clan Politics: The Power of "blood" in Kazakhstan and Beyond. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
  9. Carlisle, D. S. 1986. ‘The Uzbek Power Elite: Politburo and Secretariat (1938-83)’, Central Asian Survey, 5(3/4), 91-132.
  10. Eisenstadt, S. N. and L. Roniger 1980. ‘Patron-Client Relations as a Model of Structuring Social Exchange’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 22 (1), 42-77.
  11. Carlisle, D. S. 1986. ‘The Uzbek Power Elite: Politburo and Secretariat (1938-83)’, Central Asian Survey, 5(3/4), 91-132.