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Popular anthropology for everyone.

Sorting our world

The Nairarbi and the Diiwi code

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Even the first-year student of anthropology quickly learns that cultural groups are "varied" and "diverse." Yet one group that has not been studied in all its diversity is the Nairarbi, an information-working caste scattered through many societies in the modern world.

Speaking quite seriously, I know of no systemic study of the Naira culture or their engagement in larger cultural and economic movements. This research note invites us to change our picture of this understudied group—and invites you, the reader, to more closely observe the world around you.

~~~~

In 2011, I was introduced to a Naira officiant in a large warehouse in urban Kazakhstan, where respected objects sat upon rows and rows of shelves. Short and dark-haired, hailing from the southern provinces, Anel clutched an oversized book against her chest. As I leaned in, she opened a tome over 1000 pages long. Turning the pages carefully, Anel outlined an antiquated system of learning, known as Diiwi (or "oo-de-ke," in Russian), by which she organizes both her mindset and her world.

Anel uses this ritual knowledge of Diiwi to order and share knowledge with the seekers who come to her, thereby fulfilling the traditional role of the Nairarbi in multi-customary societies. With the aid of Diiwi, Anel lines up cultural objects in a precise order, one which lets young Kazakhs from outside her warehouse approach and learn more about any significant topic, from the impacts of modern technology to the history of related cultural groups.

Such an ordering and sharing is the goal of Nairarbi culture, a system that forms the basis for some of the most current systems of knowledge across the world today.

"How do you know what to call things?" I say, curiously touching an oblong, hard, fabric-covered object which she has tucked at the end of a curved shelf. The object seems made of wood, carved in thin slivers and inscribed with notes on culture, technology, and history. On the bottom corner, Anel has pasted a scrap of white paper. A label. A set of numbers, with dashes and dots.

"There's always something in here," Anel tells me, caressing the edge of her big Book. "Maybe there are many ways to order things, but I find the best one. The one that lets the students" –she points to a young Kazakh, studying the objects nearby–" discover our knowledge."

"Discovery" is a key word among the Nairarbi today, and at the heart of a paradox in their society. While Naira officiants are highly trained in using the Diiwi code to sort out the complexities of their society, allowing others to "discover" and easily assimilate this order into their own minds, this "simple" code can seems mystical and difficult to outside observers.

The Nairarbi sometimes refer to these observers as Putra, traditional clients which gather quietly in lines before the Naira, who respond at times with a smile and at times with indifference. Anel has put off the young seeker as she talks to me, but seems constantly aware as he walks back and forth near her shelves, studying her small labels and seeming thoroughly confused. He timidly glances in our direction, and she turns to answer him.

~~~~

Over a hundred and twenty years ago, the modern Nairarbi experienced a cultural revolution. Naira men (and sometimes women) were known for a shadowy existence, preserving the records of their society—and sometimes, allowing others to discover the same. Yet the most learned Naira tended to live in seclusion, sought out by scholars, students, and travellers only in times of need. Even when Putra approached their domain, they treated the Naira with caution and respect—secular in role, but perhaps similar to a shaman.

Yet as the industrial world accumulated its own memory of itself, and liberal values of discovery and exploration spread across the world in the 20th century, Nairarbi took on a more prominent scope in areas as diverse as the Soviet Union, Europe, and the Americas. They gained a new prominence with the rise of democratic institutions of learning–with the rise of the Book.

Estimates of the current Naira population range from 500,000 to 1,000,000 individuals, according to IFLA, an international organization. Yet among the Nairarbi, young members are always joining as old ones pass away—in fact, there has been a crisis of demographics of young Naira join faster than the elderly leave their hallowed roles, leading to limited resources among the population, and limited roles by which to grow and learn within their most traditional professions.

The Nairarbi also face a broader ecological crisis, as their flourishing role over several thousand years—and especially in the past hundred years—has shifted dramatically with the rise of digital technologies. Once focused on using the Diiwi code to stake out and order the world around us, the Naira increasingly find their organizing role interrupted by the unstructured, dynamic, linked nature of the internet—by the way that people, young and old, increasingly seek answers online rather than seeking out the expert Naira.

~~~~

I have worked with the Nairarbi for three years now, yet am always meeting people who challenge my claim to cultural fluency within this group. In 2014, I met a Nairarbi from America, who had moved from Virginia Beach through schools on the eastern seaboard, ending up in an elite Naira warehouse in New York.

Unlike Anel, Laura is loud and blond, wearing a burgundy dress and glossy high heels. Flicking her red nails across the screen of an iPhone, she looks up some information on the tribe for me, while boasting of her current position: "they [the Nairarbi elders] always want to claim me as a success, put me on the website, but I got here by myself."

I met Laura at a nationwide gathering of Naira practitioners, held twice a year across America. This year, some 16,000 attendees attend the sweltering meeting in Las Vegas. As I survey the halls, I find more women than men, more old than young, and a growing number of diverse Naira of many colors, and from around the world. Twitter is a popular venue for communication.

The future of the Nairarbi society is often discussed here, along with technological change and the challenge of retaining the attention of the Putra. Some Nairarbi react by becoming more engaged in the community, offering their services. Others offer assistance online, through free "Ask a Nairarbi" portals. Yet with more and more information and advisory offered by crowds online, for free, some young Naira are finding it hard to even find part-time work in their historic role.

~~~

When I bring up the Diiwi code, Laura laughs. "Haven't used it in a while."

While Laura was trained in Diiwi a few years ago, she and her friends find that modern Putra are put off by the linearity of the Diiwi code—for some, it preserves continuity and clarity. But for others, the system confuses rather than helps. Some Naira have moved to Elsii, but others invite in the Putra, allowing outside seekers to participate in "tagging" knowledge and culture in new ways.

But what does this mean for the future of the Naira? It's hard to tell, but social researchers would do well to pay attention. When we look at people "closer to home," we get a better understanding not only of our own society, but of many related processes occurring "out there."

The Nairarbi increasingly find their organizing role interrupted by the unstructured, dynamic, linked nature of the internet—by the way that people, young and old, increasingly seek answers online

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A Naira in her natural environment. Photo by Celia Emmelhainz, Kazakhstan, February 2012.
A Naira in her natural environment. Photo by Celia Emmelhainz, Kazakhstan, February 2012.