A Would-Be Freakonomist in Kyrgyzstan Needs Your Help

From a reader named John Keaney:

I just finished your book Think Like a Freak, and I’m trying to use the lessons in the book while I’m in Kyrgyzstan. I’m an undergraduate at University of South Carolina, and I’ve decided to pursue my very first, independent research project while I’m living in Kyrgyzstan on the effects of Kyrgyz accession to the Eurasian Economic Union on the Kyrgyz informal economy and, ultimately, Kyrgyzstan’s political stability.

I’m almost ready to go out to the bazaars and do my data collection, but I’ve been trying to pick the best possible questions to ask the people working in the stalls. Thus far I’ve been focusing on questions regarding past prices and what they expect in the future, what they feel the EEU’s effect will be on them, how much they depend on bazaar money, whether or not they have any sons that are migrant workers (and if they’ll be returning home soon), etc.

I’ve been struggling to come up with a good Freakonometric for the questionnaire, but I’ve been struggling to find an unusual, but important, common thread between the EEU, bazaars, household income, etc. and was wondering if you would have any advice for this filthy undergrad.

Who can give John a good suggestion or two?


This is hard, because it's a kind of chicken-or-the-egg scenario: you need data to determine if there are any surprising connections, but you need to know what the surprising connection is to ask the right question to get the data.

I would suggest thinking about every possible thing that could be impacted. Taxes, leisure time, access to quality education, changing gender roles, etc, etc, etc.

We don't discover surprising connections because we anticipate them and then get the support for or hypothesis. Rather, you have to recognize that you CAN'T anticipate the connections and just get as much data as you can. Then it comes down to sifting through the responses and numbers like a prospector panning for gold. And, like a prospector, you may find it, or you may just have a pile of dirt.


What ever you decide upon. Test your questions on a single (or a few) individuals and see wether it works. Nothing could be worse than going a through long questionair to just find out that noone is aware of the EEU. Or they could just hate the EEU because they hate Russia, or what ever ...


some interesting subjects that you may want to explore:
• bartering practices
• taxes and how they are applied (or avoided)
• bribery practices (past and present)
• price negotiations (and how it has changed over the years)
• remittances (from Asia vs. Europe vs Russia) (past vs. present trends)


I'd be interested in how this has affected informal supply chains--all those folks under those blue tarps in the bazaars have to get their wears somewhere. Among other things, lower trade barriers may mean more "formal" lines of supply. Alternately, if it didn't, that would be interesting in itself. Relatedly, I'd echo the interest in bribery practices. Again, almost any finding here could be construed as interesting.

Some cross-national comparison might be useful. I gather Kyrgyzstan is about to become a member. Comparing Kyrgyz markets with those in Kazakhstan (already in the EEU) and in Tajikistan (not in the EEU) might be interesting. If you happen to be traveling more broadly in the region, consider asking some of these questions along the way--although, see note below on researcher safety.

Alternately, you could compare internally. This could be North/South--bazaars in Bishkek vs Osh--or urban/rural. It's at least possible there would be a greater EEU impact in urban areas. Inversely, there could be a greater impact in rural ones, if these experienced integration from a position of greater previous isolation.

If you can, it might be useful to control for language. Questions posed in Kyrgyz, Russian, or (where possible) English might ilicit different responses. Similarly, questions posed by North Americans may get different, or differently inflected, responses than those posed by locals.

Lastly, do be careful, especially outside (relatively democratic) Kyrgyzstan. There's a bit of a chill on for social scientists in the region: http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/how-alexander-sodiqov-was-freed-following-espionage-charges-1.2772191

Good luck!



John Keany,
If you become a prominent economist in your country, study how America devolved from a democracy into an oligarchy. Study the neoliberal policies that robbed productive Americans
of rewards for their increased output. Review how the U.S, financial sector (particularly hedge fund billionaires), drag down GDP, rip-off the middle class/working poor and buy politicians.
You can bear witness to a once great nation that has become a banana republic.


I'd start with some open-ended interviews to get an idea of what issues there are out there that are interesting. Cultivate a few chatty vendors. I find qualitative data is much more important in the beginning. You might consider starting with just getting a few vendors to describe their business. Where are their sources, how often does stock turn over, what are taxes. When you have the particulars down and know what they complain about, it will be easier to ask about how things have changed.


This very successful technique is known as a focus group. It's always helpful to understand the terrain before data collection. Even more so when you are totally new to it.


John, it's great that you are trying to research economic behaviour in a non-Western environment. I think it's a huge lacune of knowledge in Economics. However, the very question you ask namely what are the interrelations between the Eurasian Economic Union and Kyrgyzstan's bazaars may be flawed. I did some research on mechanisms of Eurasian economic integration which suggested that there is no real influence of EEU on most people. Would be happy to share with you my results. https://www.facebook.com/konstantin.podkopaev.5