Project Update – March 2016
By Rebecca Empson, on 11 March 2016
At the end of February the UCL members of our research group met at a farm in Sussex, South West England, for a four-day writing and research retreat. This was a chance to reflect on the first phase of our fieldwork and discuss emerging themes, such as talk of an impending economic ‘crisis’ (khyamral) in Mongolia, issues of debt and its ‘digestion’, balancing political dilemmas, the stalling or suspension of many businesses, and the looming elections.
A few weeks ago we met with Prof Hanne Petersen, a scholar of legal cultures at the University of Copenhagen, to discuss the changing global economic landscape. Reflecting on this discussion through our own material we sense that the slowdown of the Chinese economy, coupled with the decline of the global commodity super-cycle signals the passing of an era of exceptional growth in the region.
What format the new era will take, or what beginning or end it may have is, however, essentially unknown. In fact, the idea of an impending crisis manifests as a ‘low hum’ in the imagination of many in Mongolia, meaning that it is very hard to place accusation or blame on any single person or system. Even the idea of what is knowable is coming into question as the debt of the country has spiralled out of control in a web of obligations that is impossible to untangle.
At the farm we engaged in some experimental writing tasks to try to describe this ‘new era’, and wrote short creative writing pieces and character descriptions for our ethnographies, which we also discussed in detail. We also went on some beautiful runs, cooked meals together, visited local pubs, and attempted to heat hot tubs nestled in the forest. The setting was very inspiring.
Different strands planned for the project were also discussed and we allocated responsibility for several forthcoming events, including a workshop at the National University of Mongolia in November (provisionally entitled Uncovering ‘Mongolian-made’ Capitalism), as well as plans for a documentary series on Mongolian television that focuses on five themes of our research, a conference in 2017, and a multi-authored article on ideas about temporary possession, among other things. Watch this space for more news!
This week we presented some of our ideas at a workshop at UCL with Madeleine Reeves (University of Manchester) and Gisa Weszkalnys (London School of Economics), both of whom work on theoretical ideas that have become important to our research. We received important feedback on our ethnographies and on what to focus on for our second phase of fieldwork, which will commence over the next few weeks for some of us, while others are already in Mongolia.
It is clear that the structure of our project is beginning to generate some very interesting theoretical insights. Unlike other research projects that might take a single question and explore how it differs in various geographical and cultural contexts, we are finding that the structure of our project has given rise to very different ways of viewing similar material in a single country. While we are all focusing on the Mongolian economy in some way, we are increasingly differentiating our approaches and theoretical contributions to this phenomenon, illuminating that the economy itself is never a singular stable entity.
The different theoretical registers that are beginning to emerge out of our ethnographies also points to the multiple ways in which a single phenomena is experienced and understood, from the transformation of infrastructures and bureaucracy, to the dilemmas between state, society, and companies, as well as personal life histories and individual trading strategies. While points of comparison and threads weave between each of our studies, they are also increasingly emerging as different from each other in very interesting ways. We now look forward to returning to our fieldwork and to understanding further the different ways in which the changes in Mongolia are being shaped and experienced.