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Beginning the Fieldwork Phase of our Project

ucsaar027 December 2015

This August marked the start of the fieldwork phase of our project. We gathered first in Ulaanbaatar to begin our affiliation at the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the National University of Mongolia (NUM), to meet with our paired researchers, and to set up our research visas. The ten researchers on the project – five from UCL and five from NUM – also had a very stimulating meeting with our Advisory Board, and gave a seminar at the Anthropology and Archaeology Department.

NUM

Seminar at the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the National University of Mongolia, photo by R. Empson.

 

Many of us brought our children with us, so we were very pleased that Helena Reeve joined us for part of this phase. She held ‘School Club’ with the project’s children every morning. Reading, writing and maths classes were centred around lots of interesting projects, including a study of the Tsam ritual, which resulted in the children making masks and giving their own performance.

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Some members of the Emerging Subjects’ ‘School Club’ performing a Tsam Dance with Ms. Reeve, photo by R. Empson.

'School Club' on the steppe, photo by R. Empson.

‘School Club’ on the steppe, photo by R. Empson.

We are very fortunate to have an active and diverse Advisory Board, ranging from herders to female activists, to independent economists and lawyers – whom we consult on an individual basis. This board was invaluable in advising us at the start of our projects and introducing us to many groups of people and individuals. Having all worked in Mongolia before, the 10 researchers themselves also have different networks that cross over and extend in different directions.

Advisory Board

Advisory Board Meeting, September 2015, photo by R. Empson.

 

After consulting with different people, we began fieldwork on our topics, in different field sites and among different groups of people. I, for example, have spent this autumn working in pawnshops, and in something called ‘nonbanking financial service centres’ in order to understand how people access cash in Ulaanbaatar and the countryside. Others have been working on construction sites and in ger districts, and others still at Naran Tuul, Ereen and Choibalsan markets. Some have been working on land ownership and mining issues, while others are exploring environmental movements and political protests.

Ulaanbaatar's Sukhbaatariin Square, photo R. Empson.

Ulaanbaatar’s Sukhbaatariin Square, photo R. Empson.

 

These topics are taking us to different places allowing us to meet a huge range of people while engaging in very diverse activities. One member of our research group, for example, gave a talk at the Government Building on contemporary American knowledge and perceptions of Chinggis Khaan, while another is following the making of a documentary about infrastructure in the ger districts of Ulaanbaatar. Some of us are still on fieldwork while others will be returning again in March.

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Khubilai Khaan (1215-1294) 800 years celebration, Ulaanbaatar, photo R Empson

 

The project’s title ‘Emerging Subjects’ is focusing our research in two senses. Firstly, we are using this term to explore the broader themes, or subjects, that are emerging in the current economic climate, and their articulation through different kinds of activities. These include forms of political protest, construction and infrastructure projects, and ways of transacting and accessing goods and cash, such as through pawn shops and barter.

Secondly, we are finding that the term ‘Emerging Subjects’  refers to actual people, or to distinct forms of subjectivity that are being articulated as an outcome of particular kinds of economic and political experiences. Here we are looking at gendered forms of political protest, such as hunger strikes and self-immolation, and ways of sustaining life while constantly being in debt. We all share a wider theoretical focus on the way in which particular kinds of economic activity give rise to certain forms of subjectivity and vice versa.

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Evening traffic jams in the city centre, Photo R. Empson.

 

For many of us there is a sense that Mongolia is currently in a gap, between futures that have disappeared from view, and new ones not-yet-realised.[1] The government is focused on the looming election and on how to pay back public loans, some of which are due in 2016. Public discontent is growing, and is increasingly dismissed as ‘populist’ or ‘nationalist’. There is a sense of stalling, of people getting by before things can pick up again or collapse completely.

The situation reminds me of a cartoon featured in the Mongolian media a few years ago. Only now, with increasing public and private debt, and declining commodity prices, the person featured in the cartoon is in the gap rather than standing on its precipice.

In some ways this may not be such a bad place to be – we are finding that there is lots of innovation and creativity in this gap. The substantive adaptation of formal economic models, for example, has lead to lots of exchange along the lines of an ‘economy of favours’, such as barter and informal lending.

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‘The Market Economy’, www.shinjeech.mn

 

The other side of the precipice may not have been reached, but there is the chance to get back up. The minerals (mostly) remain in the ground (albeit with a slow trickle to China) and people’s lives are relatively stable. One issue that we have all found is incredibly prominent in our research areas is debt. In the next few blog posts, we will each report on a particular area of debt that has come to the fore in our research. We hope you will enjoy reading them!

 

[1] Reference to ‘the gap’ is actually an ethnographically-derived concept that was articulated to me by several people during this period of fieldwork as they described how previous visions of the future have not been met.

Querying ‘The Field’ in Fieldwork….

ucsarpl14 August 2015

This September, the Emerging Subjects team will at last begin our fieldwork in Mongolia! This much anticipated part of our project will span from 2015-2016, with follow-up trips to Mongolia in 2017. In many ways it gets to the heart of what we do as ethnographers, spending long periods of time with friends and people we meet from a variety of backgrounds, building research relationships as people share insights that can be better understood through this long term research method. All of us have experience of long term research in Mongolia, and some of us are Mongolian, making this return to Mongolia a very welcome one. It is also finally the chance as a research team to actively engage with and draw from our collaboratively built shared theoretical frameworks through which we will pursue our different topics, frameworks that will no doubt shape and be shaped by our changing methodological approaches.

However, looking back upon the busy year of our project thus far has given me cause to reflect upon what ‘the field’ actually means for us as anthropologists of Mongolia. The past year for Mongolia has been an eventful one. Key political changes have occurred coupled with the signing of new agreements to spur on the extractives industry. A nationalist protest base has also risen strongly in response to some of these changes. Our preparatory reading and thinking through processes of economy and personal experience has already caused us to look at these changes in Mongolia with new perspectives, which has spurred our thinking about and commenting on these events. Without discounting the underlying historical disjuncture and inequalities between the ‘academy’ and ‘the field’ in anthropology – a topic which deserves ongoing critique – how distinct have these two domains actually been for us thus far? Where does ‘the field’ begin or end, or even manifest as it relates to Mongolia?

Soum Center.  Photo by Rebekah Plueckhahn.

Monhhairhan Sum, Hovd Aimag, Mongolia.  Photo by Rebekah Plueckhahn.

Facebook has proven to already be a ‘site’ that has allowed us to connect with a variety of interrelated networks on a daily basis in Mongolia spanning many rural areas, and diverse communities within the capital. It has become a place where a growing protest base in Ulaanbaatar has found a platform through which to connect and share information, becoming foundational to the formation of the movement itself. Friends have reached out to us to share thoughts on changing politics, sharing personal reflections on their views for the future, and their experiences of this year’s Tsagaan Sar, or Lunar New Year. Similarly, internet is now available throughout rural areas in Mongolia through smart phones, and Facebook networks now echo and expand existing, fundamental rural social networks. It was once only possible to keep up to date with news through bad telephone connections and actually being there. Now we are now able to talk often to friends and family.

For a long time a number of us have also been engaged with the Mongolian diaspora. Throughout the past year migrant Mongolian friends of ours have been sharing their reflections on Mongolia and engaging with our research group, where a number of scholars shared their valuable insights and discussed their current research on Mongolia.

‘The field’ itself within Mongolia also often proves illusive. As many ethnographers of Mongolia would attest, the term ‘village’ as some kind of bounded unit (if that exists at all) in relation to rural Mongolia is an unhelpful term which paints a static misrepresentation of the reality of mobile Mongolian life. People move so often between rangeland, district centres, provincial cities and the capital that it is often the ethnographer’s job to jump on the jeep and travel too.

Photo by Rebekah Plueckhahn

Zereg Sum, Hovd Aimag, Mongolia.  Photo by Rebekah Plueckhahn.

The interconnections between areas of Mongolia also stem internationally. As people engage with a myriad of different economic enterprises, they are forming links and connections that influence and are influenced by larger international, global processes of finance markets stemming from Hong Kong, London and New York. Another ‘fieldsite’ for us thus far has been the finance news as we have tracked reporting on commodity prices, corporate mining decisions and investment commentators’ impressions of a wavering Mongolian economy.

Additionally, even when conducting fieldwork, the different ‘sites’ we will work within in our different topics will undoubtedly overlap and expand when we draw our data together to paint a bigger conceptual picture.

Photo by Rebekah Plueckhahn.

Naadam Festival, Ulaanbaatar 2009, Mongolia.  Photo by Rebekah Plueckhahn.

Regardless of how helpful or not the term ‘fieldwork’ actually is, nothing beats the chance to talk and spend time with all sorts of people in the place that they call home. And perhaps this is what ‘the field’ is for us this coming September. It is a chance for reunions with friends, or for some, to return home. It is a chance to talk with new people in different settings over a long period of time whose opinions and voices aren’t so readily or easily heard. It is a chance to physically engage with, experience and better understand how people live in the dust storms in the Gobi, or experience the confusing, convoluted bureaucratic processes of gaining ownership of land or a securing a loan. To experience how people negotiate the long, repeated train trips to the border to conduct trade, and to hear the reflections of people struggling to understand and influence how their surrounding environment will be changed with mining. It is a chance to learn first-hand about how the changing economy of Mongolia is experienced, and it is this that we are looking forward to.

What constitutes ‘the field’ to you in Mongolia or elsewhere?