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Querying ‘The Field’ in Fieldwork….

14 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?

 

 

Theory as Toolkit, Toolkit as Theory

LaurenBonilla27 March 2015

This blog post is meant to offer a glimpse into how our research team is negotiating a question that has become central to our collective work so far: How can our collaborative, ethnographically-situated anthropological research project develop a shared theoretical framework?

This question emerged last term, following the launch of our Emerging Subjects project in September 2014.  We spent the first three months of our project at UCL reading books and articles we collectively curated to address theoretical themes relating to our new project.  Our varied academic backgrounds and theoretical interests inflected and enriched our discussions on readings, ranging from extractive economies and resource making to economic performativity and the anthropology of time.

In the beginning, we found ourselves working through various literatures by drawing heavily on our past research in Mongolia.  Because we each brought to the project years of experience in the country, there was a lot of sharing of ethnographic examples and anecdotes.  These conversations were very useful in that they not only helped us as a new team become more acquainted with each other, but they also helped us flag key topics we saw as potentially significant for our project to explore.  We also used these ethnographic insights in short individual writing tasks.  Writing in quite creative ways, we explored how much traction themes such as subjectivity, temporality, and neoliberalism might have for our thinking about the shifting economy in Mongolia.

As a means to record our lively discussions and the ideas that emerged in our writings, we drafted a somewhat sprawling document aptly named ‘Running List of Shared Themes’.  The idea was to create a collective repository of the theories, ideas, and examples that we shared at UCL before we leave for Mongolia this summer to begin our individual ethnographic studies.  We also saw it as a document we could reflect back on during our project’s data analysis and writing stages.

Yet, we found that a repository documenting themes shared in our group is quite different from developing a shared framework that would allow us as a team to refine and build theoretical insights.

This became clear during our readings and writings on neoliberalism.  As a group, we debated how we would define and theoretically engage with neoliberalism, a term that could mean anything from a class-based ideological project, to a form of governmentality, to a particular stage of capitalism or modernity.  Indeed, our individual writing tasks on neoliberalism reflected what James Ferguson calls the “partly overlapping and partly contradictory” aspects of the term.  For example, Rebekah Plueckahn and Baasanjav Terbish focused on the implementation of neoliberal economic instruments in Mongolia and how this resulted in the reconfiguration of state and market practices.  Hedwig Waters and I explored neoliberalism less as a ‘project’ and more as a subjective encounter with the world.  Rebecca Empson tacked between different approaches, playing with how neoliberalism as an analytical frame can reveal or conceal notions of ‘development’ in contemporary Mongolia.

This exercise left us wondering, what now?  If our future ethnographies are going to be like these writing pieces, what theoretical insights would we be able to draw?

The team working on the theoretical toolkits.

The team deliberating on a theoretical toolkit.

 

Thus, the theoretical toolkit was born.  This winter term we compiled one- to two-page ‘toolkits’ for the seven overarching themes that our group collectively decided as important.  Each toolkit reviews readings we did on that theme.  We highlight what a particular theory – like a tool – offers in terms of analytical usefulness.  We then relate these theories to topics flagged as empirically significant for our ethnographic research in Mongolia.

When our group reconvenes next term, our goal is to create general statements about what we think each toolkit says.  The purpose of this is to generate hypotheses that we can test and compare when our team is in Mongolia conducting individual ethnographic studies.  When we return to UCL during breaks in field research, we will reflect on what appears to be similar or different between our studies, and use the toolkits as a way to help us explain these variances.  Moreover, these discussions will likely help us redo or refute the general statements associated with each toolkit, so that what we end up with in a couple of years will likely be quite different from what we have now.

It is our hope that the toolkits will do more than serve as a shared theoretical framework for our group.  We anticipate that recursive engagement with the toolkits will provide a foundation for our group to build theory collectively.  Thus, we envision the toolkits to be as much a theoretical outcome of our project as a research methodology.