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Workshop Recap: ‘Figuring out the Future: Emerging Subjects and the Flux of the Economic Present’

Hedwig AWaters18 June 2015

On the 9th of June, our project held a pre-fieldwork workshop entitled ‘Figuring out the Future: Emerging subjects and the flux of the economic present’ at UCL Anthropology. The day-long event, organized by Rebekah Plueckhahn and Pascale Searle, was attended by colleagues from Oxford and Cambridge, as well as UCL and other London Universities. It ended with a wine reception in our courtyard, kindly arranged by Christopher Kaplonski.

In the past year, our group has been reading assorted theoretical works together, allowing us to reflect on our individual ethnographic projects and discuss unfurling economic and political changes in Mongolia. The aim of the workshop was to introduce our ideas on a series of shared themes to a diverse audience, as well as present concrete ethnographic studies that will, it is imagined, investigate some of these themes.

Emerging Subjects Presentators

The workshop was divided into two thematic panels: ‘Economic Subjectivities’ & ‘The Politics of Infrastructure’. In each session, the themes, and the questions or hypotheses arising from them were presented, followed by different research proposals. Within ‘Economic Subjectivities’, for example, we presented theoretical approaches to ideas about neoliberalism, state formation, and subjectivity in the social sciences. Individual research papers relating to these topics were then presented, including research on (economic) nationalism; the use of different ‘zones of experimentation’ like Facebook, loans and lifestyle centres; and small-scale female migrant traders. Within ‘The Politics of Infrastructure’, approaches to the study of temporality, the construction of resources, infrastructure and the larger perception of the environment (i.e. the emergence of the Anthropocene) were presented. Projects directly addressing these ideas included changing concepts of property and ownership in Mongolia, as well as examining the proliferation of dust – and its ability to suspend several ideas at once – through mining in the Gobi desert. Each session was chaired by a different person – Joseph Bristley and Tom McDonald – who guided the discussion and posed some important questions.

Workshop Participants

Two ethnographically-derived concepts shaped the over-all discussions – the idea of prefiguration and resilience. Without the capacity to envision and enact stable futures, individuals increasingly ‘prefigure’—act out hoped for or expected futures in the present. At the same time, recent economic, development and environmental discourses, have shifted the sphere of responsibility for economic, social and global environmental change on to subjects. As a result, subjects (both people and points of concern) and their communities have been encouraged to become ‘resilient’—i.e. adapt and overcome instability through their own endeavours. Focusing on practices of prefiguration and resilience allows us to explore how new subjectivities and forms of collective activity are emerging ethnographically in Mongolia.

Our concluding round table discussion was led by Allen Abramson, who contributed many astute comments and questions regarding the theoretical trajectory of our project. He noted that none of our projects focus on nomadism—a previous staple of Mongolian ethnography and wondered if we saw economic change in Mongolia as impacted by previous cultural tropes, or as engendering new forms of relationality. Where have the old subjects gone, if we are focusing on ‘emergence’?

Bum-Ochir Dulam Presentation

As alluded in our title, our project provocatively uses the term ‘emerging’ to examine whether current local economic developments are in fact ‘new’, or another manifestation of constant cultural change. We draw inspiration from geographers (like J.K. Gibson-Graham) and anthropologists of financialization (like Bill Maurer and Caitlin Zaloom) by assuming that the economy is constantly changing and always spatially-variegated. In this vein, discussions explored the role of religion and nomadism in contemporary Mongolia with explanations that concepts of karma, fortune, space and time in Buddhism are important for understanding any unfolding changes. ‘Emergence’ evokes ideas about a progressive vision towards a better future—a perspective we will query through ethnographic documentation of Mongolian reactions to constant economic flux.

Workshop Participants

As a project on the nexus of anthropological and economic theory, our project garnered interest from different perspectives, which invited questions during the workshop as to our target audience and future goals. As anthropologists, we feel ideally placed to ethnographically depict realities on the ground that can contribute to wider debates. Through the simultaneous enactment of five individual research projects, we endeavour to create a temporal snapshot of the rich complexity of economic change and its engendered responses.

Wine Reception

Wine Reception

 

 

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.