skip to content

Department of Social Anthropology


Between Iron and Coal: Enacting Kinship, Bureaucracy and Infrastructure in the Ger Districts of Ulaanbaatar with Dr Elizabeth Fox

All welcome

Presenting an urban-focused account of life in contemporary Mongolia, this thesis moves from the intractability of structure-agency debates to engage with the tensions between obligation and creativity and form and failure explored through the polysemic metaphors of 'iron' and 'coal'. Based on long-term fieldwork in the outskirts – ger districts – of Mongolia's capital city, Ulaanbaatar, it examines how people make and unmake (or are made and unmade by) relationships and how the material 
and linguistic enaction of these relations shapes life on many scales (Sneath 2006).
The thesis commits to developing its theoretical insights out of the ethnographic material. Rather than relying on conceptions of urbanity developed from sedentary societies, it develops a novel perspective on rural-urban migration in Mongolia that draws on historical links between power and movement. Likewise, positioned against the tropes of 'sedenterised nomads', the thesis instead traces complex lines of continuity and rupture in the ger districtsacross social spheres, focusing on: the domestic use of kinterms, the materialisation of networks through the exchange of meat and other resources, the assemblage of the state by bureaucratic technologies in the local welfare office, and the 'hosting' of bureaucrats in ger districthomes. Inspired particularly by approaches to language (Agha 2007) and hospitality (Herzfeld 1987, 1992; Candea and da Col 2012), it examines how words and things can simultaneously be manifestations of obligatory forms and performative enactions of a present-in-the-making.
Attending reflexively to language, the thesis also experiments with forms of writing, its theoretical interventions embedded into the very structuring of the chapters (Strathern 1991). Such experiments in 
anthropological method are demanded by the nature of the study, attending as it does to iterations of daily life betwixt and between. This thesis thus not only delves ethnographically into the creative tensions between form and practice but also attempts to reconstitute these very tensions themselves.
Tuesday, 30 October, 2018 - 16:30 to 18:00
Event location: 
Seminar room, The Mond Building, Free School Lane