People, when they find out I work in Mongolia, almost inevitably ask "Why Mongolia?" The tone of the question ranges from interest, to bewilderment to something bordering on faint horror. There is, like with most things, a story. The version here is more or less the same as the one in the Preface to Truth, History and Politics in Mongolia.
One Tuesday in April of 1990, when I was in graduate school, a group of cultural anthropologists were meeting for a discussion over lunch. A friend of mine reached into her backpack and pulled out a photocopy of a human interest piece she had found in that day’s New York Times. "Here," she said. "Mongolia falls between the Himalayas and Siberia. I thought you might be interested in this." She knew I couldn't stand hot weather, and that I had been thinking of working in the Himalayas, or possibly Siberia. I read the article, which is still in my files. Click here to see a copy of it, although the text isn't legible. (I hope the NY Times and Nicholas Kristof, who wrote the piece, will forgive this copyright violation. If not, please contact me me.) It was a short piece about life in Ulaanbaatar. It hinted at some interesting things going on in terms of identity and history, topics that I was interested in. I had become intrigued by how knowledge is transmitted and transformed between people, the power relations implied, and how this applied to vaguer concepts such as identity. The Mongols, the article mentioned, were coming out from under seventy years of essentially colonial Soviet rule. Thinking about history and identity in a new way was part of this, and to my mind immediately offered a chance to explore the questions I was interested in. "Well," I thought to myself, "it couldn’t hurt to read a bit more about Mongolia."
Thus I ended up in Mongolia. I was also very fortunate to end up establishing close ties with researchers at the University of Cambridge, in England, who took me in under their collective wing. I was able to spend time as a Visiting Scholar there in the early 1990s, and I've maintained ties over the years, and in fact am a Research Associate at the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit there. But Cambridge and the people there did more than just teach me about Mongolia. They've influenced my thinking and training about anthropology and social theory more generally. I am not sure I can point to it explicitly, although I tend to find it a bit more "grounded" than some of the more radical American anthropology. Whatever the reason, I like to think I'm a bit more comfortable working in the two different intellectual traditions than many other anthropologists are.
Of course, my time at Cambridge did more than just teach me about Mongolia and anthropology. It was also in Cambridge that I first learned to truly appreciate beer. Much like a summer student in Glasgow when I was an undergraduate taught me about single malts, so my time at Cambridge, and the guidance of a good friend or two showed me the light in terms of beer. As this was a time before microbreweries and specialty beers were widely available in the US (or at least my part) the enlightenment came as something of a welcome shock. (So did finding out that haggis is actually pretty good, but that's another story.)
On the off-chance that someone reading this is actually interested in the more personal side of "background": I was born and raised in suburban northern New Jersey, with three sisters, but no brothers. I was the classic geek in high school, and ran track and cross-country rather badly. In college I studied chemical engineering before switching to anthropology in graduate school. I also discovered and fell in love with fencing, wine and cooking in college. I'm sure there's more I could add here, but this will have to do for now. You can probably figure out some stuff for yourself by browsing the "More..." section of this site. At least when it finally has some content in it, that is.