Research interests, past present and future

Field notes in their raw form.
A hurried scrawl of notes in a combination of English and Mongolian, taken during an interview on issues relating to political repression.

Learn more about my research interests, including what I've done, what I'm working on now, and where I want to go in the next few years.

Current research

The question of the lamas: violence, sovereignty and exception in early socialist Mongolia

My forthcoming book, The question of the lamas: violence, sovereignty and exception in early socialist Mongolia, is under contract with the University of Hawai’i Press and expected out in late 2013, early 2014. In this work I focus on the struggle between the new, weak socialist government and the dominant Buddhist establishment for the hearts and the minds of the populace in early socialist Mongolia (1924 – 1940). In doing so, it forces us to rethink our views of how and when states take up the use of political violence. Spread over a period of a decade and a half, the contest between the socialist government and Buddhists ultimately resulted in the death of approximately 18,000 Buddhist monks during an eighteen month period in the late 1930s. Drawing on hitherto unused archives, the research explores in unprecedented detail and at multiple levels the policies that led to the mass repressions in the late 1930s, and the destruction of over 700 monasteries. I examine the interaction between claims for legitimacy by the nascent government and the state of exception as a response to crisis. I argue that the contingent and threatened nature of the socialist state led to a reluctance to acknowledge the challenges that threatened it; the use of physical violence was the last resort of the state. What is new and challenging about the Mongolian case is precisely the efforts the socialist government spent on not using physical violence against the Buddhists. My research on political violence against Buddhist monks in early socialist Mongolia challenges our broader understandings of political violence and its relation to sovereignty, power and the legal system.

Tracing the wine-chain: creating and recreating emotions from wine-making to wine-tasting

This is my newest project, being carried out in collaboration with my colleague, ML Nodari. .

What is the connection among wine, emotions and the formation of the social in what we term the 'wine-chain', from the making to the tasting of wine?

Wine makers in northern Italy consider their wine inextricably linked to ideas of emotions and to the perception of the landscape (It. territorio). The wine is consumed locally, and wine makers also export their artisanal production (c. 2500 bottles a year) to the UK and elsewhere, where they organize wine tasting events. Following the wine in relation to different but specific communities of wine consumers, the research examines how emotions and the social sphere are constructed in the entire economy of a wine, from making to tasting wine, at both the local and global levels. It also studies how, in wine tasting / appreciation events in the UK, very different consumers coming from local and international settings relate to ideas of sentiment and sociality.

At these events ‘wine enthusiasts’ (to borrow the name of a popular wine publication) may enjoy wine produced in northern Italy, but for them, it is arguably more important to appreciate wine – to treat it as an object that can be aesthetically valued and judged. In such appreciation, at organized wine-tastings and elsewhere, one form of the social – the emotive – seems to be buried, while a new social, the intellectual, appreciative one, is created. In ‘official’ wine-tasting, emotion ceases to be relevant on the one hand, on the other hand it is sometimes considered to be an added value. Emotions are not strictly forbidden, but are generally seen as unhelpful. They may be brought back in when describing wines for the public, but even here, they are usually limited. The initial process of growing grapes, harvesting them, and making the wine seems to be a world away from such an approach.

While local producers are deeply concerned about their territory and wish to communicate it and its emotions to the drinkers of their wine, they surprisingly seem to be less worried about ‘classic’ terroir concepts - the influence of soil and climate – or ideas about wine appreciation. The relation with their territory and to the social sphere is at the centre of their cultivation of grapes and making wine, and also in their commercial and economical choices at the local and global level; they see all these elements as transmitted into their wines.

Yet something happens to this wine when it shifts from local production to local consumption and to the global arena, and to the wine's entangled emotions as well. The research aims to study these different communities of consumers as ‘communities of emotions’, and to understand if emotions and taste can be translatable.

Remembering repression: violence, memory and morality in Mongolia

Since 1997, I have had an on-going project that examines the legacy of political violence, specifically in the case of Mongolia, political repression. I have been examining the impact of political violence on the shaping of identity in the contemporary political arena and the everyday lives of people in Mongolia. After fifteen years of research and publishing on the topic, I am currently drawing together my work into a book, Remembering repression: violence, memory and morality in Mongolia

This work brings together over a decade of research on how political violence has been remembered and used in post-socialist Mongolia, particularly in regards to moral claims to authority. A key theme in this work is the intersection of legal and social approaches to rehabilitation and commemoration of victims of political violence. One section of the monograph looks at how competing social and legal definitions of who is a victim of repression allow those who are by legal standards not victims to stake a claim to moral authority over people who are legally defined as victims. Another section examines the way the rehabilitation process is shaped by a demand for documents that serves to foreground particular narrative tropes that in turn shape the social understanding of the repressions.

The Oral History of Twentieth Century Mongolia

This project, which ran for five years at the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit at the University of Cambridge, has finally launched. Please visit it at at

It documents the lived experiences of life under socialism, and involves an international team of approximately 15 people, whom I have been responsible for managing. The oral history project contains over 610 interviews, with people from across Mongolia freely available on a public website, which I also designed and wrote. In addition to the transcriptions, selected translations and audio and video, the website will include supporting information, such as photographs and documents that the people interviewed themselves have felt relevant to their stories. Extensive information on both the people interviewed and the interviewers and the search capabilities will give the project a degree of flexibility unparalleled in such projects. It does much more than this, however, as it seeks to create new understandings of people’s memories of how they understood, reacted to and even attempted to pre-empt experiences of state transformations, such as collectivization, education and hygiene campaigns. It not only documents individuals’ engagements with the state, but sheds light on the larger processes whereby people’s social, political, cultural and economic contexts inform their memories of such responses.

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