I have been fascinated by Mongolia’s capital city since my first visit in 2012. Despite my familiarity with the anthropological literature, on arrival in Ulaanbaatar I was utterly taken aback by the unique metropolis that greeted me, an architectural palimpsest of Mongolia’s history: steel and glass skyscrapers next to Soviet-era apartment blocks next to white felt-wrapped gers (yurts) enclosed in wooden fences. My first obsession was the footwear: every woman looked dressed to the nines, deftly navigating the pot-holed roads in heels of all heights, men striding confidently in polished leather cap toes. From that moment on, I felt driven to explore these untold aspects of Mongolia, to unearth their complexities and contradictions and to try to engage with the city as experienced by her residents.
Seven years and three degrees later I defended my PhD, a study of life in Ulaanbaatar’s “ger districts”. As I discuss on page 99 of my thesis, in 2007 the ger districts were classified by the UN as “informal settlements”. As ger districts have grown over the last thirty years to surround the city centre and spread out over the mountainsides that encircle the capital, the undeserved tag of informality – incorrectly designating the ger districts as being unplanned settlements where non-compliant housing is constructed on lands to which occupants have no legal claims (UN 2011) – has been accompanied by a scholarly approach that tends to focus on ‘lack’. Ger districts are thus usually described in terms of absent infrastructural amenities: running water, paved roads, central heating, a sewage system, effective refuse collection. Similarly, Ger district residents are often depicted as destitute, unemployed, and uneducated rural-urban migrants who have become detached from the countryside and, unable to integrate into the city, fall into a cultural and economic void.
My thesis challenges both narratives and represents the first book-length study of an Ulaanbaatar ger district based on long-term residential fieldwork. As the subheading on page 99 states, my ethnography drives the study of these areas “Beyond ‘Lack’” by engaging with the social, material, linguistic and bureaucratic infrastructures that do exist in the ger district. I explore ger district kinship networks and the enaction of relations through vocative kin term usage, I trace the flow of goods and people between country and city, the exchanges and consumption of countryside meat that connect ger district dwellers to their homelands, and I examine the daily work of local bureaucrats that render ger district lives legible to the state and define residents as deserving or not of welfare assistance. I argue that “ger districts are neither just the outcome of migration in ‘the age of the market’ [as Mongolians call the post-socialist era] nor the simple manifestation of a nomadic culture caught in the middle of a transition to urbanism” (Fox 2019: 99). Instead, I trace their peripheralization during socialism, and interweave the life histories of ger district residents with the histories of social change in Mongolia. Finally, “challenging standard conceptions of centres and peripheries by ‘thinking with’ the ger districts” (Ibid.), I disentangle approaches to urbanity that carry inherent sedentary biases from the discussion of the profound challenges ger district residents do face in their daily lives.
Fox, Elizabeth. (2019). “Between Iron and Coal: Enacting Kinship, Infrastructure and Bureaucracy in the Ger Districts of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia”. PhD Thesis. University College London.