Elizabeth Fox takes the page 99 test

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.
http://www.ucl.ac.uk/anthropology/people/research-students/liz-fox
https://ucl.academia.edu/ElizabethFox

Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein takes the page 99 blog test

My dissertation looked at how media impacts community. Specifically, how does the global circulation of regular publications help create a sense of community among 8 million Jehovah’s Witnesses in more than 200 countries, and how do we know that these publications are key?

Before writing this blog, I spent a lot of time thinking about the affordances of new technologies: was I supposed to look at the page numbered 99, or the 99th page of the PDF file?

As an anthropologist, I’m not normally in the business of talking about intentions – but Ford Madox Ford died well before the age of the PDF, so I started with the page numbered 99.

Unfortunately, if I am honest, that page (page 116 of the PDF) is one of the most boring pages in the entire document. It’s the very end of chapter three, which introduces two different types of field sites: the town where I conducted primary research and the global institution of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This particular page lists out physical research sites:

Additionally, I visited both Jehovah’s Witness worldwide headquarters in Brooklyn, New York and the Mexico Branch Office near Mexico City. Worldwide headquarters, collectively known as Bethel, include collections of buildings in three New York cities: Brooklyn, Paterson, and Wallkill, where a total of nearly four thousand Witnesses live and work.

So I turned to the 99th page, or page 82. That’s about halfway through this same chapter. It’s also the page where I first introduce the role of Jehovah’s Witnesses in my primary research site:

Jehovah’s Witnesses from elsewhere in Mexico first arrived in Zapotitlán in the mid-1940s and had converted approximately half the population by 1959 (Turner 1972: 90). Community members seem to get along well despite these divisions, but there are some aspects of life in which they are strongly felt. For example, most Mexican communities hold large festivals on the holiday associated with the town’s patron saint. In Zapotitlán, however, since Catholics are not a majority and adherents of other religions do not want to contribute or participate, these events are no longer held.

The page then moves into an anecdote about religious responses to the celebration of an important political anniversary in the town. It sets the scene, to be sure – but it doesn’t fully succeed at capturing the tensions between the centralized global institution and the practices of one small community. For that, you might still need to read the whole thing.

Barchas-Lichtenstein, Jena. 2013. “When the dead are resurrected, how are we going to speak to them?”: Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Use of Indigenous Languages in the Globalizing Textual Community. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of California, Los Angeles.