This article introduces methodologies and frameworks selected for my study of contemporary Khalkha Mongol culture and society in Mongolia. In response to your requests, I also discuss some challenges I’ve encountered out in the field. Teachers may find the following article (the schemas, the examples, the discussion of problematics and other points of methodological interest) a useful resource for use in small group discussion and tutorial settings.
The above schema based on Buddhist epistemology has proven valuable in helping me analyse ‘contributions’ made by Mongolian women to revitalising their spiritual traditions. It has also served as a valuable tool for my own reflexive praxis. Whilst teasing out the varying contributions of Mongolian women, I have also been reflecting on my own activities in relation to the three modalities in a similar way.
Theories and such frameworks are important for this sort of work. ‘Theory’ in this context, rather than meaning an abstract form of speculation, instead forms the basis of the scheme of ideas that facilitate and help explain ethnographic as well as discursive practice.
Early 21st Century Mongolia
Mongolia at the beginning of the twenty-first century is a turbulent social, economic and vigorously contested cultural space. According to The Economist (21 Jan 2012):
[Mongolia is predicted to be] the country that is likely to grow faster than any other over the next decade … Ulaanbaator is a boom-town on the frontier of global mining … hotels are bursting … pubs [are] heaving with foreign miners, investment bankers and young local women with very long legs and very short skirts … streets, empty twenty years ago are now clogged … more than 80% of its exports are minerals … mining geologists salivate over … unexplored potential, for copper, coal, gold, silver, uranium, molybdenum and so on … not just … a treasure-chest of geological wealth [ ] slap-bang next to the world’s biggest and fastest-growing market, China.
Everything in Mongolia is changing. If (material) ‘prosperity’ and the acquisition of wealth is the goal then ‘development’ of domestic infrastructure and other resources is the priority. With the influx of money, and with wealth now being measured in ways independent of the size of flocks this means different things for different people.
Whatever the foci (family or business) or loci (international, regional and/or local), particular roles and ways of working are being re-harnessed after the collapse of communism to new trajectories of development in pursuit of a better life. Personal investment by Mongolians in such opportunities and adventures is changing Mongolian culture and society.
Note: if you are wondering why I use so many ‘inverted commas’ in my writing, it is because the words they highlight are loaded. For example, ‘reconstruction’ has a different emphasis to ‘restoration’. The same goes for ‘revitalisation.’ These ‘develop-ments’ arise from different imperatives. Their trajectories point towards different outcomes and themes.
It would be naive to assume that just as others living in Mongolia were changing and being changed that I was not also engaged in a similarly transformative process. This transition in terms of (i) focus, more towards ‘Mongolian’ away from ‘Tibetan’; as well as (ii) method of participation, now immersed in ethnography rather than ‘at a distance’ humanitarian/development aid, continues to unfold and shape what I do and even more interestingly, who I do it with.
If I am to represent ‘the social reality of others through the analysis of my own experience in the world of these others’ (John Van Maanen 1988, pix-xvi) then I am working within porous, ‘unsettled’ and ‘contested notions’ of what it is to be Buddhist, Gelugpa, a westerner, Tibetan and/or Mongolian. The list goes on!
In considering my experiences as the fieldworker and ‘the representational style selected to join the observer and observed’, rather than seek out evidence which supports the notion of an overarching and global Gelugpa-ness, or at the other extreme, succumbing to the temptation of portraying the women in this lineage of Mongolian Gelugpa Buddhism as something special (therefore representing a form of Buddhist exceptionalism), this ethnography is situated in the company of other ‘portraits of diversity’ in what can be described as an increasingly homogenised world.’
Although I am comfortable and feel welcomed in the Mongolian company I keep, I have yet to find that illusive socially comforting location. Other fieldworkers (cited in Van Maanen 1988, p2 ) in their cultural accounts of the social world being studied, have represent themselves in terms of ‘role relations’ as ‘marginal natives’, ‘professional strangers’, ‘self-reliant loners’, or even as ‘self-denying emissaries’.
My own discomfort is best expressed in terms of gender relations, returning to Charlene Makley (2007) as I write, for my social location within the Mongolian cultural sphere remains unresolved. I shall illustrate this with an example. Although I have been granted relatively rapid and ongoing access to culturally sacred matters, in my years of doing fieldwork we, the Mongolians and I, have always had trouble finding the right places for me to sit in public ritual settings. The same goes for my clothing: what should I wear (eek!) and when?
At the publicly-performed nexus of Gelugpa Buddhism and the contemporary Mongolian socio-cultural sphere, although post-socialism now enables innovation (such as my doing research about religion) something unthinkable only a couple of decades ago, important indigenous notions of compulsory sexuality (Makley 2002) continue to shape position and place, and as an extension, where people, women and men, are positioned.
To be clear, this is from my perspective to be respected. My simply ‘being there’ doing what I do with apparent autonomy is political in itself (Carol Hanisch 1970). The reality is, however, that I rely on the generosity of others, for whom, whilst I am an active ‘contributor’ I am also a foreign guest.
Note: My allocated place during pujas in this public setting since 2005 has been to sit behind the third monk (the Chantmaster) in the first row. From this seat on the carpet, I have recorded performances, taken photographs, and have been given an excellent position from which to observe and to participate in what is going on. Nonetheless, every time I look at these photographs I cannot help but reflect on what those of whom I was taking a photograph were in fact thinking of me, and the privileged social status (within the gompa) that I was allocated and hence occupied. Dear readers, are you now starting to get a feel for the complexities of what one’s situated-ness is, when you are a foreigner in a woman’s body ‘doing ethnography’ in Mongolia – with and about people and not about books?
According to Isabella Ofner (2010, p90) within the often benevolent discourse of Western academic and transnational political activism, there is a danger of what Gayatri Spivak (1988, p280) refers to as a ‘domesticated Other’. Although Ofner’s discussion centers on Tibetan testimonia, there may be valuable insights that we can similarly apply to Mongolian life narratives, particularly how they may be read with an expectation of their subalternity with the reader’s ‘own position of relative authority and privilege left quite uncontested in the process.’ Control of representation, however, ‘does not only flow in one direction’ (John Beverley 2004, p xvi; p38).
If, as Ofner (2010, p90) argues, ethnic autobiographies[i] do drawn on existing literary forms and the global marketplace to make their stories heard in the dominant discourses of academics, activists and their editors, although such stories can be represented as subaltern or as exotic, then autobiographical accounts by Tibetan (and Mongolian) women can be of use or be aligned with the cultural marketplace in advancing their own agenda.
Although I stop short of speculating on what these varying actual purposes for each of the Mongolian women in my study might be, together as a body of work their narratives give voice to versions of history that would otherwise have been erased. They also serve, to my mind at least, as a sobering and ‘ethical reminder of difference’ (Doris Sommer 1999, p137).
If we apply the same critical reading of Mongolian women’s stories (on this blog for example) as we would to Tibetan testimonia, then while no actual power can be assumed in writing such history, such autobiographical narratives are nevertheless evidence of subaltern historiography, and as such, attempt to demystify whatever material interests and ideological methods are being negotiated and preserved against other parties (Ofner 2010, p91).
Testimonia, in this context, are first person narrations by real protagonists or witnesses of the events they are recounting (Beverley 2004, p31). As such they are instances of ‘resistance literature’ (Barbara Harlow 1987) a genre where the subaltern interpolate hegemonic discourse to assume agency as a subject (original emphasis) of history (Ofner 2010, p85).
Instead of producing life stories as examples of ‘exoticised otherness,’ differences between individuals are not collapsed. There are no ‘idealised victors’ or ‘passive victims.’ Moreover, heterogeneity is not essentialised in order to (re)constitute the Mongolian post-colonial subject as ‘Other’ as yet another example of cross-cultural ‘epistemic violence’ (cf. Spivak 1988, p280).
Mongolian Khalkha Women, the Data
During 2008, working in close consultation with the Mongolian women and others of whom I am a guest, meetings with individual women (and whomever they invited to accompany them) were progressively arranged. In the early days of post-socialist revival, it was not uncommon in Mongolia for two people (with a third party as a translator) to be seen having a conversation with other family members simply watching and ‘keeping company’ whilst the interview and its recording took place. It is also worth pointing out, that in many ways, there was at that time no such thing as personal privacy amongst Mongolians in Mongolia (as we know it here in the West), whatever their social, economic or other standing.
It was also important to consider general attempts at drawing out personal and other ‘narrative’ in the form of stories and illustrative anecdotes Given the deeply embedded cultural tradition of oral history and story telling, it is not uncommon for a close group of Mongolians, particularly women, to all pitch in and add their part to the one collective story.
In terms of data collection strategies, this facilitated the identification of a range of counter-experiences and contesting viewpoints as reflected in the varying narratives. Although single interviewee data was initially preferred in terms of ease of translation/analysis, my willingness to accommodate co-constructed participant narratives turned out to be important. In retrospect that same openness to process turned out to be not only essential to establishing trust and retaining rapport but doing so also yielded rich and detailed data from the co-constructed women’s narratives that was being spontaneously shared.
Dialogical narrative analysis of recorded conversations with Mongolian women and events, extensive journal notes taken during participant observation fieldwork (2005-2011) as well as secondary historical and social data from existing sources has been over the years systematically assembled and is now being used. Such a combination of methods are standard in ethnographic research practice (Van Maanen 1988).
Categorical Overlays, Diversity and the Sampling Frame (2008-2011)
Although connected socially through community and by their faith, women who stepped forward to contribute to my research project lived in a wide range of geographic locations; from north-western Mongolia (in the Dzavkhan region near the Altai Mountains) to southern Mongolia (in the vicinity of the famous Gobi Desert) and as far South as the nation-state border with China). Others lived and work in Ulaanbaator, the nation’s capital. A total of 42 Khalkha Mongol women participated (see Table 1 below).
|Key Informant No.
|F to F Interview 2008
|Mongolian name (allocated pseudonym)
|Older (O) or Younger (Y) or Next (N) generation
|Mother of the River Tuul
|Mother of the River Balj
|Long life mother
|Mother strong like an axe
|Flower of steel
|Flower of health/healthy flower
|Flower of butter lamps
|Flower like a bride
|1964 Inner Mongolia
|Flower for happiness
|Flower of lights
Table 1: The de-identified list of Mongolian pseudonyms allocated to study participants, their birth year and the generational category to which each has been allocated.
Proximity, Immersion, Permission
Through my previous work with Mongolian Buddhist prelates and community—I had first been in residence at Delgeruun Choira for 3 months in 2005— I was already a familiar face for many of the women who formed the group of potential ‘informants’ (a clumsy technical term from the western scholarly tradition of ethnography given the post socialist setting involved, but no better term has yet emerged).
While not paying for participation of individuals, I made contributions to educational organisations (such as schools) through elders in the community, as well as compensating families for any hospitality offered. Appropriate compensation was also provided to the translator/s. Data was collected primarily across four Mongolian Aimags: Dundgovi Aimag (South-Central Mongolia); South Govi (Omnigov) Aimag (in the South, bordering with the nation state of China); Selenge Aimag and Zavkhan Aimag (North West) and Central Aimag (which includes Mongolia’s capital city Ulaanbaator).
As a group these Mongolian women reflect a diversity of Buddhist practitioner settings: rural, remote, urban, professional, familial, community, pastoral, monastic, (quasi)monastic, therapeutic, political, clinical and administrative. Senior Buddhist clergy (with honorific titles such as Abbot, Bagsh, Rinpoche or Geshe) were consulted in order to inform the study and to further ensure transparency of the research’s trajectory and its wholesome intent.
Note: In the Mongolian religious sphere, evidence of approval of my women’s project has been the progressive emergence of an ongoing invitation to visit and participate in local fora and activities. Without this invitation going back to 2005, initially from opinion-leader Mongolian women in the Buddhist community, and then also from high-ranking prelates in this lineage, neither my Mongolia Project, nor the researched articles now being published on this blog, in themselves the fruits of my years of observation, data collection, analysis and reflection, would be here. We would not be having this conversation.
Information Gap and Social Risk Mitigation
In 2008, relatively little had been written or translated that positioned contemporary Mongolian womanhood and their Buddhist practices at the centre of the scholarly endeavour. Very little had been published where, through use of narrative research methods, data has been collected in narrative or dialogic form.
In terms of dealing with the social risks associated with the project, Western-style interview-based research was new to most of the participants in the study. Due care was taken to ensure that these cross-cultural interactions were conducted in a respectful, culturally appropriate and sensitive manner. Most of the interviews were conducted in 2008.
Mongolian Prelates and inter-locking local communities
The women in my study are connected with the community and lineage of Mongolian Gelugpa Buddhist and other socio-cultural practice that now flows through Delgeruun Choira in one of three ways. Their first ‘relationship’ of association is through a direct Teacher-disciple relationship with the Mongolian Gelug Lama, Lobsang Tenzin Gyatso Pal Sangpo Guru Deva Rinpoche (1910-2009) and/or his nominated Spiritual Son and lineage holder Mongolian Gelug Lama (Lobsang Dhargay) Zavaa Damdin Rinpoche (1976– ), the present Abbot of Delgeruun Choira Monastery situated on the vast Gobi grassland steppe in Mongolia.
Another connection, although not mutually exclusive was through ‘local’ (to Delgeruun Choira) and regional pre-socialist kinship group and network connections with Zavaa Damdin Rinpoche’s previous incarnation, the Mongolian Lama-hermit-scholar (Lobsang Tayang) Zavaa Damdinjav (1867-1937) and Delgeruun Choira’s Kalyāṇa-mittatā (Pali; Skt.: -mitratā) community before its destruction by the socialists in the late 1930s.
The third thread of association was through on-site contribution to the rebuilding of Delgeruun Choira effort. Mongolians in the local-regional area came to participate in the reconstruction-of-Buddhist-cultural heritage effort, and according to certain women elders in the community came to see and be seen to be part of what was going on.
Here, it is important to point out that Mongolian women in this study are not a ‘social movement’ (Maddison 2010, p928) for they are not engaged, as a network, in conflict with others in order to negotiate and contest a collective Mongolian Buddhist or other identity. Their wider collaborative effort may well be a (Buddhist) reflection of what Caroline Humphrey refers to as the ‘elder’s religion’ (in Christopher Atwood 2004, p466; cf. Humphrey and Urgunge Onon 1999). Distinct from either Buddhist (or other spiritual or animistic) valencies and antagonistic to neither, ‘the social orders of clan, neighbourhood, family and state‘ are celebrated.
All women in this exploration of Mongolian society and culture were born into and grew up in Mongolia during the socialist times. The echoes of malevolence, the climate of fear and mistrust, social atrocities and brutal campaigns that prevailed now firmly reside in our collective social memory, possibly, no probably even more so with those who still make their home in countries like Mongolia and what was The Soviet Block.
Whose Voices and Perspectives?
Whilst a normative view of history may order personal events for remembering and attention, ’historicity is an announcement of a question that is engaged in and through a given bias, culminates in a given response’ (Ronald C Arnett 2010, p392). So why is this relevant to our discussion here?
Such a line of logic can then lead to the next question, that of whose voices and perspectives, as communicative practice, have been omitted, in terms of ‘yielding new knowledge about another culture … based on a time-factual determination of history’’ (Johannes Fabian 2002, p71) and its ethnographic response.
In drawing on ‘the past that is present’ in this ethnographic site, the ‘multiple traces and expressions’ of ‘collective and individual memory’ of both myself and of (Mongolian) others has shaped the form that it takes (see Marcus 1998, pp63-64).
My approach is that of a ‘strategically-situated ethnography’ (George E Marcus 1998, p95) embedded in a multi-sited context. My consideration of what is going on, however, has been calibrated with various other related locales and their development, although these are, ‘not included within the frame of the research study design or resulting ethnography.’
It is important to differentiate, as Marcus suggests, that the study design I have chosen, is not that of a single-sited ethnography. I have chosen an approach by which I attempt to understand something more broadly about the community in which I am situated in ethnographic terms.
One of the consequences that flows on from adopting this approach is the need to work on and work out ‘a comparative translation and tracing’ (Marcus 1998, p96) amongst sites. Rather than writing about ‘an abstract theoretical awareness,’ my study of Mongolian women has required ‘ethnographic registering of a multi-sited sensibility’ within this particular site. I am also trying to establish new ways of working with the rich ‘data’ that has arisen from my fieldwork and the generosity of so many Mongolian others. CPinMongolia.com sits firmly within this frame.
Returning to our Modalities of Contribution …
Given that working with other cultures (Mongolian and Tibetan) is my main epistemological problem, and also given that there is no single epistemological basis or situation for conducting western academic research, the move that I have made with my project is to adopt a structure from the Tibeto-Mongolian religious and cultural world. I have done so to ‘cantilever’ (the best term I can find), the destabilising influences on indigenous cultural practices and western scholarly conventions (in anthropology and the social sciences) that are associated with reporting on them.
As Van Maanen (1988, p6), referring to Wagner (1981), points out; doing ethnography is not a straightforward matter of simply joining fieldwork and culture‘ because a culture or cultural practice is as much created by the writing (i.e., it is intangible and can only be put into words) as it determines the writing itself.
The various contributions Mongolian women are making to rebuilding Mongolian Buddhism are presented across three modalities of human activity and embodiments of culture: that of the physical, social and spiritual. It is through these gateways of self-actualisation that a practicing Buddhist engages with one’s self and with other beings in daily life. It is also through these three gateways that one’s potential for an idealised embodiment of Buddha-hood (or enlightenment) is cultivated.
Context, Categories and their Porous Boundaries
In the process of allocating data to one of the three modalities, physical, social or spiritual, Mongolian women’s religious duties (Tib. chos) have been particularly difficult to ‘categorise.’ An activity (a particular embodiment of culture) can be (re)framed through written narrative so that it appears aligned with any one of the three modalities noted above. I have proceeded by assigning a particular religious duty to one of the three modalities whilst acknowledging that the contribution could be re-contextualised and repositioned and therefore be assigned to either one of the other two modalities.
Here’s an Example: what do you think?
One relatively simple example of this cross-over in coding data is the daily offering made by Mongolian Buddhist women in Mongolia to the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Protectors. Having made by hand a cotton wick from a roll of wadding, then inserting it into polished brass vessel containing a freshly poured pool of clarified butter (ghee), the devotee then places the freshly-made lamp onto the family’s altar home before lighting the wick. More often than not, a vessel of hot, freshly brewed strong black tea (tea offering) is also prepared to accompany the butter lamp offering, and poured into one of the family’s best vessels set aside for this purpose, and also positioned on the altar.
The above narrative description could well serve the first category, that of an activity of body where the emphasis is on the doing and making, and hence the physical and material aspects of life.
However, if we reframe the narrative around the vessels and their parts, thereby emphasising these objects in terms of their roles as religious markers then a socio-expressive allocation is possible.
Then again, if we chose to emphasise the spiritual aspect; that of a Mongolian woman purposefully (re)connecting with her familial, inspirational and Protector deities on a daily basis, performed through the daily ritual of offering freshly brewed hot tea, a cleaned brass lamp and new flame, then the activity is best located to the ‘spiritual’ category associated with aspects and activities of mind.
There is one more point that needs to be made in order to round off explaining this the Buddhist Trikaya schema. Nirmanakaya, Sambhogakaya, Dharmakaya(see Figure xx) are terms associated with the three bodies of Buddha (according to the Trikaya doctrine) and a fully enlightened being. Therefore their use is generally reserved for reference to such fully realized beings. Underpinning this triad, however, there remains one more (original or even primordial) dimension: that which encompasses the ‘totality’ of human existence and which no single analytical schema (western academic or Buddhist philosophical) can adequately represent, capture or control. Here, I refer to Svabhavavikakaya—undivided reality.
Moving on …
The decision to adopt a traditional ontological positioning, such as the one described above, arose from my encounter with a seminal work: ‘The Four Seasons of Ethnography’ (Maria Cristina Gonzalez 2000) given to me by my friend and colleague Mark Stevenson. This is an example of another traditional ontological schema that has been used to frame the qualitative and multi-method analyses of the relations of being, one that emerged from her own lived experience, over many years, of an indigenous culture and practice of the metaphysical spiritual tradition (although not Buddhist) therein.
A framework based on ‘a creation-centered ontology of natural cycles’ was integrated as a method in the author’s ethnographic research. In this ontological model, ‘depth of contact’ with the people and the culture, ‘reflection’, and ‘an integrated awareness’ of the ethnographer with ‘experiential, historical and cultural contexts’ is privileged. Working as an ethnographer from this ontological positioning also requires stepping aside from standard social science models and language’ (Gonzalez 2000, pp623-628). This approach r-e-a-l-l-y speaks to me, although I have come to realise that (based on my own experience) the arc of adopting this approach, like a slow growing plant, takes not months but many years to come to fruition. How about you?
More Notes: it’s all in the detail …
‘Theory’ is in active relation to practice, whereby there is an interaction between things observed, things done, and the subsequent systematic explanations of these. Working in this way, whilst ‘allowing a distinction between theory and practice’ their opposition, however, is not required (see Raymond Williams 1976, p276).
 For a discussion of Mongolian ‘traditional’ nomadic pastoralism and the economics policies that have transformed the pastoral sector in post-socialist Mongolia, see David Sneath (2003) and Ole Bruun (2006).
 Mongolian peoples have other, more established ways of expressing themselves and transmitting their cultural history and inherited stories. A rich and diverse repertoire of performance traditions exists. This includes oral narrative as long-song (Utyrn duu), dancing, as well as playing the stringed horse-head fiddle (Morin huur). These Mongolian cultural performing arts are a rich repository of personal and other narratives (see Carole Pegg 2001) along with the identities which they create, and across which they play and are performed.
 According to opinion polls conducted between 1990 and 2000, the number of Mongolians who identified themselves as ‘believers’ in some religion rose sharply from 30 percent to 70 percent; of these, 80 percent self-nominated as Buddhist (Christopher Atwood 2004, p468). However, by 2010, government census data suggests that there may have been a fall in recent years of both the proportion of believers and those who self-nominate as Buddhists; of the 61 percent of ‘believers’, only an estimated 53% described themselves as Buddhists (Mongolian Government Press 2011).
 The notions of identity and memory logically presuppose one another. ‘Remembering and forgetting are fundamental to the creation of identities. Out identities are the result of the networks to which we belong and our connections to particular networks are only possible through both collective remembering and collective forgetting’ (Timothy J Brown 2010, p536)
 One of the foundations of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy (and Gelugpa Buddhism) is the Trikaya ‘Three Bodies’ doctrine (Tib. sku gsum). It is part of a Mahayana Buddhist view on the nature of Buddha and reality. The teaching developed from the Pali Canon where in this framing, the Buddha is equated with (not separated from) the Dharma.
[i] According to Ofner (2010, p91 no.1) there has been a marked increase in the various literary forms of Tibetan diasporic secular literature since 1990 (cf. to McMillan 2001), although Tibetan self-representation in the form of English autobiographies have been around since 1957.
Refer to Landscape 08: Women and re-place-ing Mongolian Buddhism to see a summary of how the Three Modes of Contribution framework fits into this ethnographic project.
This article Landscape 09: Modes of Contribution was researched and written by Catherine Pleteshner.
In keeping with ethical scholarly research and publishing practices and the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, I anticipate that anyone replicating the images or translating into another language all or part of this article and submitting it for accreditation or other purpose under their own name, to acknowledge this URL and its author as the source. Not to do so, is contrary to the ethical principles of the Creative Commons license as it applies to the public domain.
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© 2013-2024. CP in Mongolia. This post Landscape 08: Women and Re-place-ing Mongolian Buddhism is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Documents embedded or linked from this page may be subject to other restrictions. Posted: 5 July 2019. Last updated: 20 June 2022.