Methodology as a Methodology

As exhausting as all-day meetings with stakeholders can be (with a bit of jetlag, multiple languages and instant coffee thrown into the mix), I am always fascinated by how individuals present themselves, what they are looking for, and how questions and desires are framed, particularly regarding the terminology that is used.

With long stretches of untranslated Mongolian discussion that forces me to listen very carefully (as long as I am able to concentrate), I often notice many aspects of Mongolian social relations and am fascinated by these opportunities.

During recent Ulaangom meetings I noticed in particular how often the word “methodology” is used by Mongolians (арга зуй). In my experience, methodology is a word that is very rarely used outside of academic circles and universities in Canada. Why is it so common in Mongolian discussions?

Obviously I am delving into the realm of speculation here, but I hope I can stay clear of the stereotyping I often associate with discussions of “mentality” (Mongolian word for national identity or culture, worth a discussion in its own right).

It does seem to me, however, that the focus on methodology is rooted in a desire for scientific approaches with precise and definite answers that certainly was a strong element in theoretical socialism, but also in state-planning, as fake as this precision may often have been. The desire to know about a methodology might also reflect a concern about policy that may or may not be rooted in a methodology.

Of course, if the hunch that the frequent use of “methodology” is rooted in socialist discourse, it might also imply the expectation of guidance “from above” and the general respect that policy-makers of all kinds certainly command in the countryside.

No “best practice” on offer here

Stakeholder representatives are thus not at all shy about asking for instruction in a way that many audiences or interlocutors in Canada and elsewhere might be. A Canadian audience or stakeholder might be much more insistent on the process that leads to decisions whereas Mongolians are often keen on results and instructions, as long as the process by which these results are obtained is a scientific or trustworthy one.

When it comes to mining policy, this is an expectation that doesn’t match Canadian practices well. In discussions of the mining industry, we often emphasize that Canadian experiences don’t necessarily offer solutions to Mongolian challenges. This response and attitude is rooted in recognition that much has gone wrong in mining policy over many years in Canada and continues to go wrong, while some other aspects may be counted as successes. Even projects that seem to be successful by whatever yardstick they are measured don’t necessarily offer clear implications for other projects. This way of thinking regards notions of “best practice” as hubris and instead tries to offer suggestions on policy directions to avoid and some discussion of “good practice”, but always in a context that requires adaptation for local conditions, needs, and processes.

Implications for Understanding Rio Tinto Operations?

A topic that has been an almost continuous source of puzzles for me over the years has been the nature in which Rio Tinto/Oyu Tolgoi and before them Ivanhoe Mines has operated in Mongolia. It has always struck me, and most discussions have confirmed this, though some Oyu Tolgoi interlocutors have claimed otherwise, that OT is essentially run by a spreadsheet that Rio Tinto sees equally applicable to mining projects all over the world. That spreadsheet does not seem to have a lot of columns – if any – for local context, local needs, and local politics at the very local as well as the national Mongolian level. While I am generally critical of this perspective for increasing the risks of a loss of social license for a project that is so central to Mongolia’s development, I have also wondered whether this is actually not a reasonable way to run a multi-decade project on this skale. The operation-by-spreadsheet suggests a perception of local politics as “noise”, i.e. variability that cannot be controlled or addressed in an effective manner. My observations of the politics of Mongolian policy-making would actually agree with elements of such a perspective. Still, I cannot help but feel that a more concerted effort at adapting a project to local circumstances would solidify social license.

The above discussion of “methodology” now has me wondering whether the focus on some scientific precision that I think is implied in this word, is not actually well-suited to an operation-by-spreadsheet approach.

Unfortunately, as is the case for most musings about mentality, prevailing patterns of responses to questions, etc., these are questions that are very difficult to address when they involve highly complex humans and social interactions. Such questions face huge methodological hurdles to social scientists and the depth of data available for Mongolia doesn’t really make specific answers possible.

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He toots and tweets @jdierkes
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