What’s Wrong with Chinggis Studies?

By Julian Dierkes

Okay, the enforced brevity of tweets got me into some trouble here.

Bolor Lkhaahjav was right for calling me out for my tweet.

And so was Kenny Linden for chiming in.

So, let me see if I can make a more reasonable argument with a bit more space/words.

Relative Allocation of Scarce Research Resources

Mongolia’s resources that can be devoted to social science and humanities research are scare. Similarly, the academic attention to social/cultural aspects of Mongolia (past, present and future) is limited internationally.

If you set those domestic resources at an imagined 100 units, then my feeling is that most decision-makers (politicians, but also research and academic managers, two groups that often overlap given the political appointments to research leadership positions) would allocate somewhere around 60 units to Chinggis Studies, 20 to Mongolian as a language and the remaining scraps to all kinds of other topics.

If you think of international social science and humanities research interest in Mongolia at a similar 100 units, the proportion devoted to 13th century is much lower but still significant, perhaps 20 or so. A much greater variety of topics commands attention with clusters of interest focused on Buddhism, animal husbandry and pasture management, etc. I would not attempt to come up with a complete list here. Though, very notably, there are some very different approaches and very different emphases on language with Eastern Europe and much of Asian academic interest being very philological, i.e. rooted in very deep engagement with language and focus on culture, while Western Europe, North America, and Oceania is a bit more social sciency in predominant interests, though with a heavy dose of archaeology and historical work sprinkled in.

My Perspective – in the Abstract

On a global scale, there is nothing wrong with any of that. I would always make the case for the greatest possible variety of academic interests and strongly believe in the value of Orchideenfächer (orchid-ology, or seemingly obscure niches of academic interest) to humanity and not just in the sense of benefitting by enabling development or anything like that, but very much by benefitting humanity by expanding our knowledge. It’s one of the reasons I am very happy to teach at a very large university where many different research interests can be supported.

Note that my own interest in contemporary Mongolia seems very odd, niche and possibly obscure to many of my colleagues. Likewise with my research on Japan. That’s okay and I am grateful that these niches exist and would always defend them.


You knew from the previous paragraph that a big “But…” was coming.

What drives research interests? All kinds of factors from the very personal/autobiographical, to accidents, to opportunities that present themselves. The development of research interests (including my own in Mongolia) is thus somewhat  haphazard and that’s how it should be. I don’t believe in “science policy” that starts from the premise of utility to make the case for differential founding – contrary to what my tweets may have suggested, I fear.

Yet, it is contemporary Mongolia that I find so rich in potential research topics, not centuries’ ago history.

Yes, that is in part because I am fundamentally more interested in modern society and that’s a matter of taste. It’s also because I believe – as a sociologist – that while we carry all kinds of historical imprinting on our social behaviour, ultimately this collective behaviour can change through contemporary action, including policy, we are not determined by our past even though it continues to reverberate.

But when I take the bus across Ulaanbaatar or when I have a chance to chat with a political activist in a far-flung soum, many, many research questions come to my mind where the dynamism of Mongolian society (demography, political/institutional change, the herding economy, the geopolitical situation, religious dynamics etc. etc.) are unusual in the world and thus lend themselves to comparative research where Mongolia is not merely an exoticized case study, but rather a useful case for comparison.

Many of those questions (or their answers, though, of course, social science and humanities answers are not always crisp, clear or straight-forward) have a direct impact on the choices that today’s Mongolians are making. Research that examines these choices would offer a type of understanding that will inform subsequent decisions more directly than a better understanding of long-ago historical dynamics, as fascinating as those are.

Side-Note: Impact of Chinggis-Focus on International Perceptions

Maybe a Chinggis Museum is a good idea for tourism, for Mongolia is famous for Chinggis Khaan, after all. So, perhaps more tourists will visit the Museum than used to visit the Museum of Natural History. Maybe. But what this along with the policy-preference for Chinggis Studies as expressed in Pres Khurelsukh’s campaign platform will do is, it will lock Mongolia for the foreseeable future into a cage of the exotic, quaint and irrelevant.

Again, that may be a good marketing scheme for tourism and probably also for cashmere and other natural products. I cannot see individual Mongolians benefitting from this strategy other than in those sectors. If I, as a German, wandered the world telling everyone how fascinating Carolingian history is ,who would accept me as a student (other than scholars of Charlemagne), who would want to talk to much less do business with me? With their focus on Chinggis, policy makers are very much limiting the opportunities of young Mongolian scholars, or at least of those of those scholars who happened not to want to be Chinggis scholars. Yes, members of an International Association of Chinggis Studies will be ferociously loyal to contemporary Mongolia, of course, except for those engaged in Chinggis Studies in Southern Mongolia where such scholars may be more numerous but their motivations and the state’s support is highly suspect. But to everyone else, this will always remain an obscure niche.

Side-Note: Contemporary?

Yes, history. I am fascinated by history myself, a fascination that led straight to a dissertation on history education in Japan and the Germanys, albeit from a sociological perspective. Through my exposure to Mongolia scholarship I have learned more and become very interested in Central Asian history, including long-ago history. What an array of language and cultures, but also forms of state organization, etc.

And yes, there are many aspects of Mongolia history that are hugely fascinating. But my personal preference directs me at contemporary or, at least, modern history, call it the late 19th, 20th and 21st century. From what I have been able to read in non-Mongolian sources (my limitation for scholarly work at least), I still don’t really have a strong sense of what happened from 1911 through 1930 or so. Even though things get a bit clearer by the time of the democratic revolution, it took Mendee’s dissertation for me to get a better sense of how that revolution was possible and what impact it had. There are episodes in contemporary history that I find fascinating, such as the disbanding of the Mongolian military prior to the Sino-Soviet split. But really, where I get more actively interested is from 1990 on.

Bottom Line

Please, as researchers, follow your interests even if those include the 13th century. But as policy makers, consider what niche you want your budding researchers to be locked into and whether you don’t want to document and understand all the changes that are occurring in Mongolia right now. My allocation of research units would be closer to the opposite of what I observe, namely Chinggis Studies 20: contemporary Mongolia 80.

And yes, as will be clear to many readers, this is a self-serving argument coming from me.

And no, for now, there will not be a “Chinggis” category on this blog. ????

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 tweets @jdierkes
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