Mongolian Studies vs Research on Mongolia: XII Congress of Mongolists

By Julian Dierkes

The International Association of Mongol Studies meets every five years. Actually pretty cool that the association based in Mongolia exists and has a regular, if rare meeting. I previously wrote about the 2011 Xth Congress, some indication of how long this blog has been going.

This summer, the Congress met August 9-14.

Mongolian Studies vs Research on Mongolia

I have to admit to a somewhat fraught relationship with Mongolian Studies. And, this is a relationship that I am entirely familiar with from my other “regional home”, research on Japan.

Some of the roots of differences lie in a generally philological tradition in Europe (also in Russia, to some extent, East Asian) that is focused on language and culture. Compare that to a more N American, postwar origin in “area studies” that were much more social scientific in orientation. For the former, language is often one of the objects of study, for the latter it is a tool. For research on Japan, I can run with both camps. On Mongolia, I belong much more clearly in the “area studies” camp, i.e. with research on Mongolia, not least because my Mongolian language skills remain limited.

Not unlike Japan, Mongolia, as the centre of attention for Mongolian studies, leans toward the philological approach that very much privileges language, culture and history. I have had several conversations with Mongolian officials and scholars that say that they are intent on supporting research on Mongolia, but turn out to mean Chinggisology (and other forms of historiography) or language.

Note that I fully believe that literature, history, culture are very interesting and important research fields and I am delighted to be able to consume the fruits of some of that research when it is focused on Mongolia. However, I’m also convinced that there is important research to be done on contemporary Mongolia, important in an academic sense, i.e. as a source of knowledge and understanding, but also important in the sense as potentially informing Mongolian policy and thus Mongolia’s development.

Now, back to the Congress. This was clearly a Congress of Mongolists not a Congress for Research on Mongolia. Take a look at the program and some of the huge gaps in topics that are of great significance to (an understanding of) contemporary Mongolia. Almost no sociology, political science, human geography. The only topic that is also actively embraced by social scientists working on Mongolia is probably herding. And, not just broad disciplines that are not really represented, but very specific topics as well. No mining, no urbanism, no youth, no education. Note that this is also true of the section of the conference that was specifically dedicated to young Mongolists. Topics here mirrored the wider topics addressed at the Congress.

Chinese Participants

I was aware ahead of time that this would be a congress dominated by language and historical research. I appreciate all the hard work that is invested into these research areas even they do not match my own interests. And, I’m often very interested in learning from colleagues who are active in these areas. I also attended the conference because I had been interested in the 2011 congress to learn about research on Mongolia in Russia and China, areas of academic activities that I very rarely interact with.

Sure enough, there were numerous Chinese attendees at the Congress, those who seemed to be (by their name) ethnic Mongols as well as Han Chinese. Their research largely fell within the categories that the Congress broadly catered to. What was most shocking to me, however, was that every presentation by a Chinese scholar I heard included a reference to Xi Jinping. Clearly, the increasingly fascist turn of the Chinese regime under Xi had been apparent to me, but the extent to which scholars from China apparently feel obliged to weave in a quote by the dictator even when its relevance to the subject matter at hand seemed at best remote, was surprising to me. Obviously, there was no public mention of the dire situation that ethnic Mongols find themselves in within China, esp. in the Inner Mongolian “Autonomous” Region where the last several years have clearly seen an attack on cultural autonomy.


One of the somewhat odd aspects of the Congress was its organization. For an academic event, it was oddly secretive. The initial invite came by email and suggested an by-invitation-only format. As participants, we later learned that the government had apparently funded the congress to the tune of ₮1b, so perhaps the “exclusivity” was rooted in fears of a ballooning attendance, but as academics, I think almost all of us would prefer a conference that was as open as possible. Communication with the secretariat was also somewhat odd with a quick request to pay five years of dues, but a very slow response to a request for a receipt for that payment. Closer to the date of the congress it was very difficult to find/obtain a program. And since I was a day late arriving, I never got a badge to show that I was legitimately attending.

Then there were the more explosive, wider issues around the organization itself which prompted the dean of North American Mongolists, Chris Atwood, to post an open letter expressing his concerns.

Partly in response to the letter which seems to have circulated widely among members, S Chuluun did not stand for re-election as general secretary and D Zayabaatar was elected in his stead. The election itself was slightly comical in that a slate of over a dozen officers was presented for election and the election was by show of hands at the banquet. This slate was elected with a majority that would have made MPRP politicians of old proud.

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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