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Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit


Research history

Caroline Humphrey was one of the first anthropologists from a western country to be allowed to do fieldwork in the USSR. In 1966-7 she was a visiting graduate student at Moscow State University. With the generous support of her supervisors Professor S A Tokarev and Dr K M Gerasimova she was able to work in rural areas of Buryatia near the border with Mongolia, with a further visit in 1975. After completing her PhD (1973) on Buryat religious iconography (drawings of shamanic spirits) in its social context, which was based largely on archival materials as well as some field data, she wrote a monograph on Soviet collective farms, Karl Marx Collective (CUP 1986). This was the first detailed anthropological study of the actuality of the extraordinary Soviet alternative to modern capitalist agriculture – collective farms as ‘total social systems’. The book covered the economic organisation and internal politics of such farms, their relation to the state and Communist Party, and their subtle incorporation of indigenous Buryat kinship and religious practices.

image with Karl Marx collective head

With the Chairman of Karl Marx Collective (Selenga, Buryatia), 1967.

The Buryats have Mongolian historical origins and language, and in the 1960s people said to Caroline, “We have become very Russified – if you are really interested in our culture you should go to Mongolia.’” Returning the UK, Caroline enrolled in the Mongolian studies programme at Leeds University under Owen Lattimore. In the 1970s, she made several lengthy research visits to Mongolia, working on language, kinship and herding practices (although at this period field research possibilities outside Ulaanbaatar were severely restricted).


After she was appointed to a Junior Lectureship in Cambridge in 1978, Caroline Humphrey was encouraged by the Department to change her research focus to South Asia, it being thought at the time that Mongolia was of insufficiently general anthropological interest. She chose Nepal, carrying out research there in the early 1980s with the Khosi Hills Area Rural Development Project in the far north east of the country near the Tibetan border. Her work concerned the integration of the local livestock herding / faming economy with long-distance trade along routes stretching between India and Tibet (China). This trade was carried out almost entirely by barter, and this topic became the subject of a co-edited book Barter, Exchange and Value (1992), and was later to lead to further studies on barter in Russia in the 1990s when the economy there became substantially de-monetised.


with villagers

With villagers in Hatiya, N.E. Nepal


The barter trade of the Lhomi people of North East Nepal was judged locally by its ‘fairness’, along with other moral ideas associated with Buddhism, and soon Caroline Humphrey decided to return to her earlier interest in religion. Moving further into South Asia, she began research on the Jains of Rajasthan in India, investigating the intersection of their economic practices with the morality and cosmology of Jainism, e.g. religious festivals that were at the same time regional trade fairs. This led in the late 1980s - early 1990s to work on the notion of a religious ‘community’ and also to re-thinking anthropological theories of ritual. Analysis of the Jain puja rite resulted in a book jointly authored with James Laidlaw proposing a new theory of ritual, The Archetypal Actions of Ritual (1994).


Moving back to Mongolian topics, Caroline Humphrey joined Nicholas Thomas in organizing a conference on shamanism, history and the state (the papers were published in an edited volume in 1994). In the same period, she worked intensively with Urgunge Onon, one of her former teachers at Leeds, on his memories of his youth among the Daur Mongols of Manchuria. Eventually this work, which included research visits to the Daurs of Heilongjiang and Inner Mongolia, became the basis for comprehensive monograph on the character of shamanic knowledge and experience in Inner Asia, arguing for its distinctiveness in contrast to that of that of political leaders as ritual practitioners (Shamans and Elders, 1996).

ch & UO

Caroline, Urgunge and one of Urgunge’s calligraphies, 1989

In the early 1990s, Caroline Humphrey initiated a large international interdisciplinary research project on environmental and cultural conservation in Inner Asia. Funded by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation (Chicago) this project aimed to compare the different management of the herding economy by the three major political regimes of the Inner Asian steppe zone. These vast grasslands are cross-cut by the borders of Russia, Mongolia and China, and the idea of the project was to carry out a series of identical field investigations across the region, thus identifying the differences (and similarities) in socio-political organization, ownership and herding practices, along with the types and extent of environmental problems in the three countries. Positions were advertised for young scholars from South East Siberia, Mongolia, North Western China and Xinjiang to take part in designing the research and conducting the field studies. Senior professionals from the region were invited to give advice. The project used remotely sensed images, climate data, and GIS, and worked with geographers, botanists, livestock specialists, and economists as well as anthropologists. Although all three countries were operating on socialist (or recently post-socialist) principles, there were substantial differences between them, as well as variations within each country. By the end of the project, it was possible to identify the management strategies that coped best with conserving grassland biodiversity, and also to point to policies that would be environmentally non-damaging but at the same time promote successful pastoral economies and the benefits desired by herders (access to markets, schools, modern communications, medical facilities, urban culture, etc.). The results of the project, many jointly authored with David Sneath, were published in several books and articles in English, Russian, Cyrillic Mongolian and the Mongolian script used in China.


The MacArthur Project research group

Work on the MacArthur project revealed the new importance of urbanization. By the 1990s it was clear that the younger generations of herding families were flocking unstoppably to the cities. Yet these cities, particularly in the former USSR, were rapidly changing, due to the new politics of the Yeltsin era, privatization of businesses and housing, and the retreat of the state from social provisioning. Caroline Humphrey’s next research was a comparative study of the emerging features of post-Socialist Asian cities. Together with colleagues Victor Buchli and Catherine Alexander she investigated the new inequalities, urban politics, transmutation of cosmopolitanism, production of municipal ideologies / mythologies, and idiosyncratic aesthetics of cities in Siberia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The ‘psychic’ effects of urban infrastructure such as central heating systems or particular forms of communal buildings became one of Caroline Humphrey’s particular interests.

As a result of this research, Caroline Humphrey was invited to join a Delhi-based project, which aimed to counterbalance the wealth of work on urban violence and conflict by a focus on co-existence in cities. Bukhara, a node in Central Asian trading networks, was an example of a city known to have accommodated many highly diverse populations more or less peacefully for centuries. After a short study there along with some colleagues, Caroline decided to continue this work in a different city – Odessa, Ukraine - with a not dissimilar multi-ethnic trading history, but where she would have better access to the relevant languages. In both Bukhara and Odessa, it became evident that former kinds of ‘co-existence’ or even urban cosmopolitanism, pre-Soviet and Soviet, were not simple or unadulterated, since pogroms simultaneously occurred there, especially in Odessa. Some of Humphrey’s recent work has concerned the theoretical analysis of such incompatible urban phenomena and their political linkages. She has researched this topic in both the historical and contemporary contexts of Odessa, and most recently of all in relation to reactions to racist attacks in Russian cities.

In 2010 Caroline Humphrey completed the manuscript of a monograph, jointly authored with Hurelbaatar Ujeed, entitled A Monastery in Time: the Making of Mongolian Buddhism (now under consideration at Chicago University Press). This book is the culmination of many fieldwork visits, since 1995, to Mergen Monastery in the Urad region of Inner Mongolia (China), where a distinctive form of Mongolian-language Buddhism has been upheld since the 18th century. The book concerns the theorization of the idea of ‘tradition’ and the vicissitudes of this particular case – which was virtually annihilated several times in the 20th century.


Research at Mergen Monastery, Inner Mongolia, 2005

Caroline Humphrey has written many articles on subjects of general anthropological interest, including the following themes: inequality and exclusion; the politics of memory; naming practices; regret; the ethics of exemplars; conceptions of freedom.

After so many years working on (and in) Russia, Mongolia and China, it began to seem the right time to make some attempt to draw some threads together. Caroline Humphrey’s latest project is a one-year network, with international workshops, funded by the ESRC entitled Northasian Borders: Russia, China and Mongolia, which it is hoped may develop into a longer term research project if funding can be obtained. Working with Gregory Delaplace, Franck Billé and colleagues from the region, Caroline hopes to probe the changing character of this still little-known frontier – which has moved since it was first initiated in the 17th century, sometimes being fiercely upheld (with wars) and yet at other times almost ignored. The idea is to investigate how the varying ideas, and treatment, of this border by very different political cultures, economic actors and local inhabitants, disclose important, perhaps unacknowledged, features of the three countries.

Professor Caroline Humphrey's Webpage