MIT Anthropology Spotlight

Mongolian Horses

Tragic Spirits

Professor Manduhai Buyandelger rides the steppes with nomadic shamans in post-Soviet Mongolia


Professor Manduhai Buyandelger's research links contemporary developments in Mongolian nationalism and culture with Buryat family experiences to document the revival of shamanism in the post-Soviet transformation of Mongolia. She takes up questions concerning the role of historical memory in forming political economy and culture, specifically looking at the case of the post-Soviet transformation in Mongolia. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Buryats the nomadic pastoralists of the northeastern Asian plain historically colonized by Mongols, Chinese, Russian and, more recently, Soviets were cast into severe poverty, unfamiliar under socialist rule. With the dismantling of their collective farms and herding collaborations, the privatization of state assets, the liberalization of prices and opening to foreign trade and investment under the economic restructuring of the IMP and World Bank, the Buryats struggled to become part of the capitalist economy.

From lives organized by the cycles of the seasons, Buryats would now have to organize themselves through the vicissitudes of the market. Becoming market actors turned out to be quite difficult, however – nothing like the straightforward process neo-liberal policy advocates promised. It seems that the motivations essential to market success, or at least physical survival, are not inscribed in the human genome, but rather learned, often from birth, through long acculturation – exactly what the nomadic Buryats living under 70 plus years of Soviet rule lacked. "Without knowledge about the market economy, adequate infrastructure, legal frameworks, or start-up support," Buyandelger observes, "neoliberal reforms undid their own goal: to make the rural nomads into property owners capable of caring for themselves. Instead of bringing the expected capital, neoliberal 'shock therapy' brought lingering economic devastation, which the Buryats explain as the revenge of forgotten origin spirits."

As the Buryats attempt to appease their angry origin spirits through rituals of remembering in their hopes to alleviate their economic misery, they compile a shifting and interactive history of their forgotten past. The attempts to improve their material conditions by becoming a part of capitalist economy yielded something unexpected: a cultural production of suppressed history. This study joins other anthropological studies to show that a market economy and neoliberal practices do not necessarily swallow up the local practices. Instead, it suggests that the Buryat Mongols use the freedom and incentives of capitalism to revive their local culture. Therefore global capitalism and local shamanic practices are mutually constitutive. More, this study also shows that the concept of a market economy is not limited to western-style rational and material practices. Indeed, shamanic practices have their own economy that is distinct from western, but still relies on it.

From mid-1990s through 2000, Buyandelger lived and worked among the Buryats. Tragic Spirits, forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, describes the Buryats confrontation with neo-liberal capitalism and the re-emergence of Shamanism as both an entrepreneurial and religious enterprise.

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