Research Areas

economic anthropology, political ecology, anthropology of the body 
science and technology studies, development geography

Topics of Interest

affect, dust, embodiment, extractive industry, finance, health and well-being, knowledge-making, materiality, politics of distribution, sovereignty,
technologies of sensing,territory, time

Open-pit mining for coking coal at the state-owned
Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi project.
Omnogobi Province, Mongolia, 2016.
Waiting for the Motherland's Blessing, a nation-wide monthly
unconditional cash transfer scheme allegedly funded by mineral revenues.
Khovd Province, Mongolia, 2012.

Research Projects

1. Booms and Busts

Since 2008, I have been following the development of the extractive industry in Mongolia to understand how the rapid expansion of mining-related projects, policies, and infrastructures combine to influence the lives and future imaginaries of Mongolians of different age, gender, ethnic, and geographic positions.  Following my PhD research that focused on the 2010-2012 mining boom, I am now working as part of the Emerging Subjects project at UCL to study the mining industry in a very different economic climate.  I am examining what is at stake when large-scale mining moves away from promising national development towards servicing foreign debts and attempting to alleviate a steep economic downturn.  I am particularly interested in the affective, embodied, and material dimensions of different economic "states" - i.e. booms, indebtedness, crisis, and austerity - and how these states put into question issues of sovereignty, power, rights, identity, wealth, and well-being.

In Search of the Boom in Resource-Rich Mongolia: Development, Debt, Dust, and Disorder (forthcoming, UCL Press).

"Life and Movement Amidst the Mining Slowdown: A Visit to Tavan Tolgoi" (co-authored with Rebecca Empson), 2016, Emerging Subjects Blog.

"Internalizing External Debt", 2015, Emerging Subjects Blog.


2. Dust Exposures 

While living with nomadic herders and migrant workers in a coal boomtown in the Gobi desert near the Chinese-Mongolian border in 2012 and 2016, I witnessed how the elusive and seemingly simple substance of dust has become a serious matter of concern.  For people in this region, the interplay of systemic environmental changes with new cross-border economic activities and open-pit coal mining developments has made daily life consumed with cleaning, breathing, choking on, and eating dust that is considered toxic to the well-being of humans and livestock, which many depend on for their livelihoods and as a primary food source.  Through different projects, I have explored visceral and atmospheric encounters with dust, and am interested in how these encounters inform knowledge about contemporary life and possible bodily, economic, territorial and ecological futures.   

“Voluminous”, 2017, Cultural Anthropology's  "Speaking Volumes" Collection.

"Extractive Atmospheres in Mongolia", Conflict Minerals and Artistic Practice Workshop, The Arts Catalyst, London, UK.

"Extractive Atmospheres: Mining, Territory, and the Politics of Dust in the Gobi Desert", Presentation at University of Cambridge, Department of Social Anthropology & Mongolian and Inner Asian Studies Unit, Cambridge, UK.


3. Navigating Political Noise and Uncertainty  

I am interested in the strategies that Mongolians employ to make judgments about politics in a democratic system that is very unpredictable and noisy.  I have looked at this topic through a number of small projects ranging from an ethnographic study of a nationwide cash transfer scheme allegedly financed by mineral revenues to examining the implementation of a digital text message referendum to gauge the opinion of Mongolian citizens about how to address a looming economic crisis.  Recently, I have been partnering with the anthropologist, Tuya Shagdar, to study the moral and instrumental value of gifts like cash and foodstuffs distributed by aspiring political candidates to rural citizens during a parliamentary election season. 

"How Gifts Grant Candidates Power" (co-authored with Tuya Shagdar), 2016, Emerging Subjects Blog.

Digital Politics in Mongolia” (co-authored with Rebekah Plueckhahn and Rebecca Empson), 2015, Material World.


Grants and Fellowships

My research work has been externally supported by grants and fellowships from the European Research Council (as part of the Emerging Subjects project based at UCL's Department of Anthropology, 2014-2018), the US National Science Foundation (Graduate Research Fellowship, 2010-2013), the American Center for Mongolian Studies/Henry Luce Foundation (Dissertation Research Fellowship, 2011-2012), the US Fulbright Fellowship (2005-2006), and the Macalester College Lilly Summer Research Fellowship (2003).


Preparing a meal made from noodles gifted by an aspiring parliamentary candidate.  Uvs province, Mongolia, 2016. 
Daily dust exposure in the Gobi desert.
Omnogobi province, Mongolia, 2012.

Copyright Lauren Bonilla 2018.