Research Areas

economic anthropology,  political ecology,
development geography, anthropology of the body

Topics of Interest

affect & embodiment,  austerity & debt,  extraction & development,
health & well-being,  knowledge- & sense-making,  materiality,
politics of distribution,  pollution & toxicity,  power & sovereignty

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 tracing 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 people in Mongolia.  Following my PhD research that focused on Mongolia's highly anticipated mining boom, my work as a postdoctoral researcher with the Emerging Subjects project at UCL (2014-2018) has examined what is at stake when large-scale mining moves away from promising national development and economic growth towards servicing foreign debts and attempting to alleviate an economic crisis.  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.  I have studied 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 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.   Through collaborative research and writing with the anthropologist, Tuya Shagdar, I haveexamined the moral and instrumental value of gifts like cash and foodstuffs distributed by aspiring political candidates to rural citizens during a parliamentary election season. 

"Electoral Gifting and Personal Politics in Mongolia's Parliamentary Election Season" (co-authored with Tuya Shagdar), 2018, Central Asian Survey.

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.