Transformations Discussion: November 24, 2014

Despite the low turnout, we had a lively discussion this week on state-society relations and rural social transformations, along with a brief discussion on how to respond to verbally delivered critical reviews of a research proposal or methodology.

The question was raised: how does one respond to the critical review of one’s research premise and methodology in the context of a discussion or presentation? Critical review opens a project up to interrogation and is an necessary exercise in improving and refining a project. On the other hand, critical review also provides an opportunity to justify and defend one’s choices. It was decided that one should be prepared to be on the defensive, but is this position productive? This remains an unresolved question and any comments would be welcomed.

The discussion turned to the role of the ‘state’ (containing the implicit question of what counts as the state in the context of market-based governance, quasi-state entities that act as resource distributors/gatekeepers, and even ‘stateless’ peoples) in transforming rural social relations. The discussion began with Ariell’s brief synopsis of Mongolian herder investments in primary education for their children, the problems it poses for household economic production, and the strategies herders adopt to cope with these problems. In attempting to explain these social changes, it is easy to make the knee-jerk argument that these problems are fundamentally linked to changes in governance, specifically neoliberal restructuring programs that are structured around market-based and often urban infrastructures (i.e. technology, hospitals, etc) and institutions. This explanation, however, seems to oversimplify the influence of the state on the behavior of actors and their choices to invest time and resources into formal education, let’s say, at the cost of other places, relations, and activities. In Mongolia, the unclear demarcation between “the state” and the herder population also makes this explanation unsatisfactory, as herders themselves and their kin networks constitute the state bureaucracy. Sovereignty of the Mongolian state itself is questionable as resource flows and decision making is heavily influenced by geo-politics, natural resource extraction, and macroeconomic factors. These factors are not unique to Mongolia and prevalent in other post-socialist states and resource-rich emerging market economies.

Hannah brought up the material from James Ferguson’s (1999) ‘Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt’ and his concept of ‘cultural styles’ as a useful analytical tool for looking at the accumulation of value in certain social forms (including types of property) to explain transformations in social organization. By way of Dick Hebdige’s work on the notion of style among British youth, and studies on the construction and enactment of gender identites, Ferguson’s “cultural style” refers to “practices that signify differences between social categories (95).” He uses this concept in order to “develop an anti-teleological set of concepts and tools that would be adequate to making sense of the non-and counterlinearities of the contemporary Copperbelt (21).” We went on to discuss Ferguson’s work on cash transfers in Africa and his critique of the link between labor and wealth. A related example on the topic of cultural style is Gupta’s writing on bio-politics and people consuming their bodies, such as in a case where people chose phones over food.

In his recent article (2013), Ferguson critiques the idea that autonomy is freedom, and argues that in southern Africa, social personhood is not linked to autonomy but to dependence. Social value is evaluated in terms of inter-dependence and social linkages. In a context where wage labour is tied to social personhood, and in the absence of work and the social and political identities that work provides, people are looking for a means to belong. We discussed cash transfers as an example of “responsibilization” (Lemke), where individuals are given money to procure social goods on an individual, self-interested basis. For example, in Africa cash is distributed through visa/debit cards, which allow people to have access to cash under certain conditions (i.e. by extracting it from machines located at banks and supermarkets). Ferguson calls this a “socially thin” experience. We wondered to what extent the state bureaucracy will be automated, perhaps to the extent that it is entirely managed by individual interaction with machines. Related to this point was a linear programming project in the Soviet Union, which worked on the problem of how the state should be present as a procedural entity and was conceived in the form of an algorithm developed by the mathematician LV Kantorovich.


Ferguson, James (2013) Declarations of dependence: labour, personhood, and welfare in southern Africa. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19: 223-242. 2013

Ferguson, James (1999) Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt. University of California Press: Berkeley. 1999.

Lemke, Thomas (2001) The birth of bio-politics: Michel Foucault’s lecture at the College de France on neo-liberal governmentality. Economy and Society. 30:2: 190-207.

Migdal, Joel S. (1988) Strong Societies, Weak States: State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the 3rd World. Princeton University Press.


About ariell

A GCRF-ESRC postdoctoral fellow in the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford. Researching changing patterns of work, social relations, and value in rural and suburban Mongolia.
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