Songs of Horses, Songs of Home: Mongolian Kazakh Senses of Place in the Altai

In this project, I’m looking at song, horsemanship, and tourism to investigate how Mongolian Kazakhs are involved in different placemaking practices within the landscapes of the Altai Tavn Bogd National Park in Mongolia.

There has been a Kazakh minority in Mongolia since the late 19th century, but their senses of place and belonging are being challenged on multiple fronts. They are burdened with pressure to leave Mongolia for Kazakhstan (Diener 2009, Barcus and Werner 2017); threatened by extreme weather events and invasive resource extraction efforts (Post 2018, Batima et al 2012); and almost entirely ignored all by the Mongolian state except for inclusion on Mongolian tourism brochures. This project asks how ethnic Kazakhs living in Mongolia’s westernmost province continue to imagine and maintain senses of place, home, and belonging in this turbulent context.

My proposed research will take me to Mongolia’s western province of Bayan Ölgii, where the Altai Tavn Bogd National Park plays multiple roles as a political buffer zone between China and Mongolia, a protected area for Mongolian Kazakh seasonal livestock migration, a globally designated site of cultural and ecological preservation, and a tourist attraction for wealthy holidaymakers. By embedding myself in the tourist economy here, I want to learn about placemaking in its embodied, group-internal and group-external forms. By this I mean (1) the embodied, multispecies relationship to place that emerges out of horseback movement through the National Park (2) the emotions and ideas about place that are generated and shared by informally trained poets and musicians in song and (3) ethno- and eco-tourisms incorporate horse culture and song to mediate between Mongolian Kazakh and tourist experiences of place in the National Park.

I align myself with recent research into natural resource extraction and economic transformation in Mongolia (Empson 2020), viewing the culture and landscape of the Altai Tavn Bogd National Park as another kind of natural resource that is being extracted for financial gain. The difference is that this resource extraction is not an etic, destructive force but an emic transformation emerging from a desire to enter the global economy. I am interested in what we can make of power relations when Mongolian Kazakhs are essentialising and marketing themselves for social and financial gain, and to what extent their sense of place is central to this economic transformation. I also align myself with a long history in anthropology of framing place as a forum in which human and non-human worlds tangibly intersect (Feld 1982, Basso 1996, Tsing 2015), and with established lines of inquiry into Kazakh-language poetic expression about place and emotion (Dubuisson 2017, Post 2014, 2019).

When, Where, Who

This project started in September 2019 at the University of Manchester, supervised by Madeleine Reeves, with secondary supervision by Caroline Bithell, Rupert Cox and William Wheeler.

Fields & Fieldwork

Fieldwork will take place in Mongolia over the course of 18 months starting in November 2020: two months of Mongolian language training in Ulan Bator followed by four months of Kazakh language training in Ölgii and twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork in and around the Altai Tavn Bogd National Park on the border of Mongolia and China.

As for academic fields, although this project broadly sits in Social Anthropology, my work is more accurately situated in the anthropologies of:

  • Place / Landscape
  • Home / Belonging
  • Music / Ethnomusicology
  • Tourism & National Parks
  • Human-Animal Relations
  • Central / Inner Asia


The project is being funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of its doctoral training scheme. I’m a recipient of the 1+3 studentship, which means I will do a 1-year research masters followed by a 3-year PhD. For more information on this funding, check out this guide.


My background in linguistics informs my work as an anthropologist, having left me with an acute sensitivity to and interest in modes of expression and communication.
My background as a singer and songwriter sparked my understanding of music as a meaningful way of making sense of the world.

My background as a Third Culture Kid with two passports and several different places ai call or have called home has made me want to extend the personal attention I pay to place into the academic spaces of my life as well.

Blog posts

September 2019: The Graduate Desk

October 2019: Go Walk in the Rain

December 2019: Conferring at a Conference

February 2020: 3 Creative Projects I Won’t Be Taking On in 2020 (& the People Who Are Already Doing Them)

March 2020: A Funny Old Situation