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Rebecca Empson

Photo - Rebecca Empson

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Rebecca Empson is on research leave from September 2014 until January 2019

Reader in Anthropology

Rebecca is currently leading a 5-year ERC-funded research project entitled: Emerging Subjects of the New Economy: Tracing Economic Growth in Mongolia. The project asks why some resource rich nations become wealthy, while others seem to become the engines that fuel growth elsewhere? It focuses on the country of Mongolia, one of the world’s fastest growing economies due to large mineral reserves. Despite hopeful economic predictions, the country is plagued with rapid inflation and little change is noticeable on the ground. Is this simply the classic manifestation of a ‘resource curse’?

Five ethnographic studies, focusing on changing property regimes, the mining industry, gendered work dynamics, religious and nationalist economies, and the bank and credit market, reveal how the economy is experienced from the ground up. In doing so we see a complex picture of new capitalist vernaculars and subjectivities that come to be the basis from which larger markets are actually being shaped.

For details about this project, listen to a recent lecture Rebecca gave in Oxford: Claiming resources, honouring debts: miners, herders and the land masters of Mongolia.

Rebecca also gave the Malinowski Memorial Lecture this year. An Economy of Temporary Possession is available here as a podcast.

Rebecca is developing a second research project on perceptions of the sea along the British Coastline, particularly following the storms earlier this year. She is currently working on public perceptions of sea waste thrown up by such storms, such as the ubiquitous plastic pellets, colloquially referred to as ‘mermaid’s tears’.

Research Interests:

The politics of personhood, subjectivity and memory, kinship, exchange across bodily and territorial boundaries, new and alternative economies, ideas about value and waste, visual and material culture. Regional focus: Inner and East Asia, especially Mongolia, and Coastal Britain.

Research Projects

My book, Harnessing Fortune: Personhood, Memory and Place in Mongolia (OUP), is based on long-term fieldwork with herding families along the Mongolian Russian border. It examines how people tend to past memories in their homes while navigating new ways of accumulating wealth and fortune in the face of political and economic uncertainties. It is at this intersection, where the politics of tending to the past and the morality of new means of accumulating wealth come together to shape intimate social relations that the book reveals an innovative area for the study of kinship in anthropology.

Past Research Projects

Click here to see Previous Research Projects

Research, developed as part of an interdisciplinary Leverhulme-funded project on changing beliefs of the human body (, was concerned with ‘exchange’ and ‘collaboration’ across bodily and territorial borders. This involved working with health professionals and patients involved in organ transplantation in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. It also involved co-curating an exhibition at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge, with Anita Herle and Mark Elliott: Assembling Bodies: Art, Science and Imagination (

2003-04 Politics and Prophecy: An Anthropological Study in Mongolia. Funded by the British Academy Larger Research Grants Division (LRG-35383), and the Cambridge Committee for Central and Inner Asia (CCCIA).

2003-06 Objects of Memory: Locating Kinship in Mongolia. Funded by the British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship programme (PDF/2003/145).

2007-09 Assembling Bodies: Exploring Technologies That Make Bodies Visible. Funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

I am a Research Associate of the Mongolia & Inner Asia Studies Unit, University of Cambridge ( and a Visiting Fellow of Wolfson College (

Up-coming Invited Talks

On the 26th June Rebecca is delivering a talk at the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills: An economy of temporary possession – is capitalism always about greed?

She is also delivering a paper at the 2015 International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, 15-17 July, at Thammasat University, Bangkok, Thailand, on the panel: Towards an Anthropology of the Amphibious: Shifting Boundaries in the Era of Climate Change

From September 2015 Rebecca will be conducting fieldwork in Mongolia for the ERC project, Emerging Subjects

Selected Publications


Swedish/English (bilingual), Mongolian (speaking: advanced, reading and writing: intermediate), French and Russian (speaking, reading, writing: basic).

PhD Students

  • Joseph Bristley, started 2012, studying the transformation of value and money in Mongolia (funded by ESRC)
  • William Matthews, started 2012, studying tea culture in China (funded by the ESRC).
  • Liz Fox, started 2013, gendered futures in the new economy (funded by ESRC).
  • Amber Wang (started 2012)
  • Tobia Franetti (ESRC, started 2012)


  • 2012: Alice Elliot (ESRC), The outside inside, the inside outside: emigration and the imagination of life in Central Morocco.
  • 2012: Alison MacDonald (ESRC), Breast cancer survivorship among middle class women in Mumbai, India
  • 2012: Catalina Tesar (Wenner Gren), Women married off to chalices. Gender, Kinship and Wealth among Cortorari Romanian Gypsies.
  • 2013: Tom McDonald (ESRC), Configurations of comfort: pleasure, place and persons in a south-western Chinese town
  • 2013: Aude Michelet (LSE) on Children and learning in Mongolia (funded by Laura Ashley Foundation)
  • 2014: Alexandra Antohin, An Ethnography of Orthodox Christianity in Wollo (Northern Ethiopia)
PerspectivismVisions of the FutureAssembling Bodies

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