UCL Anthropology


Rebecca Empson


Photo - Rebecca Empson

Tel: +44 (0)20 7679 8625

Fax: +44 (0)20 7679 8632

E-mail: r.empson@ucl.ac.uk

Room: 122

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

Professor of Anthropology

Research Projects

1. Rebecca is currently leading a 5-year ERC-funded research project entitled Emerging Subjects of the Mongolia Economy. Composed of 10 researchers at UCL and MNU, as well as a lively Advisory Board, 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 - a country with large mineral reserves, but little sign of internal economic growth.

We explore the kinds of subjects, or themes, that are emerging in this economic climate, such as rising debt and barter, decline in the construction industry, small-scale trade and FTZ markets, as well as civil society and environmental movements, and the impact of the mining industry itself. We also focus on the kinds of subjects - as in forms of subjectivity - that are emerging in this climate, such as pawn shop brokers, repair people at markets, female traders, and environmental and political activists.

In doing so, we reveal how the economy is experienced and shaped from the ground up, giving rise to 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 lecture Rebecca gave in Oxford: Claiming resources, honouring debts: miners, herders and the land masters of Mongolia, as well as Rebecca's Malinowski Memorial Lecture at the LSE An Economy of Temporary Possession, which is available here podcast.

2. A second area of research is concerned with perceptions of the sea along the British Coastline. This research is composed of two strands. One focuses on public perceptions of sea waste thrown up by storms, such as the ubiquitous plastic pellets, colloquially referred to as 'mermaid's tears'. The other is concerned with the reception of 'new natures' through processes of adaptive management employed by Coastal Engineers.

3. Finally, Rebecca is currently collaborating with the artist Hermione Sprigg on her project UURGA (irregular loop). Through video footage and photography, the viewer is invited to enter the perspective of the uurga, a lasso that inhabits the pivot between worlds of herder and horse in nomadic Mongolia. The lasso functions as a window through which to experience a puzzling and hyper-local approach to landscape, resources and interspecies companionship. Visit uurga-irregularloop.com.

UURGA (irregular loop)

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.

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 (www.arch.cam.ac.uk/lrp/intro.html), 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 (www.maa.cam.ac.uk/assemblingbodies).

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 (www.innerasiaresearch.org) and a Visiting Fellow of Wolfson College (www.wolfson.cam.ac.uk).

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)

Visions of the Future
Assembling Bodies