Associate Professor of Anthropology Manduhai Buyandelger has been awarded the James A. (1945) and Ruth Levitan Prize in the Humanities, a $25,000 research grant that will support her ethnographic study of parliamentary elections in Mongolia, with specific emphasis on the experience of female candidates.
In announcing the award, Deborah K. Fitzgerald, the Kenan Sahin Dean of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, remarked that there were “many excellent proposals” for this year’s Levitan, the School’s top annual prize for research. “It is a real tribute to your depth of intelligence and experience … that the committee chose [this project] as the winner,” Fitzgerald wrote in congratulating Buyandelger.
A project on Mongolian women and political power
“The Levitan Prize is going to transform my life,” Buyandelger says, “because I’ll be able to finish this project” — a book highlighting the “unconventional and creative strategies” women politicians in Mongolia have employed to meet the challenges of the postsocialist era, and the ways in which women’s early electoral failures in Mongolia helped spawn a women’s movement there.
“During socialism, the state promoted top-down strategies to equalize the sexes,” Buyandelger says. “With the collapse of the state, women were left on their own … and their marginalization at the top levels of politics became even more stark.”
Although women rarely secured election during Mongolia’s early democratic years — women’s representation in the national parliament never exceeded 8 percent until 2012 — Buyandelger finds that this failure helped spur the launch of a wide range of small nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that advocated for women’s rights.
“The individual fruits of these little NGOs in the end contributed to building a new culture and awareness about gender issues,” Buyandelger says. While the Mongolian NGOs did not always explicitly work together, “in the end they collectively transformed the perception of the populace regarding women in politics,” she says. “They also leveraged the government to designate an agency to attend to gender issues.”
Travel to Mongolia
The Levitan Prize will enable Buyandelger to travel to Mongolia to finish the research for her forthcoming book, “One Thousand Steps to Parliament: Elections, Women’s Participation, and Gendered Transformation in Postsocialist Mongolia.” It will be the second book for Buyandelger, who is the only anthropologist in the United States focused on Mongolia. Her first book, “Tragic Spirits: Shamanism, Memory, and Gender in Contemporary Mongolia,” was released by the University of Chicago Press in November 2013.
“Buyandelger explores how individuals and groups interpret, resist, and accommodate these drastic socioeconomic transformations, by both reviving traditional cultural practices and creating new ones,” says Professor Susan Silbey, who heads the Anthropology Section. “In ‘Tragic Spirits’ [she documents] the revival of shamanism in the transformation from Soviet communism to liberal capitalist subjects.”
A documentary film on Parliamentarian Burmaa Radnaa
Buyandelger says she also plans to use the Levitan Prize to complete a related documentary film, “Intellect-ful Women,” centered on the experiences of Burmaa Radnaa, a Mongolian politician she shadowed during the 2008 campaign. The film should provide a wholly novel perspective on the election process. “There are very few studies of women politicians in anthropology,” says Buyandelger, who was afforded rare access to top parliamentary politics while shadowing Radnaa on a daily basis.
After Radnaa lost the 2008 election, she took her case to court alleging ballot fraud — and won. And, although the court did not award her a seat, the publicity surrounding the case helped earn both her and her party a fair shot at election in 2012. As a result, Radnaa is now serving as a member of parliament.
“The film concentrates on Burmaa’s extraordinary analytical skills and mercurial but nuanced ways of thinking and solving problems,” Buyandelger wrote in her Levitan Prize application. “Against the commercialized elections and party politics where networks and money pave much of the road to parliamentary seats, Burmaa won a seat with limited resources but with much thinking. Her electoral strategies are embedded, primarily, in her intellect.”
The Levitan Prize prize was established through a gift from the late James A. Levitan, a 1945 MIT graduate in chemistry, who was also a member of the MIT Corporation and of counsel at the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom of New York City. The prize, first awarded in 1990, supports innovative and creative scholarship in the humanities by faculty members in the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.