Economic Anthropology

Booms and Busts: Asset Dynamics, Disaster, and the Politics of Wealth in Rural Mongolia



Asset-based approaches in poverty research argue that trajectories of asset accumulation and decumulation in rural, agricultural livelihoods can be located in the connections between household asset endowments and exposure to shocks. Though these frameworks show that wealth and its “other,” poverty, can be persistent over time, there is a critical lack in understanding the political and historical mechanisms of that persistence including the dynamic interaction between resource access, socioeconomic inequality, and risk management. In this article, I use contemporary and historical livestock data collected from rural pastoralists in Mongolia to demonstrate that asset dynamics are largely an effect of historical processes of dispossession and impoverishment, and the resulting unequal distribution of risks and resources, rather than a cause. As such, I argue that booms and busts in household herds must be seen through a kaleidoscope of emerging and shifting institutions where differences in endowments, entitlements, and risk exposure are filtered through local cultural politics. In conclusion, I argue that by contextualizing rather than eschewing asset-based approaches, researchers can uncover the politics of excess as a politics of access and shed light on the cultural and institutional foundations of wealth, surplus, and their “others.”