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Sensory Engagements with Ulaanbaatar’s Toxic Atmosphere

June 21, 2016 @ 5:30 pm - 7:00 pm

Speaker Series: Chisato Fukuda

Air quality metrics have become the most pervasive scientific form of air pollution evidence. In Ulaanbaatar, the government has invested in an air quality monitoring network, planted Air Quality Index (AQI) boards along sidewalks, and designed websites to showcase real-time air quality data. Although these initiatives attempt to raise public “awareness”, they fail to capture how most Ulaanbaatar citizens understand air pollution. City residents make sense of toxic air, not through numbers, but through breathing, absorbing, and dwelling in polluted space. Drawing from participant-observation, interviews, and surveys among ger district residents, coal workers, atmospheric scientists, and health practitioners, this paper ethnographically examines how city dwellers gauge toxicity levels, explain disease causation, and navigate city life through sensory engagement. This paper reveals how air’s multiple and overlapping properties and processes – heat, emission, flow, odor – inform the ways many urban Mongolians make sense of their toxic surroundings. I suggest that an ethnographic attunement to the sensorial de-stabilizes narrow ideas about air pollution, breaking down dichotomies of polluted/non-polluted, unhealthy/healthy, risky/safe and reconfigures pollution into a matter of material flows, spaces, and social relations.

Co-Sponsored by the American Cultural and Information Center, Ulaanbaatar

About the Presenter

Chisato Fukuda is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As a medical and environmental anthropologist, she is interested in studying the relationship between human health, political economy, and the urban environment. She is currently completing 20 months of dissertation fieldwork on air pollution in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Her project examines how local perceptions about air pollution are shaped by state politics, the informal coal economy and everyday engagements with degrading infrastructures. Working alongside coal workers, peri-urban residents, atmospheric scientists, and health practitioners, she examines how city dwellers are constantly adapting to and making sense of the toxic spaces they inhabit. Her dissertation research is supported by the National Science Foundation, Wenner-Gren Foundation, Fulbright Institute of International Education, and the Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She will begin writing her dissertation thesis in Fall 2016.


June 21, 2016
5:30 pm - 7:00 pm
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