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Interview with Dr. Kathryn Graber, Assistant Professor in Anthropology and Central Eurasian Studies Departments

Alexander Zakel: This is an interview with Dr. Kate Graber, the most recent hire to the Department of Central Eurasian Studies. What’s your area of focus?

Kathryn Graber: I’m in the Department of Anthropology and in the Department of Central Eurasian Studies. In Anthropology, I specialize in linguistic anthropology, the social scientific study of language as used in peoples’ daily lives. Because my research has been for many years in Buryatia, which is an area of the Russian Federation just north of Mongolia, I also work in Central Eurasian Studies.

AZ: What initially caused you to be interested in Buryatia and the linguistic anthropology therein?

KG: That’s two separate questions, so I’ll go with Buryatia first. I got interested in Buryatia in a kind of roundabout way. I was taking Russian classes for my linguistics major as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. (I started with Czech, but Czech didn’t count for the degree, so I decided, “Alright, fine, I’ll take Russian for the degree, because I have to take one of these [listed] classes.”) I was also in a Russian choir at the time called Golosa, which is very good. (They’re still around. I highly recommend them!) Anyway, Golosa sang  mostly liturgical and traditional music and secular music from folk ensembles in Russia, but especially Siberia, and particularly the Semeiskie.

 The Semeiskie—their name comes from semiya, for family—are a separate ethnic group at this point. They’re Old Believers who moved from Russia into what is now Poland. When Poland was absorbed into the Russian Empire, Catherine the Great agreed to allow them to continue to practice their religion, but only if they would move to the border and farm for the Cossacks. They moved all the way from what is now Poland to the border of what is now Mongolia just south of Lake Baikal, where they live to this day. They have very interesting vocal patterns, especially really close minor seconds. They harmonize with six or seven voices, really close to one another and will all fall off together. [Sorry we can’t reproduce Dr. Graber’s demonstration in the text.]

The choir that I was in went to Siberia in the summer of 2001 to collect some new songs from [a] group that our director already knew. While I was there, I was a college student who didn’t have any particular interest in studying Russia past that summer. I was taking Russian at St. Petersburg State University, but I didn’t think that I was actually going to be working in Russia. But we went to meet this group called “Sud’binushka,” a Semeiskie ensemble in Buryatia.  One of the choir members was married to a woman who spoke a little bit of Buryat and was Buryat herself. I had never heard of this language and was only vaguely aware that we were even in a place called “Buryatia;” I thought we were just in Siberia. I never realized that there was ethnic or linguistic diversity of any sort inside of Russia. As an undergraduate, I had the assumption that Russia was this monolingual, monoethnic, mono mono mono place. I guess that I imagined that the quintessential Russian person was blonde-haired and blue-eyed and spoke Russian.

So this sort of blew my mind. I had no idea that there was this much diversity inside of the Russian Federation. In fact, I had been interested in doing African linguistics because I was specifically interested in language contact and multilingualism. When I got back to Chicago, because I was a good college student(!), I went to the library and I decided, “Okay, I have to find out about this language called Buryat.” I found very little written in English; just the work of Caroline Humphrey. There was a lot written in Russian, so it was clear that there was plenty to study, but very, very little in English. Later, when I decided to go to graduate school in linguistic anthropology, I remembered that there was this giant, gaping hole in American knowledge, and I thought that it would be really wonderful if anyone would give me funding and a place in a PhD program to study it.  One thing led to another, because at every turn, people were just like, “Yeah, that’s great! Keep going! Wonderful!” Few U.S.-based scholars conduct research in Siberia, so working there can be daunting but has also led to many opportunities.

I got interested in linguistic anthropology because I was a linguistics and anthropology major in undergraduate. At first, I was a linguistics major, and I was very interested in language structure and multilingualism. But I became increasingly concerned that there was no way to get at what it was that was interesting about the way that people use language.

I still remember very clearly being in a morphology class where the professor said that he had never traveled to the region whose languages he studied, and that he didn’t feel any need to go there. His point was that it shouldn’t be necessary, because the languages could be abstracted from their social environments and could be studied in a lab or outside of their sociocultural contexts. But to me, that sounded nuts. I could see his point, but it sounded strange, because it was putting aside everything that I thought was most interesting about language. I got interested in sociolinguistics once I realized that just studying language wasn’t going to do it.

AZ: Within linguistic anthropology and sociolinguistics, how did you become interested in mass media?

KG: It’s clear that mass media is an important site of linguistic change, but we, as researchers, are still not sure how. On the one hand, there’s the very obvious point that new forms of language and language contact, like mixing Russian and Buryat, or Spanish and English, will pop up on a media site and be distributed to a lot of people. But that doesn’t mean that people actually take it up. We haven’t explained very much by saying, “You can use new forms of language in media.” We haven’t explained why people take them up, just because they’re being distributed and circulated. That’s to say that [mass media] is potentially a site of linguistic change.

 Secondly, mass media becomes an important site of linguistic change because it actually provides a context in which you can reaffirm and extend the ideological relationships and assumptions of connections between words and social categories. For instance, you assume that an anchorman always speaks in standard American English. One day, they use a new form that doesn’t sound standard. You, as the audience, watching that over and over again, might start to feel that it is reasonable for speakers of standard American English to use that form.The point is that every time that someone is held up as an exemplar of a particular social category in this media form, and that person speaks, there’s a reaffirmation of the connection between that social category and that form of speech. That’s what I’m more interested in: how the circulation of mass media can confirm and reconstitute these relationships between forms of speech and social categories.                                                            

AZ: The IAUNRC is planning to engage in greater interaction with community colleges and minority serving institutions. Are there any aspects of this plan that you find particularly interesting?

KG: This is an exciting initiative on the part of the IAUNRC. The Center is unique in North America and in the world in its area of focus. We should be playing the role of a center of knowledge and education about the Inner Asian and Uralic region, not just for students in the state of Indiana, but for the US as a whole. I think that this is a wonderful initiative to make this a genuinely national resource center as opposed to a more local one.

In the past, the Center has reached out to K-12 more than other higher education institutions. While that makes a lot of sense historically, we’re at a moment right now where higher education opportunities are expanding really rapidly, and they’re expanding less in research universities like IU than they are in community colleges and minority-serving institutions, and it’s exciting to be a part of that shift.  

AZ:  Now that you are working at IU, are there any resources available here that you’re particularly interested in accessing?

KG: It’s incredibly lucky for me that there are multiple clusters of resources, especially faculty, around my current as well as future research interests. It’s this particular confluence of amazingness at IU that has allowed me to pursue a new project on the Mongolian cashmere industry, for example. We have this cluster of scholars of Mongolia and specialists in language and linguistics as well as a strong set of resources that I haven’t tapped into yet about intellectual and cultural property.

I’ve also been very pleased and excited about the extent to which IU has invested in qualitative research and media research in particular. Besides the new Media School, the College is also funding the Qualitative Data Analysis Lab that I’m setting up in Woodburn Hall as part of the Social Science Research Commons. It will be a resource for graduate students and faculty to try out qualitative analysis software and check out some audio and video recording equipment to be used in small field projects inside of the US. Not every large university has that combination of faculty resources and willingness to invest in research in that way.

AZ: You mentioned that the resources available to you here have led you to be interested in the Mongolian cashmere industry. Are there any other ways in which you see your research interests changing in the future?

KG: Because I’m interested in minority media and minority language politics, I’m especially interested in bringing the study of minority languages in Central Eurasia and the Russian Federation into conversation in a comparative framework with minority language media elsewhere in the world. The book project that I’m currently working on I’m hoping will be interesting not exclusively to experts in the Russian Federation, but also to those who work in other parts of the world, particularly Native North America. I’d like to bring the study of ethnic minorities [in Russia] into a more direct and useful comparative framework with minorities in Native North America. There’s a lot to be said for comparing Native Siberia and Native North America, but to date, a lot of those comparisons have relied on looking for common origins instead of looking for similarities in structural inequality.

AZ: Do you have any plans for courses that you would like to teach in the future?

KG: In the Department of Anthropology, I’m developing several courses in linguistic anthropology. [Next year] I’m taking [on] the proseminar on Language and Culture for graduate students and developing Language and Globalization, which will be a 300-level course. I’m also developing Language, Gender, and Sexuality, which will also be a 300-level course. This coming semester, I’m teaching Language in/of Media, which will be a joint upper-level undergraduate/graduate course that will take advantage of the new resources at the Qualitative Data Analysis Lab.

In CEUS, I’ll be teaching [some] upper-level seminars, including Property in Central Eurasia. I’ve taught it before, which is excellent, because it dovetails with my interests in intellectual and cultural property in the Mongolian cashmere industry. In the seminar, we think about how Central Eurasia has been the testing grounds for a lot of different experiments in property and property relations and policies. For instance, this is where there was sedentarization on a mass scale, transforming peoples’ relations in the process. This is where there was socialism and collectivization, which really radically restructured the ways that people relate to one another through property. And, of course, there was [the reintroduction of] capitalism with privatization. So there are these three enormously consequential processes all in one part of the world. In that way, Central Eurasia is really wonderful in thinking about property and how property relations form other social relations.

For next semester, I’m developing Nomads, Networks, and Communities, which is an undergraduate-level course which is supposed to serve as an introduction to both Central Eurasian and anthropological topics. I want to get people in the door with the word “nomad,” but then disabuse them of the notion that there is such a thing as a nomad, then discuss what it means to be a mobile pastoralist in the 21st century. We’ll also discuss what’s wrapped up in the term, using examples from Mongolia, Tibet, and Iran, as well as this romantic notion of the Nomad and why we, as sedentarized people, find it so compelling. For instance, what do we mean when we talk about things like “work nomads,” which has become very popular recently? What’s meant by this term is that people move from place to place to place for their jobs, but also, more often, they work with their laptop and go to something like a coffee shop. So, that’s “work nomadism.” Other forms of nomadism that we’ll be exploring include the beatniks and counter-culture notions of nomadism, so ideas of the romantic freedom of not being tied to any particular place.

And, finally, I’m planning to offer Language and Identity in Central Eurasia in 2017. The class explores the intersections of linguistic categories and various social identities like gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, racial and demographic categories. This is another dual undergraduate/graduate course. We’ve actually had undergraduates take these sorts of seminars with graduate students and then, because they see grad students and see what it means to be a graduate student, with all of the passion and research [it involves], a number of them have gone on to graduate school, some of them in Central Eurasian topics. It’s exciting to be teaching in CEUS at a time when there is such a thing as an undergraduate major.