We’re bringing back our Postdoc Spotlight series! In this first installment we interviewed Tyler Adkins, Mellon Teaching Fellow at the Harriman Institute, and Lecturer in Anthropology.
How did you become interested in the social and aesthetic life of fermentation and Indigenous pastoralist communities in Siberia’s Altai Republic?
One of the unique qualities of ethnographic research is that the research itself precedes the definition of its object. This is, to some degree, how I began studying Altai food culture: food was something my Altai interlocutors wanted to talk about— it was a subject which they themselves thought was important to discuss. And their discussions about food were rarely just about food— my interlocutors used food as an idiom for discussing their broader social context, from cultural identity, to economic anxiety, to perceptions of historical change.
My ongoing work on fermentation stems largely from an interest in how societies experience time. Memory is, of course, a perennial commonplace of post-socialist studies; however, my fieldwork experiences have prompted me to reconsider many of my presuppositions about what and where an archive is. What kind of alternative history emerges if we expand the notion of the archive beyond written documents to include, for example, the yeast and bacterial cultures which Altai communities have consciously preserved for producing fermented dairy products? Bioarchives, like starter cultures, are modes of preserving information that defy boundaries between the natural and the cultural; they are interesting not just as ways of thinking about post-Soviet memory, but also as examples of how human memory itself can be affected by our era of profound ecological disruption.
How has Russia’s war in Ukraine changed your approach to your research?
Even before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s Indigenous communities— and arguably rural Russia in general— were largely passed over by Western scholarly discourse. We now find ourselves in a dire situation in which not only has this region been understudied, but new empirical research on the ground there is unimaginable for the foreseeable future. In terms of my own response to this situation, I feel a new sense of urgency in making both the scholarly community and the broader public aware that places like Altai Republic exist and are sites of incredible cultural richness.
How has the Harriman Institute supported your work?
I really can’t overstate how important the Harriman’s support has been for my work— it’s given me an opportunity to explore and develop my fieldwork data in ways that would not have been possible otherwise. Just as importantly, the support of the Institute has also allowed me to develop ways of discussing Indigenous Siberian cultures not just as an ethnographer but as a pedagogue.
Fun fact about you or your research?
During my fieldwork, I was almost deported on false charges of being a pine nut poacher (pine nuts are a major export of Altai Republic, the collection of which is regulated).