Field notes: Joseph Recupero ’17 studies in Mongolia

Joseph Recupero ’17 in Mongolia

“To get there, it took me a 10-hour drive one day, a 15-hour drive the next day, and then two days on a horse on a wooden saddle in -35° weather,” recalled Joseph Recupero ’17. He was on his way to interview Tsaatan reindeer herders for his independent research through the School for International Training program in Mongolia, where he studied abroad.

Joseph Recupero ’17 on a reindeer“The last month of the program, you complete independent research,” said Recupero, a Political Science and Anthropology major and Africana Studies minor. “My project was on culture commodification in the Mongolian tourism industry and the motivating factors behind why tourism is moving into the area.”

There are two regions where the Tsaatan herders have lived and worked for thousands of years: the East Taiga and West Taiga in northern Mongolia. While completing his background research, Recupero discovered that a movie released in the 1980s had impacted the traditions of reindeer herders who lived in the East Taiga. They changed their antler carving traditions to match the movie’s so they could appeal to tourists. Recupero decided to interview reindeer herders in West Taiga to see if this was also true of that region—thus the long journey by horseback.

Recupero studied abroad in Costa Rica previously and enjoyed the process of conducting research internationally. Originally, he hadn't considered traveling to Mongolia, but learned from the Center for Global Education that the program focused on nomadism, geopolitics, and the environment—areas in which Recupero was interested. It ended up being a good fit. Mongolia would provide Recupero with additional opportunities to hone the skills he knew he would need to pursue his Ph.D.

In addition to interviewing the Tsaatan reindeer herders, Recupero conducted ethnographic research with the Kazakh eagle-hunters in Western Mongolia and conducted interviews in Ulaanbaatar with tourism officials.

In his voice: field notes

During his time in Mongolia, Recupero kept field notes of his experiences and personal reflections. Below are a few snippets from his research journal.

  • “When you are standing on top of the world, you realize you are quite small and it is quite large and you are a part of something so much grander than yourself." -Standing atop mountains in Bayan Olgii, western Mongolia and thinking about my place in the world
  • "I'm slowly learning that anthropology is not about speaking for people, it is about allowing them to speak through you." -Reflection on interviews with Tsaatan reindeer herders
  • "I have no idea what is going to come of this research, but I know one thing, it was one hell of a ride." -Finishing my paper and reflecting on the research experience
  • "You may be sitting around waiting for the world, but it surely isn't waiting around for you. Better get out there and take in everything it has to show you." -Giving myself a little motivation about traveling on my own across Russia

“The program helped me to plan everything, but I created my research design, worked on finding contacts, and scheduled my interviews and everything by myself,” he said. “That helped prepare me for doing capstone work this year and then dissertation work down the road.”

Recupero became interested in anthropology while he was still in high school, after a family friend suggested he research the field. It wasn’t until Gettysburg, however, that he would learn he had a knack for teaching and a desire to pursue a Ph.D.

“While graduate school has been in the back of my mind at Gettysburg, I think it was only after being able to do hands-on research, give presentations, and get my work published that I knew research and academia was the road I wanted to go down,” Recupero said.

“And it’s been nice being able to do research here, because I can also incorporate my political science background and my Africana studies minor into my work. In some anthropological research, you work in isolation and with just one group of people. I am very interested in that, but I’m also very interested in studying how larger trends affect multiple groups of people throughout a country or a region and I can pool all of my majors together to do that. Anthropology as a field is also moving in that direction, so I’ll be prepared for graduate school.”

During his time at Gettysburg, Recupero has published several papers, including the research he conducted in Mongolia. (If you’re curious, he learned the reindeer herders in the West Taiga were not impacted by the movie and tourists like the herders in the East Taiga.) He also had the opportunity to present his overall findings to an audience of professors and administrators in the Ministry of Tourism.

In his last year at Gettysburg, Recupero hopes to learn more about the field of political anthropology—how political decisions and policies are made and how they affect people at the local level. Then, it’s off to graduate school.

“I think there’s so much in the world to see and explore and learn about, and my majors and experiences allow me to do that,” said Recupero. “That’s also why I want to go into academia and teaching, because it’s one thing to have experiences—it’s another to share them and be able to educate people through them. It takes the work a step beyond.”

More about Recupero

Joseph Recupero ’17 with falcon