Professor Mathijs Pelkmans

Professor Mathijs Pelkmans


Department of Anthropology

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Dutch, English
Key Expertise
Caucasus (Republic of Georgia); Central Asia (Kyrgyz Republic)

About me

Mathijs Pelkmans is a specialist in the anthropology of the Caucasus and Central Asia. His first major fieldwork was carried out from 1999-2001. During that period, he focused on territorial borders, tracing the social biography of the iron curtain between (Soviet) Georgia and Turkey. By documenting changing patterns of everyday life along the border, most extensively in Defending the Border (2006), he demonstrated why the demise of the iron curtain was unexpectedly accompanied by a hardening of social and cultural boundaries. His fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan, conducted first in 2003-2004 and followed by shorter research trips until 2018, dealt with the religious and political dimensions of post-socialist change. Focusing on the trajectories of militant secularism, nationalism, and both Christian and Islamic missionary movements, this project studied the making and unmaking of conviction, and analysed concomitant reconfigurations of the 'secular' and the 'religious' in a 'post-atheist' Muslim-majority context. Over the past decade, he has published extensively on the shadowy sides of knowledge and belief, such as in the monograph Fragile Conviction (2017) and the (co-)edited volumes Ethnographies of Doubt (2013), ‘Wilful Blindness’ (2020), and How People Compare (2022). Recently having relocated his primary research area back to the Caucasus, he is currently developing a long-term project entitled Trading Truths in the Caucasus: Missionaries, Diplomats, and Spies.

Expertise Details

Caucasus (Republic of Georgia); Central Asia (Kyrgyz Republic); border studies; historical anthropology; methodology; Islam and Christianity; sociology of knowledge.

Selected publications


2017. Fragile Conviction: Changing ideological landscapes in urban Kyrgyzstan. Ithaca: Cornell University Press

2006. Defending the Border: Identity, religion, and modernity in the Republic of Georgia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 

Edited Volumes 

2022 (editor, with H. Walker) How People Compare. Routledge. LSE Monographs on Social Anthropology.

2020 (editor, with J. Bovensiepen) ‘Wilful Blindness’, special issue of Critique of Anthropology, vol. 40, no. 4: 387-507.

2013 (editor) Ethnographies of Doubt: Faith and uncertainty in contemporary societies. I.B.Tauris.

2009 (editor) Conversion after Socialism: Disruptions, Modernisms, and the Technologies of Faith. Berghahn Books.


2021. ‘Frontier Dynamics: Reflections on Evangelical and Tablighi missions in Central Asia’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 63 (1): 212-241.

2020 (with Judith Bovensiepen). ‘Dynamics of Willful Blindness: An Introduction’, Critique of Anthropology 40 (4): 387-402.

2018 (with Damira Umetbaeva). “Stuff of Boundaries? Kyrgyz–Russian marriages and the actualization of ethnic difference,” History and Anthropology  29 (5): 541-562 :

2018 (with Damira Umetbaeva). “Moneylending and moral reasoning on the capitalist frontier in Kyrgyzstan,” Anthropological Quarterly 91 (3): 1049-74.

2014. “Paradoxes of religious freedom and repression in (post-)Soviet contexts,” Journal of Law and Religion 29 (3): 436-446.

2013. “Ruins of Hope in a Kyrgyz post-industrial wasteland,” Anthropology Today 29 (5): 17-21.

2013. “A Wider Audience for Anthropology? Political dimensions of an important debate,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19: 398-404. 

2011 (with Rhys Machold). “Conspiracy Theories and Their Truth Trajectories,” Focaal: Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology, issue 59: 66-80. 

2010. "Religious crossings and conversions on the Muslim – Christian frontier in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan," Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 19 (2): 109-28. 

2009. "The transparency of Christian proselytizing in Kyrgyzstan," Anthropological Quarterly 82 (2): 423-446. 

2009. (with Chris Hann). "Realigning Religion and Power in Central Asia: Islam, nation-state and (post)socialism," Europe-Asia Studies 61 (9): 1517-41. 

2008. (with Julie McBrien). "Turning Marx on his Head: Missionaries, 'extremists,' and archaic secularists in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan," Critique of Anthropology 28 (1): 87-103. 

2007."'Culture' as a tool and an obstacle: Missionary encounters in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13(4): 881-899. 

2005. "On transition and revolution in Kyrgyzstan," Focaal: Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology, issue 46, pp. 147-57. 

2003. "The social life of empty buildings: Imagining the transition in post-Soviet Ajaria," Focaal: Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology, issue 41, pp. 121-136. 

2002. "Religion, nation and state in Georgia: Christian expansion in Muslim Ajaria." Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 22 (2): 249-73

Book Chapters

2022. ‘Acts of Comparison: An Introduction’, in M. Pelkmans and H. Walker (eds.) How People Compare. London: Routledge, pp. 1-21.

2022. ‘Recognizing Uniqueness: On (Not) Comparing the World Nomad Games’, in M. Pelkmans and H. Walker (eds.) How People Compare. London: Routledge, pp. 47-67.

2022     ‘Spectacular Politics at the World Nomad Games’, in D. Montgomery (ed.) Central Asia in Context: A Thematic Introduction to the Region. University of Pittsburgh Press, pp. 425-430.

Forthcoming. “Spectacular Politics at the World Nomad Games,” in D. Montgomery (ed.) Central Asia in Context: A Thematic Introduction to the Region. University of Pittsburgh Press.

2018 . “Doubt, suspicion, mistrust . . . semantic approximations,” in Mistrust. Ethnographic Approximations, edited by Florian Mühlfried. Transcript, pp. 171-180.

2015. “Awkward Secularity between Atheism and New Religiosity in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan.” In T. Ngo and N. Quijada (eds) Atheist Secularism and its Discontents: A Comparative Study of Religion and Communism in Eurasia, pp. 244-55. Palgrave Macmillan.

2015. “Mediating Miracle Truth: Permanent Struggle and Fragile Conviction in Kyrgyzstan,” in S. Coleman and R. Hackett (eds), The Anthropology of Global Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism, pp. 177-93. New York University Press.

2015. “Religious Repression and Religious Freedom: An Analysis of Their Contradictions in (Post-)Soviet Contexts,” in W. Sullivan et al (eds) The Politics of Religious Freedom. pp. 313-23. University of Chicago Press.

2013. “Outline for an Ethnography of Doubt.” In M. Pelkmans (ed.), Ethnographies of Doubt: Faith and uncertainty in contemporary societies, pp. 1-42. I.B.Tauris.

2013. “Powerful documents: Passports, passages, and dilemmas of identification on the Georgian – Turkish border.” In L. Bacas and W. Kavanagh (eds), Border Encounters: Asymmetry and Proximity at Europe's Frontiers, pp. 90-107. Berghahn Books.  

2012. “Chaos and Order along the (Former) Iron Curtain.”  In H. Donnan and T. Wilson (eds), The Blackwell Companion to Border Studies, pp. 269-82. Wiley Blackwell. 

2009. "Temporary Conversions: Encounters with Pentecostalism in Muslim Kyrgyzstan." In M. Pelkmans (ed.), Conversion after Socialism: Disruptions, Modernisms, and the Technologies of Faith, pp. 143-61. Berghahn Books. 

2006. "Asymmetries on the 'religious market' in Kyrgyzstan," in C. Hann (ed.) The Postsocialist Religious Question: Faith and Power in Central Asia and East-Central Europe. pp. 29-46. Lit Verlag. 

2003. "Rural credit institutions in Kyrgyzstan: A case-study in the practice of transition aid," in M. Spoor (ed.), Transitions, Institutions and the Rural Sector, pp. 183-195. Lexington Books.

My research

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