By Michael Agar
Some time ago I was anointed a “senior specialist” with Fulbright, at the time to work on complexity and social programs in Buenos Aires. That didn’t work out. But my old friend and colleague, psychiatrist Dr. Ken Vittetoe, with whom I had worked on projects in Honduras over the years, decided to take advantage of the award and invite me to visit Tegucigalpa to give a week-long course to social service practitioners and researchers on how to think ethnographically in their work. What that means and how it went is a topic for another day.
For now, this is just background as to how I came to attend parts of the 8th Central American Congress of Anthropology, held in Tegucigalpa the week before my course from February 21 to the 25. Congress organizer Sylvia González, who had just established a “carrera,” a major, in anthropology at the national university, invited me to present a “conversatorio” during the meetings. I also had the chance to attend a few sessions and events; not as many as I wanted to, because bureaucratic and personal preparations for my own course took up a fair amount of time.
The opening plenary was delivered by Gabriel García of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico, an overview of the development of Central American anthropology (CAA). What struck me was how recent and how rapid the growth of CAA has been. A look at the journal he edits will make the point (http://www.pueblosyfronteras.unam.mx/). Two topics that Dr. Garcia treated were the relationship between decades of work by North American anthropologists in the region (in which he includes Mayan lands in southern Mexico) and the rapid growth in CAA research, as well as the care that needs be taken to develop a ¨regional¨ anthropology that is not at the same time parochial.
In his plenary talk, and in conversations later, I didn’t hear much in the way of post-colonial themes. In fact, the Congress was dedicated to the memory of Anne Chapman, a Franco-American anthropologist who spent many years working with the Lenca in Honduras, among other groups. Dr. Garcia and I sat across from each other at dinner later in the conference and he said that that discussion was pretty much over and done with. CAA has the gearshift in forward, not in reverse.
One theme I did pick up emphasized the limits within which outsiders had worked, limits that narrowed their vision, together with a discussion of how CAA research would of course emerge out of other contexts and therefore broaden the anthropology of the region. It reminded me of Maxwell Owusu´s article in the American Anthropologist, long ago in 1978, which in spite of its edgy title, ¨Ethnography of Africa: The Usefulness of the Useless,¨ was actually an early and reasonable critique of the limits of British ethnography along the same lines. One student sitting next to me in a session told me, grinning, that he was from the Independent Republic of Chiapas. Since that area has been the site of considerable American anthropological research and training, I asked him what he thought of their work. Some I like, some I don´t like so much, he said. I feel the same way about work done in the U.S.
Later, in a plenary on “interculturality” in Central America, Andrés Fábregas Puig talked about the development of “intercultural universities” in the region. His focus was on the focus of acculturation, later named “Indigenismo,” a major contribution of Mexican anthropology initiated by Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán (winner of the Malinowski Award in 1973 by the way). Mexico, he said, was a natural home for questions about culture-mixing with its tradition of mestizaje. But Beltrán described acculturation as negative from an indigenous point of view. The contemporary version of interculturality in play at the universities now views the mix as a positive.
By way of background to his plenary, Prof. Fábregas described Chiapas as home to numerous studies by faculty and students from Harvard and Chicago. (He left out Stanford and Berkeley, my alma maters. Chiapas was also tierra sagrada for them. Much of ethnographic semantics was built on field research in the area.) He described how anthropologists from the North worked in villages, especially in an isolated region where the “culture” was less subject to national influences—the model from the old days of looking for a “pure” culture free of the heartbreak of Galton’s problem. He said the locals still call one luxury hotel in San Cristobal de las Casas “Rancho Harvard.” He grew up in San Cristobal and found it interesting that it didn’t occur to American anthropologists that it could also be an ethnographic site.
These were entertaining stories for me to hear, from one old-timer who grew up in a place to another who had read a lot about it in graduate school.
But then enough of the past. What does it mean to talk of a Central American anthropology?
One of the sessions where I was able to listen to a continuous sequence of papers featured students from the anthropology program at the University of El Salvador. They were all interesting, deserving of more discussion and critique than I can go into here. What fascinated me were two things. The papers I heard, different as their topics were, all wove in the recent civil war in one form or another. Topics included what “democracy” meant in a local election, how to explain the “maras” or gangs, and how the Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) began. Well of course they would have to take the war into account, I thought, but only after the students made it obvious for me.
The next week, in my own workshop for a Honduran group, the theme of “security” came up no matter what the focus was in the class assignments—field notes and an ethnographic interview. I learned about that theme shortly after arrival, like my host and friend’s story about getting shot in his car, his passenger killed. I thought, again, the theme becomes obvious only because course participants make it so in their detailed assignments.
It’s what we all do when we do ethnography. We take an issue that an outsider might summarize in an isolated and distant fashion and make it real in terms of how it shapes numerous details of everyday life.
Listening to the CAA students made me think about how to understand the different angles of vision we researchers and practitioners bring to ethnographic work. They made me think of ethnography as a chain of choices. Long ago I started using the metaphor of a funnel, open in the beginning and then narrowing as time goes on with a specific focus at the end. There are multiple trails possible within that funnel and a lot of places to put the spout. The chain of choices that any ethnographer must make is one of the things that made the difference between what the students did and what an outsider like me might possibly do.
The students from El Salvador made their ethnographic choices within the historical circumstances of more than a decade of civil war, the consequences of which are now a massively important national question. The students from Honduras made their choices within the historical circumstances of the recent upsurge in murders, kidnappings and extortion among both the wealthy and the poor. I’m guessing that I would have made different choices. For example, I arrived in Honduras wondering about the recent coup, the civil strife that it generated, with the international politics of the U.S. and Venezuela in the background.
A second framework that shapes that chain of choices is background knowledge, a major theme in Owusu’s critique of British anthropology mentioned earlier. I use the phrase “rich point” for an ethnographic problem grounded in an unexpected difference that catches the attention of a researcher. What counts as a rich point is a function of the interaction between two semiotic worlds, that of the people who produced it and that of the researcher who lacked the capacity to interpret it. A researcher of the same national background as his or her subjects will likely attend to different rich points when compared with a researcher from a different national background. Differences could also be expected with a related problem—thinking you get it when in fact you don’t. In fact, the Salvadoran students showed how some official and popular explanations of the phenomena they investigated were at best distortions of local meanings and practices.
Different background knowledge means different chains of choices. But then that’s why the rapidly growing Central American anthropology is anything but parochial, as Dr. García argued in the plenary mentioned earlier. The example of the student papers shows—in addition to the local relevance of their work—the contributions they are making to a better articulation of the shared epistemology of the field, to the enrichment of its comparative base by varying researcher as well as researched, and to our understanding of the shared humanity that makes our work possible.
There were many other presentations, of course, but I was only able to hear the three from the Salvadoran students in succession. I did look at some posters. For example, one by Jose Enrique Hasemann Lara compared his recent research on Dengue in urban Honduras with an earlier study published in Medical Anthropology Quarterly by American anthropologist Carl Kendall and colleagues. The well documented point was this: compared with the conclusions of earlier work, most residents were well aware of features of the disease, of what causes it both in a personal and environmental sense, and of actions one should take to prevent or deal with it. Something obviously happened to make a difference between the two studies, and the author points to intensive education efforts initiated after that earlier study as the likely cause. It was the kind of powerful ethnographic evaluation that makes the usual pre-post design look so superficial.
His sister, Ana E. Hasemann Lara, currently a graduate student at the University of Kentucky, was good enough to be a discussant during the “conversatorio” I led. Her poster dealt with the development of indigenous cultural products and the resulting increase in value placed on local traditions, improved economic well-being, and development of demand in the global marketplace. I don’t know this literature, but the poster struck me as a good corrective for any outsider bias to isolate indigenous people to preserve their “cultural purity.”
In the end, I guess this is a “world anthropology” essay, though when I first heard the term I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to mean. I figured that it was an American initiative to become post-post-colonial. But as I think back on the CAA conference, maybe Marcel Mauss’ classic book The Gift is a better model. World anthropology is sort of an interactive reflexivity fair. CAA colleagues gifted me with some new ideas about what we all do, a couple of which I described here. With any luck, I gifted them in return in my conversatorio with a couple of ideas from my outsider angle of vision.
SfAA is no stranger to the concept. It has a tradition of meeting outside the U.S. How about doing more of it electronically, in smaller groups, so that travel and expense don’t hold back the process? The week after the conference, during my course at the medical school, I talked with the librarian. If colleagues wanted to, could we set up a live internet conversation? No problem, she said, as she opened the door to the globally connected room.
In suitable trans-national fashion, I ended the week and went to work with Honduran practitioners from medicine, social services, and development around the question of what use it might be to think “ethnographically.” My colleague and friend Sylvia González left on a Fulbright to visit the University of Kansas. Goes around, comes around. I’ll never be able to thank her enough for grabbing me by the Fulbright and tossing me into the Central American flow. The experience showed how differences that stand out against a similar backdrop aren’t just about “ethnographer” and “other.” At the CAA conference we were all, at the same time, both. Reflexivity is a lot more fun in living color.