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Volume 65 / Social Sciences

ANTHROPOLOGY: ETHNOLOGY: South America: Highlands


ANDREW ORTA, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

THE SELECTION OF WORKS FOR THIS SECTION of the Handbook reflect the complementarity of two recently established trends in regional ethnography. On the one hand are studies documenting the unfolding impact of a set of coordinated processes deriving from democratization, neoliberal economic and politic reforms, as well as burgeoning indigenous movements in all of the Andean nations. On the other hand is the increasing representation of indigenous scholars engaged in research that documents and often participates in these developments.

Recent years have seen the publication of subtle ethnographies of now advanced neoliberal societies. Side-by-side, these works set in relief some of the comparative dimensions of turn-of-the-century developments in the region. Gustafson's excellent monograph, focused on bilingual education in Bolivia, points to themes of education and literacy as spaces for the unfolding of interculturalism and related forms of cultural decolonization (item #bi2009004725#; see also item #bi2008004167#). Informative assessments of decades of sociopolitical changes, often linked to shifting models of local participation in development planning, are available for Bolivia (item #bi2008004144#), Ecuador (item #bi2008004124#), and Peru (items #bi2008004157# and #bi2008000675#). The positioning and repositioning of indigenous territorial claims and practices in new national policy contexts concerned with the management of national environmental and cultural resources is evident in cases from Colombia (item #bi2009002574#) and Peru (item #bi2009004415#). Other studies annotated here examine the history of indigenous political mobilization in contexts of shifting state policies fostering official multiculturalism (items #bi2006000481#, #bi2008001040#, #bi2008000620#, and #bi2008002834#).

The best of these studies begin to unsettle classical binary constructions of top-down state power and indigenous resistance. Zapata (item #bi2008002834#), for instance, draws attention to a "new Indian subject" in Chile, positioned as an engaged national citizen (see also item #bi2008004123#). Gustafson similarly complicates critical dismissals of official multiculturalisms as co-opting indigenous rights movements, suggesting that the compromises and partial victories achieved by his Guarani consultants working within the parameters of the Bolivian educational reform should be seen not as a failure to escape from the state, but rather as steps toward an alternative Guarani imagining of the Bolivian state. The flexibility of indigenous institutions across a range of social, political, and economic environments throughout the history and geography of the Andean region remains a salient regionalist lesson today (items #bi2007000413# and #bi2008004144#). Colloredo-Mansfeld's re-examination of the highlands "community" is a particularly notable contribution to this discussion (item #bi2009004726#).

In a similar way, some of the studies work to complicate long-standing racial and ethnic binaries that have defined much of highlands ethnography. Barragán (item #bi2008000347#) and De la Cadena (item #bi2006001663#) each return to the complex category of "mestizo." Working in La Paz, Bolivia, Barragán suggests a resignification of the category to coordinate with shifting rural-urban connections and the intensifying salience of the urban milieu as the primary point of reference for a range of socioeconomic identities. Writing in a more genealogical vein, De la Cadena unpacks the category of mestizo in Peru to reveal the accretion of competing conceptualizations of mestizaje deriving from colonial and republican periods. In the tensions between these understandings of mestizaje, she argues, are spaces for alternative mestizo subject positions.

A related development, evident in these selections, is a shift in ethnographic focus toward other actors in the region and to spaces of cultural activity beyond rural communities or peri-urban contexts. Lyons (item #bi2007002430#) and Goudsmit (item #bi2009002569#) address the history and contemporary circumstances of hacendados in Ecuador and Bolivia, respectively, illuminating the ways in which rural social hierarchy and privilege have been reproduced and transformed in different historical periods. (For another record of hacienda life, see item #bi2008004142#.) Goodale's ethnography of legal practices examines provincial professional elite in Norte de Potosí, Bolivia (item #bi2009002564#). His ethnography takes up challenging questions concerning the universalism of discourses of legal rights also pursued in an Ecuadorian context by Clavero (item #bi2008000331#). In different ways, Broad and Orlove, Gustafson, Jackson and Ramirez, and Vergara each address national and transnational policy-makers as historically and culturally embedded actors in the region.

In their study of the 1997–98 El Niño event, Broad and Orlove analyze a range of representations in the Peruvian media of a global climate phenomena (item #bi2009004405#). In this effort, they join other works in this selection in an ethnographic focus on media. Garces (item #bi2008004167#) analyzes a Quechua language newspaper and the politics of literacy and orality in Bolivia (see also item #bi2008004139#). Schiwy (item #bi2008003991#) focuses on indigenous video production, examining the ways in which these expressive media create new spaces for indigenous modes of storytelling and knowledge transmission.

A final thread to be highlighted in these introductory remarks is a turn—in some cases a return—to highly local and even intimate contexts of highland life. I note here some classical ethnographic themes, such as mortuary practices (items #bi2008001390# and #bi2009002579#), as well as a number of works in this selection focused on household level activities. Lozano (item #bi2008000936#), for instance, examines household level economic strategies, and Bolin (item #bi2006000507#) offers an ethnography of child rearing practices. This last theme is developed in additional ways by the work of Leinaweaver (item #bi2009004410#) and Walmsley (item #bi2009004400#) on the circulation and adoption of children across households in Peru and Ecuador, respectively, as well as Roberts' study of the cultural politics of cryogenic embryo storage in in vitro fertilization clinics in Ecuador. As these works powerfully demonstrate, the intimate spaces of life in the highlands are far from insular. And, lest we think these new directions in research reflect radically new dimensions of life in the region, two life histories of indigenous women (items #bi2008004142# and #bi2008004124#) help us to keep in focus a long history of engagement and transformation across multiple sites in the highlands.


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