Questioning Ethnographic Text


Emanuel Preciado, Fall 2019

Department of Anthropology, University of California Irvine 

Anthro 215A / “Ethnographic Methods” / Professor Kim Fortun 


Kuxlejal Politics: Indigenous Autonomy, Race, and Decolonizing Research in Zapatista Communities 

By Mariana Mora, University of Texas Press 2017


What is the text “about” -- empirically and conceptually? 

 What modes of inquiry were used to produce it?

 How is the text structured and performed?

 How can it circulate? 



What is the text about – empirically?

What phenomenon is drawn out in the text?  A social process; a cultural and political-economic shift; a cultural “infrastructure;” an emergent assemblage of science-culture-technology-economics?

The book challenges traditional research practices employed by anthropologists studying indigenous communities. The author provides insights into social life in Autonomous Zapatista communities, playing close attention to the experiences of women and children. In doing so, the author was also critical about her research methods in an attempt to decolonize her methods by working collaboratively with the Zapatista community. 


Where is this phenomenon located – in a neighborhood, in a country, in “Western Culture,” in a globalizing economy?

Autonomous Zapatista “Caracol” communities in Chiapas, Mexico. They are also known as EZLN that stands for Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional which translates into the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. 


What historical trajectory is the phenomenon situated within?  What, in the chronology provided or implied, is emphasized -- the role of political or economic forces, the role of certain individuals or social groups?  What does the chronology leave out or discount?

There’s a legacy of colonization in Mexico where native populations have experienced brutal living conditions and as a result the indigenous people of Mexico have been exploited for labor, robbed of resources, and treated inhumanely for hundreds of years. The passing of NAFTA (1994) exacerbated poor living conditions for rural indigenous people leading to an uprising in 1994 where Zapatistas took over government buildings in San Cristóbal de Las Casas on New Year’s. Since then the Zaptistas have gone through a number of changes and this book discusses the latest shifts in governance and social priorities in the Zapatista communities. 


What scale(s) are focused on -- nano (i.e. the level of language), micro, meso, macro? What empirical material is developed at each scale?  

The micro scale, as the author captures specific practices and processes employed by Zapatistas; the meso level, because the author works closely with Zapatista community leaders where the author captured how the governing body operates, also, community leaders granted/denied the author access to community members and gave specific requests as to how they wanted the research conducted such as interview questions that had to be submitted to the governing body for approval to make sure the research always benefited the community and did not misrepresent them. And the Edxo level, because the study was not just a traditional ethnography of a community but also was a critical intervention into the author’s research practices in the field making this a reflective study of research methods while simultaneously conducting a community study. 


Who are the players in the text and what are their relations?  Does the text trace how these relations have changed across time – because of new technologies, for example?

Academic researcher; residents of the Zapatista community in Chiapas, Mexico; the governing council which acted like a gatekeeper to the Caracol communities. The book traces the relationship between the author and the EZLN community over the span of ten years of field work. 


What is the temporal frame in which players play?  In the wake of a particular policy, disaster or other significant “event?”  In the general climate of the Reagan era, or of “after-the-Wall” globalization? 

Postcolonial and Post-NAFTA southern Mexico in the wake of rising neoliberal economic policies and globalization.


What cultures and social structures are in play in the text?

academic/scholarly culture, indigeneity, Mayan, Mexican neoliberal state


What kinds of practices are described in the text?  Are players shown to be embedded in structural contradictions or double binds?

Specific practices include interviewing practices, for example interviews were done in a way where each group of interviewees first prepared written statements drafted collectively amongst the group of participants of mixed ages, normally grouped by gender. The document was read aloud in a “testimonio” style, but other participants would chime in to add and modify elements to the story as they created a collective narrative. Doing it like this subverts the ways interviews are supposed to be done according to Western academia, in this case "the women established the dynamic and pace of the interview, forcing [the researcher] to adapt to their framework" p. 61 The double bind was the tension between the researcher wanting to conduct her craft in the way she was trained but also  having to surrender control or power over the interview process, she reflected on these practices as the very moments that capture acts of decolonizing research. 


How are science and technology implicated in the phenomenon described?

New approach to knowledge-creation employed by Zapatistas (EZLN) such as starting the Other Campaign (La Otra Campaña) to address the need to design counter hegemonic modes of knowledge production and other ways of doing research and being social scientists p. 44. 


What structural conditions– technological, legal and legislative, political, cultural – are highlighted, and how are they shown to have shaped the phenomenon described in this text?

Interactions between autonomous indiginous municipalities, the state and federal governing agencies of Mexico, and paramilitary groups embedded in histories of colonialism, disputes over land use, and economic policies.   


How – at different scales, in different ways – is power shown to operate?  Is there evidence of power operating through language, “discipline,” social hierarchies, bureaucratic function, economics, etc? 

Power operates through the oppressive legacy of colonization that has dehumanized rural indigenous people and subjected them to class, racialized, and sexual violence. Gendered colonialism has disproportionately impacted indigenous women in southern Mexico as they were often not allowed to go to school, forced into arranged marriages, and relegated to domestic work. Power also operates in the social practices of Western knowledge production that places the academic researcher above the indigenous research subject, in a paternalistic relationship that discounts the agency of the research subject.

Does the text provide comparative or systems level perspectives?  In other words, is the particular phenomenon described in this text situated in relation to similar phenomenon in other settings?  Is this particular phenomenon situated within global structures and processes? 

This study is situated at the nexus of decolonizing ethnographic research methods and the governance structures and strategies of an autonomous indigenous community operating within a nation-state. 


What is the text about – conceptually?

Is the goal to verify, challenge or extend prior theoretical claims? Challenges concepts around traditional research methods for ethnographies of indigenous communities


What is the main conceptual argument or theoretical claim of the text? Is it performed, rendered explicit or both? Draws on a decolonial framework to shape her epistemological approach which is critical of traditional indigenous community studies that reproduce the colonial gaze. 


What ancillary concepts are developed to articulate the conceptual argument? How indigenous communities counter hegemonic endeavors as they seek to reverse the production of knowledge and practices that keep indigenous people in subservient positions. 


How is empirical material used to support or build the conceptual argument? Testimonios (collective talks), archives, negotiations, and interviews 


How robust is the main conceptual argument of the text?  On what grounds could it be challenged? Could be challenged by traditionalists in academia that could argue this research approach is not real social science due to the influence and involvement of the research subjects in every step of the study. 


How could the empirical material provide support conceptual arguments other than those built in the text? This work highlights how the classic canon of literature in the social sciences draws exclusively from a Eurocentric lens which is not always useful when seeking to conceptualize the knowledge, practices, and culture of communities with pre-Columbian origins. 


Modes of inquiry?

What theoretical edifice provides the (perhaps haunting – i.e. non-explicit) backdrop to the text?

The text resists conducting research on indigenous communities through a colonial gaze such as drawing on concepts of inclusive nation-state building and Eurocentric Marxism.


What assumptions appear to have shaped the inquiry?  Does the author assume that individuals are rational actors, for example, or assume that the unconscious is a force to be dealt with?  Does the author assume that the “goal” of society is (functional) stability? Does the author assume that what is most interesting occurs with regularity, or is she interested in the incidental and deviant? 

The author assumes that by adhering to the requests of the Zapatista community for her to conduct research and being critically self-reflective she would minimize her positionality as an outsider and not reproduce the colonial gaze that serves to maintain social hierarchies. 


What kinds of data (ethnographic, experimental, statistical, etc.)  are used in the text, and how were they obtained?

Ethnographic data: interviews, group interviews (testimonios), and observations. The data collection procedures were dictated by the Zapatista community who approved all interview questions, transcripts, and people interviewed to ensure they controlled the narrative.


If interviews were conducted, what kinds of questions were asked?  What does the author seem to have learned from the interviews?

Questions about why informants joined the Zapatistas and they gave testimonios (collective testimony) as a method to not only express deep personal experiences but also express their desire for change. Doing interviews this way allowed the informants to tell their own story and take control of the space (and interview) to better explain their own narrative.  


How was the data analyzed?  If this is not explicit, what can be inferred? 

How the changing structural conditions imposed by the neoliberal state effects everyday practices over time. 


How are people, objects or ideas aggregated into groups or categories?

Postcolonial autonomous indigenous communities and academics drawing from Western intellectual traditions  


What additional data would strengthen the text? 

Analyses of art and music that captures the sights and sounds present in the Zapatista community  


Structure and performance?

What is in the introduction? Does the introduction turn around unanswered questions -- in other words, are we told how this text embodies a research project? 

The introduction immediately sets the stage for the tensions between an autonomous indigenous community and the neoliberal state of Mexico, where the community is constantly seeking ways to subvert hegemonic practices rooted in colonialism that maintains traditional social hierarchies. 


Where is theory in the text?  Is the theoretical backdrop to the text explained, or assumed to be understood? 

The theory is presented and explained through empirical examples throughout the text.


What is the structure of the discourse in the text?  What binaries recur in the text, or are conspicuously avoided?

Traditional ethnographies of indigenous communities versus decolonizing research with indigenous communities. 


How is the historical trajectory delineated?  Is there explicit chronological development?

Passing of NAFTA is a flashpoint where the EZLN uprising took place in 1994, then the development of the EZLN socio-political organization which made a major shift in 2003, leading us to the current state where the researcher was present in the field from 2004-2014


How is the temporal context provided or evoked in the text?

The temporal aspect is linear and follows the above-mentioned timeline but draws on references from narratives and histories described by informants 


How does the text specify the cultures and social structures in play in the text?

Elite researchers with middle-class backgrounds and advanced degrees; Mayan indigenous communities of southern Mexico; The neoliberal state of Mexico


How are informant perspectives dealt with and integrated? 

The decolonizing research method at the heart of this study centers informants in a horizontal relationship to the researcher. The collective narrative or testimonio style interview allowed for informants to collectively create a counter narrative and reclaim their own history. This allowed the interview to be beneficial for the informants and not just the researcher, for example because of the intergenerational composition of the group interviews the younger informants were also being educated and informed about the history of the EZLN while being interviewed.  


How does the text draw out the implications of science and technology? At what level of detail are scientific and technological practices described?

Science and technology plays a critical role as the major policy change that led to the initial EZLN uprising was due to the passing of NAFTA that ushered in a new era of globalized trade because of technological advances in agricultural production that sought new markets to sell food products grown on an industrial scale in part because of new science like GMO seeds, new pesticides, and advanced agricultural technology both hardware and software.  


How does the text provide in-depth detail – hopefully without losing readers?

The reflexive details provided by the author to describe the research process coupled with vignettes of powerful testimonios from informants made the book a very compelling read.


What is the layout of the text?  How does it move, from first page to last?  Does it ask for other ways of reading? Does the layout perform an argument?

The timeline it follows allows for the text to take a linear form that is coherent from start to finish.


What kinds of visuals are used, and to what effect?

Some photos of Zapatistas provided a humanizing effect for the reader as it captured the mundane aspects of the everyday life of revolutionaries.


What kind of material and analysis are in the footnotes?

Provided historical and/or conceptual clarity about the EZLN, neoliberal state of Mexico, or literature the author drew from.


How is the criticism of the text performed?  If through overt argumentation, who is the “opposition”?

The criticism of traditional ethnographies of indigenous communities is overtly stated, the opposition would be those ethnographers who continue to draw on these problematic traditional research methods in their work.   


How does the text situate itself?  In other words, how is reflexivity addressed, or not?

Reflexivity was a central topic of this study as part of what the author describes as decolonizing research.



Who is the text written for?  How are arguments and evidence in the text shaped to address particular audiences?

The text is written for an academic audience, particularly one that is interested in community studies, indigenous studies, and/or perhaps seeking alternative (even counter hegemonic) research methods and approaches and do not know where to start. 


What all audiences can you imagine for the text, given its empirical and conceptual scope?

Academics in all forms: students, professors, researchers, writers and editors; especially those who are critical of the status quo in academia with regards to the production of knowledge. 


What new knowledge does this text put into circulation?  What does this text have to say that otherwise is not obvious?

How to decolonize your research methods when conducting a community study. What is not obvious is that even the most well-intentioned researchers are not able to conduct decolonized research without having the epistemological tools to do so. 


How generalizable is the main argument?  How does this text lay the groundwork for further research?

The main argument is generalizable to all ethnographers seeking to do a study of an indigenous community but also can be applied to those seeking how to conduct ethical community studies in general. 


What kind of “action” is suggested by the main argument of the text? 

To critically challenge and subvert the dominant forms of knowledge production that seeks to maintain the status quo, in order to create a new world or as the Zapatistas say a new world where many worlds can exist. 



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Contributed date

October 21, 2019 - 4:06pm

Critical Commentary

This sketch was done for UCI Anthro 215A, Ethnographic Methods, Fall 2019