Ethnohistory 48.3 (2001) 533-534
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Cooperation and Community:
Economy and Society in Oaxaca
Cooperation and Community: Economy and Society in Oaxaca. By Jeffrey H. Cohen. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999. xiv + 208 pp., preface, introduction, 20 b&w photos, 10 tables, 3 maps, bibliography, index. $40.00 cloth, $17.95 paper.)
In Cooperation and Community, Jeffrey Cohen constructs a critical and rich ethnography of the Zapotec-speaking town of Santa Ana del Valle in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. He uses a practice-centered approach to examine how cooperation and reciprocal relationships are employed in the creation and reproduction of self, household, and community. Cohen distinguishes his work from geographic, determinative, and essentialistic models that, as Cohen states, “disregard local variability, class conflict and the way in which Santañeros respond to change and reinvent themselves in the active pursuit of social life” (159). Strengthened by the words of many villagers, the book successfully demonstrates how and why people negotiate cooperative and reciprocal relationships in the face of new economic and social realities.
Cohen conducted his research in Santa Ana between 1992 and 1996. He begins the book with a brief discussion of the concept of cooperation, followed by a synopsis of the area’s geography and the town’s history. He focuses on four important periods of social development and transformation in the community (Santa Ana’s pre-Columbian roots, Conquest, and Late Colonial period, the yeras of the Porfiriato, and the Mexican Revolution) to underscore how the community’s current transnationalism is only the most recent manifestation of this historical process. He then outlines changes occurring in the town’s local economy, such as the decline in subsistence agriculture and, in response, the increase of transnational migration and weaving for export. By outlining the context in which Santañeros have lived and worked, Cohen then proceeds to the heart of his argument in chapters three to six. It is in these chapters that we find Cohen’s examination of the role of cooperation and reciprocity in the construction, reproduction, and negotiation of social life in Santa Ana.
Cohen begins by looking at cooperation and reciprocity within families. He uses the household as a unit of study in order to “move the analysis away from the deterministic approaches to native peoples that typically homogenize descriptions” (67). While he does a notable job in analyzing these processes between generations (parents/children), we catch only a glimpse of the inequalities that exist between men/boys and women/girls. Cohen states that gender is among the many factors affecting the structure of household cooperation. Scant attention is paid, however, to the role gender [End Page 533] plays in intrahousehold relations—such as explaining how the different and unequal resources that men and women have at their disposal influence their abilities to achieve certain goals. Thus while careful to account for diversity between households and between generations, Cohen ends up with a rather homogenized, consensual view of the dynamic gender relations within households.
Cohen next examines forms of cooperation that bind households together (guelaguetza and compadrazgo) and to the community (tequio, cooperación, servicio, the town’s museum, basketball clubs, and a weaving cooperative). In these chapters, Cohen astutely accounts for conflict and the reproduction of local hierarchies found within cooperative and reciprocal relationships. As he states, people rarely act for solely altruistic reasons. He illustrates that alliances work at multiple levels and form social capital that Santañeros use throughout their lives. While the town’s economic and educational dynamics become more transnationalized, entrepreneurial strategies and infrastructural needs change. Cohen convincingly demonstrates that although community members are brought more directly into the global economy, they do not automatically abandon their cooperative practices and reciprocal ties. Rather new forms of cooperation arise and older forms may decline in response to extra-local social, economic, and political forces.
Cohen’s emphasis on the Santañeros’ culturally embedded perceptions of their own actions and experiences is a valuable contribution to the literature on indigenous communities in Mexico. Cohen demonstrates native peoples’...