Latin American Research Review 40.3 (2005) 283-293
[Access article in PDF]
Analytic Crosscurrents in Contemporary Mayanist Social Science
Les W. Field
The rise and fall of conceptual frameworks in the social sciences is a phenomenon that becomes more apparent the longer one works in the academy. Considered by some a kind of fashion show, the prominence and subsequent decline of certain concepts derives much more from their ability, sharp or blunt as the case may be, to describe and represent social realities. The use of particular analytic concepts and frameworks in the social sciences is also inextricably bound up with larger historical events and moments. In the twentieth century, for example, social scientific frameworks cannot be separated from the upheavals of technological innovation, from the history of labor conflicts, from the struggle against fascism and the Cold War that followed, or from the rising tide of civil and human rights movements in the last half of that century.
These four new volumes about communities, social movements, economic and political transformations, and cultural dynamics among the Mayan peoples of Chiapas and Guatemala present an opportunity to [End Page 283] discuss the utility and the limits of contemporary conceptual frameworks. Globalization, an omnipresent conceptual framework at the present time, is in these volumes both analytically descriptive and historically relevant, notwithstanding differences among many scholars over the social, cultural, and political implications of global economic integration. As I read these books, I became less sure about the utility of the identity discourse, another extremely important analytic framework that has unfolded in the last couple of decades of social science research and writing, particularly in anthropology.
My anxieties about the identity discourse, which predate this review, stem from what I understand as three parallel historical processes that have commonly been conflated. The first process is the multi-stranded, complex, and locally specific manner in which capitalist economies have organized social stratification and hierarchies around axes of race, class and gender. These axes, themselves complex ideological systems frequently pre-capitalist in their origins, are conjugated in ways that time and time again privilege certain raced and gendered persons and disenfranchise others in local and global capitalist economies. The second process is the post-WW II civil and human rights movements in the United States and elsewhere, which led to the organization of many groups and communities around cultural, racial, ethnic, gender, religious, sexual and other identities. In the last three decades of the century, the emergence of such social movements, which hinge upon elaborations, rediscoveries and assertions of these forms of identity, coincided with the decline of class-based movements and of class as a powerful form of social solidarity. The third process, coalescing at the same historical moment as the second, developed as anthropologists and other scholars emphasized several vectors of identity—most frequently race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality—as analytic devices, theorizing such identities as social constructions and specifying how such constructions mobilize essentialist tropes and discourses.
The undeniable historical importance of the first two processes has, I would argue, helped to make possible a slippage such that the scholarly discourse of identity, the outcome of the third process, is now automatically assumed to provide relevant analytic categories and parameters. Anthropologists in particular summon and engage parameters of racial, ethnic, and gender identity in any and every ethnographic situation...