- The Academic Uses of Lo Indígena
For decades, outside scholars viewed Latin America's indigenous peoples as relatively passive victims of conquest and development or as subsumed in the class category of campesino. Now, the indigenous have forced themselves to the forefront of our attention through such spectacular acts as the indigenous uprisings in Ecuador in the 1990s, the Zapatista insurgency in Chiapas, Mexico, beginning in 1994, and the rise to power of Evo Morales in Bolivia. The books reviewed here are a good sample of recent monographs in this area by anthropologists, historians, and political scientists.1 [End Page 233]
These works build on what has become an enormous literature by both Latin American and outside scholars, by both political activists and academics, including both case studies and broad comparisons.2 The rise of indigenous movements received particular attention in countries with large indigenous populations—Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia—and of course in Chiapas after the emergence of the Zapatistas. Perhaps the best overviews are by the anthropologist Kay Warren and the political scientist Deborah Yashar.3
The emergence of indigenous social and political movements, and the resulting surge of academic interest in lo indígena, were accompanied by changes in the disciplines of the social sciences. Since the origins of sociology in the nineteenth century, the social sciences in general have been marked by the positivist ideal of scientific objectivity and the goal of a science of society as fully universal and verifiable as any of the natural sciences. From the beginning, voices dissenting from the mainstream agenda affirmed a more interpretive approach deeply rooted in particular times and places. In the past few decades, those dissenting voices have become stronger, and all of the works here reviewed exemplify, in greater or lesser degree, this antipositivist turn.
The several disciplines at issue were in very different places when they entered the antipositivist turn, and this has shaped the very distinct features of antipositivism in anthropology, history, and political science. Anthropology has always focused principally on small communities, typically on the periphery of large-scale national societies, often ethnically distinct from the national society, and often comprising indigenous [End Page 234] inhabitants of lands that colonizers from elsewhere now occupy. The goal of classical ethnographic research was to learn about human society in general by studying these small-scale, culturally distinct societies. The method was holistic: the anthropologist would live in and participate in the life of the community for an extended period (often years), becoming part of it, while maintaining the ability to stand outside it and analyze it. Ultimately, the researcher would leave the community and publish reports that other anthropologists read, contributing thereby to the accumulation of knowledge about human societies in general and informing those who might wish to interact with the particular society that was studied.
By the 1970s, some anthropologists were severely criticizing this traditional approach of the discipline, arguing that ethnography effectively exploited the communities being studied, which were no more than raw material for the production of academic knowledge. Moreover, it was charged that traditional anthropology was complicit in the destruction of the societies...