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  • Spirits and the Limits of Pragmatism:A Response to "Against Discursive Colonialism"
  • Scott L. Pratt

in her address, R. Aída Hernández Castillo considers "two experiences of intercultural dialogue" as a means of decolonizing her own feminist views and methodological commitments. These cases and others led her to "confront both the idealizing discourses on Indigenous culture of an important sector of Mexican anthropology and the ethnocentrism of liberal feminism" ("Against Discursive Colonialism" 59). The first case is a dialogue with the Continental Network of Indigenous Women of the Americas (Enlace Continental de Mujeres Indigenas, ECMIA), whose participants seek to recover Indigenous spirituality as an act of resistance and as a resource for social change. The second is her experience with the women's Center for Social Rehabilitation in Atlacholoaya, Morelos, where she assisted with a project in which inmates volunteered to work with other inmates to write their life histories. Both of these projects, Hernández Castillo says, are part of a larger effort to develop a critical, dialogical anthropology that "does not intend to transform reality on the basis of a method or theory considered infallible. Rather," she continues, "together with the social actors we work with, the idea is to reflect upon and deconstruct the issues in a shared social reality—and based on these dialogues, to jointly develop a research agenda that makes our knowledge relevant for those social actors" ("Feminist Activist Research" 30).

There are strong similarities between Hernández's desire for a method of social science that begins and ends in the experience of the oppressed peoples and pragmatist approaches to social problems. Like the pragmatist approach taken by Jane Addams and the women of Hull House to address the problems faced by the immigrant communities in their neighborhood, dialogical anthropology as proposed by Hernández Castillo is directed at the experienced problems faced by Indigenous women in Mexico, Guatemala, and Colombia. The method in both cases must be collaborative, led by the [End Page 75] women affected and supported by researchers, and not the other way around (Hernández Castillo, Multiple InJustices).

The two cases Hernández Castillo describes in her lecture recall two parallel challenges faced in the pragmatist-framed efforts of Hull House and documented in Jane Addams's The Long Road of Woman's Memory. In that book, the first challenge is epistemic: How can activists from outside know the world of the women they hope to support? The second challenge is practical: What should be done to support women as they find their own voices of resistance?

Addams begins Long Road, first published in 1916, with an account of a time at Hull House when many women in the neighborhood became convinced that something called a "devil baby" was being hidden at Hull House. A devil baby was, according to the traditions of the immigrant communities living near Hull House, a physically disfigured infant, born with the ability to walk and speak, whose birth and actions were a kind of revenge for sins committed by the child's father against his mother. For the neighborhood women, devil babies were real, and it was highly likely that if one had been born in the neighborhood, it would have been taken to Hull House for protection. Addams, in her discussion of the incident, denies that a devil baby was ever in residence but nevertheless describes the baby's significance to the neighborhood women. Rather than affirming or denying the existence of the devil baby, she presents herself as believing the women and analyzes the implications and effects of their beliefs, avoiding the theoretical temptation to provide a reductive account of what the beliefs are "really" about. Hearing one of the women who had come in search of the devil baby explain the importance of related spiritual powers to her family in the past, Addams wrote: "I found myself almost agreeing with her whole-hearted acceptance of the past as of much more importance than the mere present; as least for half an hour the past seemed endowed also for me with a profounder and more ardent life" (13). But even while she could understand the woman's beliefs and their...


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pp. 75-83
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