Speed At the Crossroads

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					                                                                                                                         SHANNON SPEED




At the Crossroads of Human Rights and
Anthropology: Toward a Critically Engaged
Activist Research

ABSTRACT In this article, I consider anthropology’s engagement with human rights today. Through the lens of my experience in a
case brought before the International Labor Organization by a community in Chiapas, Mexico, I consider the ethical, practical, and
epistemological questions that arise in research defined by rights activism. I argue that the critical engagement brought about by activist
research is both necessary and productive. Such research can contribute to transforming the discipline by addressing the politics of
knowledge production and working to decolonize our research process. Rather than seeking to avoid or resolve the tensions inherent
in anthropological research on human rights, activist research draws them to the fore, making them a productive part of the process.
Finally, activist research allows us to merge cultural critique with political action to produce knowledge that is empirically grounded,
theoretically valuable, and ethically viable. [Keywords: human rights, Chiapas, activist research]




POISED AT THE CROSSROADS: RECONSIDERING THE                                      cial positioning and our own “situatedness” in relation to
ANTHROPOLOGY OF HUMAN RIGHTS                                                     those people and cultural dynamics we chose to represent.
Anthropologists interested in research on human rights to-                       Further, these subjective representations had concrete and
day are facing far more than the ubiquitous debates re-                          at times powerful effects on those we represented in our
garding universalism and cultural relativism. Although that                      work (Clifford and Marcus 1986; Haraway 1988; Lyotard
debate had anthropologists somewhat paralyzed in terms                           1984; Marcus and Fischer 1986; Prakash 1990; Said 1978).
of rights research and advocacy for several decades (see                         Attention was drawn to the ways that the myth of scientific
Goodale this issue), many have since forged ahead into var-                      objectivity had served to conceal both indirect, unintended
ious fields of engagement with human rights. Those who                            effects of anthropological research and work with obvious
do face a host of other challenges.                                              political ends, such as spying for government agencies un-
     Since the 1970s, anthropology has been grappling with                       der the guise of fieldwork (Price 2000). Thus, scientific objec-
serious internal and external critiques that caused the dis-                     tivity was not only an impossible goal but also potentially
cipline to question and redefine some of its most basic pre-                      something more insidious: a cover for the harmful political
cepts. These critiques were launched from various quarters:                      effects of our work on those about whom we researched and
not only from our postcolonial research “subjects” but also                      wrote.
from feminist, postmodern, postcolonial, and critical race                            The “crisis of representation” meant that anthropol-
theorists.1 All of these scholars challenged anthropological                     ogists had “no choice but to seriously examine how we
representations of “others” and pointed to the discipline’s                      conduct our business” (Denzin 2002). Anthropologists took
history of collusion with colonial power in producing                            a variety of approaches to dealing with these issues; two
representations that supported colonialist logics and ratio-                     significant currents are important to note for my argument.
nalities. Scientific epistemology came under fire: The defi-                        For some, it led to a retrenchment in the realm of the
nition of anthropology as a social science was questioned                        theoretical and the textual, which allowed cultural critique
and the validity of claims to a knowable truth regarding                         to stand alone as anthropology’s contribution and avoided
human cultures was challenged. Following feminist theo-                          the messier engagement with increasingly vocal and critical
rists, anthropologists grappled with the understanding that                      research subjects. Others developed collaborative or ac-
our representations of others were products of our own so-                       tivist approaches. They strove to take responsibility for the

AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST, Vol. 108, Issue 1, pp. 66–76, ISSN 0002-7294, electronic ISSN 1548-1433. C 2006 by the American Anthropological Association.
All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Rights
and Permissions website, at http://www.ucpress.edu/journals/rights.htm.
                                                       Speed •    At the Crossroads of Human Rights and Anthropology            67


potential effects of the knowledge produced about people           focusing on the debate itself; instead, they urged fellow
and their cultures, to contribute to decolonizing the              scholars to turn to the uses, meanings, and “conjunctural
relationship between researcher and research subject (Hale         relationships” of rights in particular local contexts (Wilson
n.d.; Harrison 1991; Mutua and Swadener 2004; Tuhiwai              1997:14).
Smith 1999), and to engage in a form of anthropology                    As human rights have globalized, important critiques
that was committed to human liberation (Gordon 1991;               of rights have emerged. Some analysts have pointed to the
Scheper-Hughes 1995).                                              ways that rights work in conjunction with capitalism and
     Concerns about ethical conduct and the politics of            serve as regulatory discourses, at once normalizing certain
knowledge production are perhaps even more salient and             relations of power and co-opting more radical political de-
powerful in situations of rights violations in which the “sub-     mands (Brown 1995; Gledhill 1997; Hale 2002). Theorists
jects” are in perilous circumstances. Here, one would expect       such as Wendy Brown and Janet Halley (2002) extended
advocacy to be the prescription: If our research subjects are      this critique of rights to rights activism by leftist intellec-
in danger, then anthropologists should use their positions—        tuals, including academics. In Left Legalism/Left Critique,
and whatever prestige or power they might afford—to                Brown and Halley make a strong argument for a return
defend and make known their subjects’ rights against vi-           to cultural critique as a form of activism, noting that “le-
olation. Many anthropologists have done this admirably.            galism . . . incessantly translates wide-ranging political ques-
Certainly, during the same period in which anthropology            tions into more narrowly framed legal questions” (2002:19).
was experiencing its strongest period of self-reflection, the       Brown and Haley suggest that activist scholars who are en-
corpus of research on human rights was growing quickly,            gaged in rights struggles too often focus on short-term legal
and important articles took note and called for more such          goals. In the process, they fail to reflect critically about the
research (see Messer 1993, 1995; Nagengast and Turner              manner in which their scholarly production, geared to these
1997).2 Yet new work on human rights also brought cri-             legal goals, may actually reinforce structures and discourses
tiques of rights and rights activism that problematize aca-        of inequality—in part by “fixing” identities and delimiting
demic advocacy.                                                    culture in the law, subjugating them to “a stable set of reg-
     The growth in rights research was a product of the            ulatory norms” (Brown and Haley 2002:24; see also Merry
dynamic expansion of the discourse of human rights                 1997).
throughout the world. With the end of the 1980s and the                 Today, anthropologists of human rights face the ethical
fall of the Berlin Wall, the projects of socialism and com-        and practical dilemmas all anthropologists face. Retrench-
munism also lost currency. This was the juncture at which          ing in the realm of theory is ethically tenuous, particularly
the discourse of human rights, along with that of neolib-          given the potential vulnerability of the research subjects in-
eral democracy, truly globalized. In the void left by the          volved. But engaging in advocacy is not a simple solution
grand political narratives for social change, “rights” became      either, if we take Brown and Halley seriously. Are anthropol-
the terrain on which virtually all movements for social jus-       ogists in advocacy roles failing to maintain a critical analyti-
tice and equality were waged (see Grandin 2004). Although          cal focus? If so, are they in the process inadvertently serving
the discourse of human rights had been globalizing since           neoliberalism (in a disturbing parallel to our former service
the post–World War II period among the states, in the post-        to colonialism) by facilitating the fixing of cultural iden-
socialist moment, human rights also globalized as a dis-           tities in law and reinforcing the legal regimes that under-
course of resistance (Brysk 2002; Donnelly 2003; Falk 2002;        pin neoliberal power? As an activist anthropologist that has
Ignatieff 2001; Wilson 1997). This pushed virtually all po-        grappled with these questions, I suggest that an approach
litical struggle into the legal realm, so much so that within      of collaborative research that merges activism and cultural
a decades analysts would state: “So saturated by legalism is       critique—although it doesn’t fully resolve these questions—
contemporary political life, that it is often difficult to imag-    is precisely what is needed in the current moment of the
ine alternative ways of deliberating about and pursuing jus-       anthropology of rights.
tice” (Brown and Halley 2002:19).
     It was clear that new engagements with rights were tak-
ing place and new conceptualizations were emerging; it was              ´
                                                                   Nicolas Ruiz and the International Labor
also clear that for anthropologists the need to understand         Organization (ILO): A Critically Engaged Activist
and theorize about this process was imperative. For some,          Research Experience
this meant setting aside the old debate about relativism           Since 1996, I have worked in Chiapas as an activist for hu-
and universalism, which had become largely unproductive.           man rights and indigenous rights. As part of an activist re-
Sally Merry, Richard Wilson, and others encouraged us to           search project, I conducted doctoral and postdoctoral work
engage with and theorize about discourse of human rights.          and collaborated with two different human-rights organi-
In the seminal volume he edited, Wilson tells us that even         zations. From 1996 to 1998, I coordinated the San Cristobal
                                                                                                                          ´
in 1997, “at present, discussions of the cross-cultural appli-     office of Global Exchange, a U.S.-based nongovernmen-
cability of human rights still revolve around the univer-          tal organization (NGO) conducting human rights docu-
salism/relativism debate” (Wilson 1997:3; see also Merry           mentation and accompaniment work. From 1998 until the
1997). These analysts suggested that anthropologists stop          present, I have been an advisor to the Red de Defensores
68    American Anthropologist • Vol. 108, No. 1 • March 2006


Comunitarios por los Derechos Humanos (Community Hu-               Much of the community’s history and identity into and
man Rights Defenders’ Network). This organization trains           through the 20th century has been forged in the struggle to
young indigenous people from conflict zones of the state            regain its lost lands.
to conduct their own human rights defense work, reducing                 Markers of indigenous identity were disappearing in
the communities’ reliance on NGOs and attorneys and thus                  a
                                                                   Nicol´ s Ruiz by the mid–20th century. According to inhabi-
contributing to local autonomous processes.                        tants, by 1960, men and women no longer wore traditional
     In 2000, the Defenders’ Network initiated Project ILO         dress and few Tzeltal speakers remained.8 Residents whose
169.3 Part of this project involved the elaboration of a rep-      parents or grandparents had been Tzeltal speakers told me
resentation before the ILO regarding violations of its Con-        that their parents purposefully did not teach their children
vention 169 (ILO 1989) by the Mexican government against           the language, because they felt it would “keep them from
the community of Nicol´ s Ruiz.4 I worked in collaboration
                           a                                       getting ahead” (field notes, July 7, 1999). It is important to
with the Defenders’ Network and the community, supply-             note that in Mexico, the primary identifier of an indigenous
ing the ethnohistorical information and analysis necessary         person is language. This association is made in official des-
to substantiate the community’s claims to indigenous iden-         ignation of indigenous status: In the census, for example,
tification and to territorial rights.                               language is the identifier of an indigenous person. This link-
           a
     Nicol´ s Ruiz is a community and municipality in the          age is made much more widely, however. In fact, most peo-
Central Zone of the state of Chiapas. With a population of         ple interviewed throughout the course of several years re-
less than 5,000, it is one of the smallest municipalities in the   search, including activists and indigenous people, asserted
state. Founded by Tzeltal Indians, it has not been defined as       that someone who did not speak an Indian language was
an indigenous community by the state or by residents for           not indigenous. I have been told, or heard the statement on
several decades. However, the community is currently re-           several occasions that a person from an indigenous commu-
asserting its indigenous identity. For more than a century,        nity who had stopped speaking the language after relocating
      a
Nicol´ s Ruiz has been engaged in an ongoing land struggle,        to a city “used to be indigenous.” In 1999, then–Secretario
waged alternately against large landholders and against the        de Gobierno (State Interior Minister) Rodolfo Soto Monzon      ´
                               a
state. In recent years, Nicol´ s Ruiz was one of the munici-                                       a
                                                                   told representatives of Nicol´ s Ruiz that if they wanted to be
palities most often mentioned in news articles and reports         considered indigenous, they would have to provide proof
on the Chiapas conflict. This notoriety was caused not only         that they still spoke Tzeltal.9 In current census statistics, the
by the land conflict but also by the serious and often vi-          indigenous population of the municipality is listed as less
                                                        a
olent intracommunity political conflict that Nicol´ s Ruiz          than one percent.
has suffered since 1996, which is tied to the larger conflict             The historical record clearly demonstrates that the peo-
affecting the state.                                                                          a
                                                                   ple who founded Nicol´ s Ruiz were Tzeltales. The only sig-
     In 1994, a largely indigenous armed uprising began in         nificant influx of outsiders took place when the indentured
Chiapas. The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN)             servants of nearby ranches concentrated in the town during
made wide-ranging demands on issues of land, democrati-            the violent years of the Mexican Revolution. Undoubtedly,
zation, social justice, and women’s and indigenous rights.                                           a
                                                                   the current residents of Nicol´ s Ruiz are descended primar-
Although open combat with the Mexican Army lasted only             ily from Tzeltal Mayans. Their institutions, like those of vir-
12 days, political polarization, militarization, paramilita-       tually all indigenous peoples, are not pristine duplications
rization, and low-intensity warfare (not to mention contin-        of pre-Conquest forms. Although inevitably shaped by cen-
ued social injustice) have all contributed to ongoing social       turies of influence by the state and other outside actors,
conflict in the state. Social conflict was not born in Chiapas       they nevertheless are arguably distinctive from the domi-
with the uprising; however, the presence of the Zapatista          nant culture.
movement since 1994 and the governmental response to it                  Since the community’s formation, land has been held
has shaped politics and political conflict at the community                                   a
                                                                   communally in Nicol´ s Ruiz, and decisions are made by
                                                   a
level in many areas of the state, including Nicol´ s Ruiz.         consensus (of the adult men). Today, 90 percent of the
     The community was formed in 1734, when Tzeltal In-                            a
                                                                   land in Nicol´ s Ruiz is held communally and is distributed
dians from the nearby area of Teopisca purchased a large           in parcels to individuals. Men become comuneros, which
tract of land from a Spanish landholding family.5 The orig-        means that they are entitled to work a parcel of land and
inal tract of land was quite large, but over the course of the     have a corresponding responsibility to participate in the
                       a
19th century, Nicol´ s Ruiz lost significant portions of it to      community assembly. Decisions about virtually every as-
regional landowners and political bosses.6 Most tracts were        pect of community political life are made in the com-
taken from the community through deception or fraud.7              munity assembly by consensus, in which all comuneros
Further lands were lost during the years of the agrarian re-       participate.10 Maintaining consensus is critical to the func-
form in Chiapas, when parcels of land claimed by Nicol´ s     a                                                 a
                                                                   tioning of the system; for people in Nicol´ s Ruiz, consensus
Ruiz were granted to other groups as ejidos (communal land         is the heart of their form of local governance.
                             a
grants). Residents of Nicol´ s Ruiz have fought continuously             In political decisions, the consensus for several decades
to regain these lands, by petitioning the government, in-          had been that the community should adhere to the rul-
vading lands, and using any other means at their disposal.         ing party, the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), and
                                                      Speed •    At the Crossroads of Human Rights and Anthropology          69


benefit from this political alliance, hopefully by recovering      particularly to state counterinsurgency and low-intensity
their lands.11 The consensus model worked sufficiently well        warfare.
for the community to be able to select the candidates for                                   a
                                                                       The history of Nicol´ s Ruiz has involved, in large part,
municipal president in the community assembly, then sim-          a struggle to recover their lands. These struggles, and their
ply ratify this decision at the ballot box. Until 1996, voting    enemies and allies in them, have defined their identity over
                   a
statistics in Nicol´ s Ruiz reflect 100 percent of votes as for                             a
                                                                  time. Identity in Nicol´ s Ruiz is historically and contin-
the ruling party. This changed, however, with the Zapatista       uously constructed in relation to other social groups and
uprising of 1994, which challenged the PRI party’s hege-          through the ongoing struggles over its land and territory.
monic power and presented alternatives for political orga-        During the period in which land struggles were waged via
nization and struggle. In 1995, the comuneros of Nicol´ s   a     the state through agrarian reform and agrarian policies,
Ruiz shifted their loyalty to the PRD party by consensus de-            a
                                                                  Nicol´ s Ruiz’s community identity became campesino (peas-
cision in the community assembly and in 1996 elected the          ant). That is, indigenous identity gave way to campesino
                                                        a
first PRD municipal president. That same year, Nicol´ s Ruiz       identity as state discourse and state policies engaged land
declared itself a “community in resistance” and became a          struggles through agrarian reform and agrarian assistance
Zapatista base community.                                         to the campesino population. As the state made reforms
                                              a
      This move marked the entry of Nicol´ s Ruiz into the        designed to facilitate its entry into the neoliberal world
Chiapas conflict. It was only a short time later that local        order, its discourse shifted. In 1992, constitutional reform
conflict surged when in 1998, 23 families officially returned       recognized the existence of indigenous people as part of
to the PRI party. It is this division and the ensuing con-        a “pluriethnic” population. After 1994, the Zapatista upris-
                              a
flicts that have kept Nicol´ s Ruiz in the newspapers for                                                  a
                                                                  ing and Chiapas conflict brought Nicol´ s Ruiz into dialogue
the last four years. The majority felt that this dissent was      with new interlocutors, including the Zapatistas, organized
an intolerable violation of the norms of the community,           groups of civil society, NGOs, and human rights groups.
which had been long based on consensus decision making.           Community members had increased engagement with the
As one resident expressed it, “We were in agreement for 264       discourse of human and indigenous rights, and as the dis-
years [since the founding of the community in 1734], and          courses of the state shifted away from the agrarian and to-
this changed everything” (conversation with author, March                                                                    a
                                                                  ward the indigenous as a basis for rights, people in Nicol´ s
2002). Although this comment likely masks significant past         Ruiz began to rethink and redefine their understanding of
incidences of internal disagreement, the fact remains that        themselves. By the year 2000, this redefinition had led them
                                                       a
open conflict of this kind had never existed in Nicol´ s Ruiz.     to reassert their identity as an indigenous community. Be-
      In the assembly in March of 1998, the comuneros de-         cause of the indigenous conflict in the state, however, the
cided to revoke the land use rights of the dissenting commu-      government was reluctant to class them as “indigenous,”
nity members because they were no longer fulfilling their          preferring to deal with the conflict in the community as an
corresponding responsibility of participating in the assem-       agrarian conflict.
bly. This revocation resulted in a massive raid by the army,
state and federal police, and immigration officials on June
3, 1998. The raid was a clear sign that the state government      Enter the Activist Anthropologist
was going to back the small PRI minority by force.12 PRI                                 a
                                                                  Thus, in 2000, Nicol´ s Ruiz was facing three problems: its
community members, wearing masks on their faces, accom-           historic land struggle, the internal conflict with the local
panied the police through the town, pointing out houses of        priistas (PRI party militants), and the related problem of the
community leaders. They entered the private home where            government’s refusal to accept their self-identification and
the important documents of Bienes Comunales (Commu-               negotiate with them as an indigenous community. The De-
nal Properties, the body charged with administering com-          fenders’ Network had a relationship with the community
munal goods including land) were kept, and removed the            through several channels. The founder of the Network (also
original land titles, among other vital records. The commu-       this author’s husband) had been the attorney for the com-
nity has never recovered these documents. One hundred             munity since the government forces carried out the raid
and seventy-seven people were arrested; 16 were charged           and jailed residents. Two of the Network’s members (called
with despojo (despoilment). The judge in the case ultimately                                                           a
                                                                  “defenders”) were from the community of Nicol´ s Ruiz. I
found them innocent and they were released, after having          had begun conducting doctoral research in the community
spent half a year in prison. The conflict has never been re-       in 1999. We had important political and ethical reasons
solved, and the violence that characterizes it led one jour-      for working with the comuneros, as opposed to the dis-
                              a
nalist to characterize Nicol´ s Ruiz as the “Tierra sin Ley”      senting priistas. First, the comuneros, in allying with the
(lit., “Lawless Land”; Gurguha 2000). Such “lawlessness”          Zapatista struggle, were part of a larger struggle that we (I
                                         a
was not something inherent to Nicol´ s Ruiz or its inhab-         as an individual and the Defenders’ Network as an orga-
itants: The fact that this raid was one of several carried        nization) also allied with. The priistas, however, struggled
out by government forces in 1998, all against autonomous          for a return to a form of political power (PRI party rule)
or pro-Zapatista municipal seats, tied both the local con-        that from our perspective had maintained power relations
flict and the government’s role in it to the larger conflict—       that oppressed indigenous people for decades. Although the
70    American Anthropologist • Vol. 108, No. 1 • March 2006


                                    a
priistas were a minority in Nicol´ s Ruiz, they were backed       the right to make internal decisions about punishment of its
by the full force of state power, as the raid demonstrated,       members (such as revoking land rights) based on its internal
whereas the comuneros formed part of an opposition po-            customs. The right of the state to intervene on behalf of the
litical party and an oppositional movement being strongly         dissenting members it favored would be limited, because,
repressed by the state. In fact, community fractionalization                                            a
                                                                  as an indigenous community, Nicol´ s Ruiz has the right to
and internal violence was prevalent throughout the zones          autonomy in local decision-making processes. The ILO case
of Zapatista support, and it was understood by many to be         presented a new strategy for pursuing their goals and their
part of a government “divide-and-conquer” strategy char-          self-defense, one that was dependent on this reemergent
acteristic of low-intensity warfare.                              indigenous identity.
     At the Defenders’ Network, we saw possibilities for the           The response from the community was positive. They
                       a
comuneros of Nicol´ s Ruiz in the ILO Convention 169.             were clearly interested in making a claim for lands they
Mexico has signed and ratified the convention, and thus,           had lost over the years as well as in defending themselves
like all ratified international agreements, it is considered       against further violent invasions by state forces. Notably,
law at the level of the Mexican Constitution. ILO Con-            they were particularly interested in the potential for assert-
vention 169 provides the broadest international agreement         ing their identity as an indigenous community and estab-
to date on the rights of indigenous peoples, establishing         lishing their right to define themselves in this way. In the
respect for “the full measure of human rights and funda-          words of one, “I think this is very important to be able to
mental freedoms” (Art. 3.1) as well as “the full realization      say to the government, ‘We are not Zona Centro [a region
of the social, economic and cultural rights of these peo-         defined as nonindigenous]; we are Tzeltales, we feel that
ples with respect for their social and cultural identity, their                                   ı
                                                                  we are part of the pueblos ind´genas’ ” (conversation with
customs and traditions and their institutions” (Art. 2.2.b).      author, June 7, 2001). Another said, “This is what is most
There are three aspects of the ILO Convention 169 of partic-      important [about participating in the ILO representation],
                            a
ular importance for Nicol´ s Ruiz. First is the establishment     that they recognize who we are. We are Tzeltales” (conversa-
of self-identification as the criterion for defining indigenous     tion with June 7, 2001). Two weeks later in the community
groups (Art. 1.2). Second is the right to “retain their own       assembly, more than 600 comuneros voted unanimously to
customs and institutions” (Art. 8.2) and the right to respect     “declare themselves as indigenous people” as part of the ILO
for “the methods customarily practiced by the peoples con-        representation.
cerned for dealing with offences committed by their mem-               To document their claims, they needed anthropologi-
bers” (Art. 9.1). And third is the issue of land rights (Arts.    cal information and analysis. This would be fundamental
13–16). The ILO Convention 169 establishes that indige-           to the case; without it, they would have nothing on which
nous peoples have a right to “the lands or territories, or        to base their claims. Ellen Messer suggests that one impor-
both as applicable, which they occupy or otherwise use,”          tant potential form of activism emerged “as anthropologists
and emphasizes in particular “the collective aspects of this      respond to indigenous demands for historical cultural doc-
relationship [to the land]” (Art. 13.1).                          umentation on human rights claims” (1993:237). The in-
     In June of 2001, we approached the authorities of            tegration of my ethnohistorical work into the ILO case fell
       a
Nicol´ s Ruiz regarding the possibility of jointly preparing      within this field of engagement. I was eager to participate,
a representation before the ILO.13 We explained our view          understanding it as an opportunity to work collaboratively
that the community had a claim to recover lands, that they        with the comuneros on a jointly defined activist research
deserved restitution for unrecoverable lands, and that the        project.
Mexican government had been complicit in reducing their
land titles through the discriminate use of land censuses
and agrarian reform, a violation of ILO Convention 169            FORGED IN DIALOGUE: CONSIDERING THE ACTIVIST
Land Articles 13, 14, and 16.14 We pointed out that in de-        RESEARCH ENGAGEMENT
fense of their position in revoking the land rights of the        Above, I examined some of the tensions and roadblocks
dissenting minority members of the community, they                involved in the anthropological engagement with human
themselves had invoked their usos y costumbres (traditional       rights. Questions of cultural relativism, individual and col-
customs and practices), a position that would be supported        lective rights, the ethics of research, the neocolonial nature
by ILO Convention 169 Articles 8 and 9. We also discussed         of anthropologists with their research subjects, the poli-
the possibility of arguing that the government was violating      tics of knowledge production, and critiques of “rights” and
                                                        a
Article 1.2 on self-identification, by defining Nicol´ s Ruiz       rights activism as a form of struggle have all challenged and
as “nonindigenous” because they had lost the use of their         shaped anthropology’s encounters with human rights. The
language.                                                         critiques of anthropological practice must be addressed in
                           a
     The first thing Nicol´ s Ruiz as a community needed to        research today, and that imperative is particularly acute for
do was to establish its right to define itself as indigenous.      those engaged in rights research. I want to argue that, at a
                 ı
As a pueblo ind´gena (indigenous people), the community           minimum, critically engaged activist research provides an
could fight for its land claims as territory rather than private   important approach to addressing the practical and ethical
property. Further, the community authorities would have           dilemmas of research and knowledge production, and an
                                                      Speed •    At the Crossroads of Human Rights and Anthropology           71


especially useful one for anthropologists of human rights.        opment rights, or indigenous liberation. An activist engage-
In this section, I will consider these issues through the lens    ment provides a way for those mutual goals to be made
of my involvement in Nicol´ s Ruiz’s ILO representation,
                                a                                 explicit and defined in dialogue between researcher and re-
highlighting some benefits and dilemmas in this critically         search subject. This does not mean that it will be an equal
engaged activist research.                                        dialogue; relations defined in larger fields of power still de-
     Before continuing, I want to define what I mean by            termine this relationship. However, it necessitates the ac-
this term. By critically engaged, I acknowledge the funda-        knowledgment of and dialogue about those power relations
mental enterprise of anthropology: critical cultural analy-       in the definition of a shared project.
sis. This is what our specialized training prepares us to do,          Such accountability is important not only for ethical
and in the kind of research I am envisioning, it makes a          reasons but also for practical ones. The question of whether
contribution not just to our theoretical understanding of         a researcher of human rights should have a commitment to,
social dynamics but also to concrete political objectives on      or accountability to, his or her research subjects, especially
the ground. By activist research, I mean the overt commit-        when they are marginalized and disadvantaged, is not just
ment to an engagement with our research subjects that is          one of anthropological ethics; in many cases, it is a practical
directed toward a shared political goal. These two under-         one for the researcher of human rights. Today, the research
takings are distinct and often are carried out separately.        subjects themselves are likely to expect and demand such
However, what I want to argue—and the reason I use the            a commitment. Cognizant of the potential for exploitation
term critically engaged activist research—is that the two can     by researchers and the potentialities for research products
be productively practiced together, as part of one under-         that undermine rather than support their struggles, indige-
taking. This does not mean that the multiple tensions and         nous people and others are increasingly demanding a voice
contradictions that exist between them cease to exist, but,       in what is researched, how the research is conducted, and
instead, that these are productive tensions that we might         what is done with the knowledge produced. They frequently
strive to benefit from analytically, rather than seeking to        require evidence of political solidarities and a clear com-
avoid.                                                            mitment to producing knowledge that is of some benefit to
                                                                  them.
                                                                       This stance on the part of indigenous communities
Starting from the Ethical and Practical: On                       and organizations was (and remains) marked in Chiapas,
Addressing the Politics of Knowledge Production                   where political conflict simmered and the situation was
Few people would debate that it is ethically tenuous for          highly polarized. Suspicion abounded; an air of “if you
anthropologists to go into a field site and extract infor-         aren’t with us, you’re against us” prevailed. People living
mation from people struggling from a disadvantaged po-            in tension-ridden environments that regularly broke into
sition for their most basic rights—to their lives, to their                                  a
                                                                  open conflict, as in Nicol´ s Ruiz, could not afford to have
self-determination, and to their culture. It is even more         anyone present—particularly someone engaged in informa-
so when we take into account the unequal relations of             tion gathering—who was not “on their side.” I was only
power between the researcher and the research subjects. Al-       able to approach the community because of my work as
though the balance of power between the researcher and            an activist, in particular my affiliation with the Defenders’
the researched varies in different contexts, in many cases        Network. By approaching them as an activist researcher, I
researchers have a good deal more say in how the research         was able to make explicit my solidarity, and we could estab-
is defined, what it would be important to know, and what           lish what the extent and the limits of that solidarity would
should be done with the knowledge produced. This power            be.
imbalance can increase the potential for harmful effects                                        a
                                                                       My work on the Nicol´ s Ruiz ILO representation al-
of one’s knowledge production on the people in question.          lowed me to address the ethical and practical concerns de-
Those engaged in human rights struggles are almost by def-        lineated above in concrete ways. I was able to make an
inition vulnerable populations; thus the negative effects         overt commitment to the community around mutually de-
produced by an unreflexive approach to research and an             fined goals. The community had a direct role in defin-
irresponsible handling of the research product can be even        ing, in dialogue with the anthropologist and the activists,
more serious.                                                     what it would be useful to know, and how we should go
     An activist engagement with research subjects, at a min-     about gaining that knowledge. In multiple interactions,
imum, demonstrates a shared desire to see their rights re-        we debated the documentary and oral evidence, as well as
spected, a promise to involve them in decisions about the         the emerging analysis, with community members. This al-
research, and a commitment to contribute something to             lowed the community members contribute to the devel-
their struggle through one’s research and analysis. I believe     opment of the analysis itself. This collaboration allowed
most anthropologists studying human rights have some              me to make explicit my commitment to the community
basic commitment to them, whether in universal or cul-            where our goals overlapped, and to incorporate the com-
turally particular forms. Those doing research with indige-       munity in the definition of what knowledge should be pro-
nous peoples often share a broad overlap of goals with their      duced and for what purpose. Moreover, this process enabled
research populations—whether it is cultural survival, devel-      me to recognize and give weight to their analysis of the
72    American Anthropologist • Vol. 108, No. 1 • March 2006


social processes and to ensure that this informed the final          tivist researcher, like all anthropologists, makes a personal
analysis.                                                           ethical decision regarding his or her alliances. The differ-
                                                                    ence, once again, is that it is more explicit and transparent
                                                                    than in some other circumstances.
Contentious Encounters? Tensions and                                     This raises other tensions faced by anthropologists of
Contradictions in the Activist Engagement                           rights: those between universalism and relativism and those
Although the dialogic construction of the research process          between individual and collective rights. The activist re-
in activist research contributes to addressing the practical        searcher must negotiate these divides not only on the the-
and ethical issues inherent in knowledge production, it is by       oretical terrain but also on the practical terrain. The case of
no means free of tensions and contradictions. In my work            Nicolas Ruiz is one of a divided community, in which both
with Nicolas Ruiz on the ILO representation, there were a           sides interpret their position in terms of rights. As an activist
number of complexities and challenges in our interaction            researcher, I was politically and ethically allied with one of
that merit acknowledgement and careful attention.                   the factions because I supported the social change agenda
     One is the role of the anthropologist–activist as inter-       of the Zapatista movement they represented and because I
ventionist. People in Nicol´ s Ruiz had been involved for
                               a                                    opposed the counterinsurgency tactics of the government
many decades in a land struggle and for several years in            of which the other faction was a product. In this particular
a local political conflict, and they had been shifting their         case, I found myself (a person with a strong belief in univer-
community identity toward a reassertion of their indige-            sal rights) in the relativist position of arguing that the local
nousness. These dynamics were the result of the commu-              conflict could only be understood in terms of the commu-
nity’s interactions with local elites, the Mexican state, the       nity’s cultural logic of consensus and supporting their group
Zapatistas, and other civil society actors, including human         right to maintain this culture even if it violated some indi-
rights activists. However, it was the anthropologist, along         vidual’s right to work the land. In many other cases, I can
with other activists, who approached the community and              imagine myself making a very different decision, depending
guided them toward the notion of establishing recognition           on the particularities of the case. Because we cannot resolve
of their indigenous identity as an alternative basis for ad-        the tension between universalism and relativism, perhaps
dressing their land struggle and their local conflict. Our in-       the only way to proceed is by recognizing the contingent
tervention played a role in shifting the community’s dis-           nature of human rights and basing our actions in any given
course from one of universal human rights (of their right           situation on our own “situated knowledges,” our own social
to life, to not to be arbitrarily detained, etc.) to one of col-    positioning. The tensions are by no means resolved here: In
lective cultural rights (the basis of claims to territoriality or   fact, they are brought front and center by activist research.
political autonomy). For some, this might constitute an un-              Another contradiction lies in the manner in which the
ethical meddling in the community, one that guided them             casting of the anthropologist as “culture expert” in the le-
in a particular direction in their local identities and politics.   gal arena of rights struggles actually reinforces hierarchies
     What constitutes unethical intervention in the lives           of power. One of the concerns of a decolonized research is
and cultures of communities we work with has been hotly             the unequal valorization of anthropological or “scientific”
debated in recent years, most notably around the “Darkness          knowledge over knowledge produced by indigenous peo-
in El Dorado” controversy (American Anthropological As-             ples. However, when the anthropologist is brought in as
sociation 2002; Gregor and Gross 2004; Tierney 2002). The           the expert witness in legal cases to provide evidence that in-
question of the effects, both intended and unintended, is           digenous culture is present—which was my role in the ILO
perhaps most evident in activist research, which is overtly                                   a
                                                                    representation of Nicol´ s Ruiz—such hierarchies of knowl-
interventionist. The activist researcher’s explicit commit-         edge are reinforced. Members of “cultures” are not often
ment to the well-being of the community is no guarantee             granted the authority to speak for themselves or define their
that such interactions will not have negative consequences.         own cultures and identities; only anthropological specialists
     However, “local” communities have been in interac-             are granted the authority to do so. In fulfilling the role of
tion with many social actors over the course of centuries.          “culture expert” in the Nicolas Ruiz case, I reinforced those
All of these interactions shape their understandings and be-        valorizations, even as I sought to challenge them in my re-
havior in some way, just as their internal interactions do.         search process.
One virtue of activist research is that it makes the interac-            An even more complex issue, or set of issues, clusters
tion open to definition and the effects open to scrutiny by          around the critiques of rights struggles on the legal terrain.
both the researcher and the community. More than just the           Various analysts have noted the problematic nature of rights
anthropologist’s opinion of what is right for the commu-            struggles, in that they reduce all justice issues to legal is-
nity goes into the equation and responsibility of outcomes          sues, which may be more manageable by states. One of the
is shared. In short, it renders the “shaping” more visible and      ways that they are rendered manageable is through delim-
more accountable than research that sidesteps the issue or          iting, restricting, and reducing them by definition in laws
cloaks it in a veil of positivist objectivity. A related issue is   and regulations. Identity and culture, inherently fluid and
that the community may have divided opinions on what is             changing, are essentialized (e.g., the idea that indigenous
right for them, as was the case in Nicol´ s Ruiz. Here, the ac-
                                           a                        people have a special relationship to the land) and fixed
                                                       Speed •     At the Crossroads of Human Rights and Anthropology          73


in law for the purposes both of creating regulations and                 We might also consider the intended outcome of the
of precedent for future cases. Indigenous people—although           collaboration: the mutually defined goal of the work. Re-
this may be applicable to any number of groups—with their                                       a
                                                                    garding the case of Nicol´ s Ruiz, although the ILO did not
cultural particularities may find it difficult to meet those          issue a recommendation to the Mexican government, this
definitions and thus “qualify” for rights.                           did not necessarily mean that the case was not compelling.
     Above, we examined the assertion that legal activists          The Mexican government challenged the legality of the sub-
may focus on the shorter-term goal of winning important                                        e
                                                                    mission by the Frente Aut´ ntico de Trabajo because it was not
cases and, thus, may be complicit in reducing, essentializ-         an “official” state labor union, dismissing the case on tech-
ing, and rendering static particular cultural identities. This      nical grounds. We responded with the argument that if only
may be a sort of “strategic essentialism,” in the sense in-         state-controlled labor unions are permitted to submit repre-
tended by Spivak (1988) in that identity is strategic when it       sentations, it is unlikely that any would ever be submitted.
“suits a situation” for the purposes of struggle. But for an-       However, the ILO was not willing or able to override this
thropologists steeped in antiessentialism, having to render         challenge. (Even if the ILO had issued a recommendation
such reductive presentations of culture can be counter to           in the case, the government would have been at liberty not
our training and our politics, to the extent that we align our-                                                                 a
                                                                    to act on it.) The case did not achieve the return of Nicol´ s
selves with a politics of difference. This is true even when we     Ruiz’s lost lands, nor did it garner recognition by the Mexi-
understand essentialism as strategically necessary for win-                                       a
                                                                    can government that Nicol´ s Ruiz is an indigenous commu-
ning specific cases that might offer significant advances in          nity. Certainly, this was a failure to achieve our short-term
terms of gaining rights for particular groups.15 Here, not          goal.
only was there a risk of longer-term damage for indigenous               Nevertheless, our collaboration was important for the
peoples if very limited and static definitions of indigenous         community and certainly for my study. For the community,
culture were to be established as precedent, there was also an      the case provided external support and validation of their
immediate pragmatic short-term question about how to win            identity claims, which were being challenged at that time
a recommendation in the case. The question is whether ac-           by government officials. It made the community aware of
tivist researchers are failing to maintain a critical analysis—     the different standards applied in the international arena
not because they are not “objective” but, rather, because           for defining indigenous peoples and their rights. Also, it
their attention is on immediate political goals.                    demonstrated to the Mexican state that the community in-
     As an anthropologist trained in social constructionism         tended to define itself as indigenous and that it was capable
and antiessentialism and cognizant of the critiques of legal        of mobilizing both local external support and international
rights struggles, I could see the pitfalls of an essentialized      resources. In recent years, government officials have not
presentation of Nicol´ s Ruiz’s cultural identity. I worked to
                         a                                                                     a
                                                                    openly challenged Nicol´ s Ruiz’s indigenous identity. This
find a way to define their indigenousness that continually            is not necessarily a result of the ILO case but, rather, of a
emphasized the fluid and changing nature of culture and              process in which the ILO case played a part.
cultural identity without ceding the critical importance of              My own understanding of human rights and local cul-
that identity in lived experience and as the basis of claims        tural identities was greatly enriched by this engagement.
to rights. I argued that culture, identity, and tradition are       Proceeding from the community’s defined needs and inter-
all continuously being reinterpreted in light of the experi-        ests, especially as they were made concrete through the ILO
ence at any particular historical moment. With this defini-          case, and as we negotiated the tensions associated with the
tion, I attempted to legitimize their claim without losing          concepts of “identity,” “strategy,” and “meaning,” I gained
the historically constructed and unfixed nature of cultural          insights into the community’s (and my own) engagement
identity.16 Unfortunately, people in Nicol´ s Ruiz did not
                                                 a                  with human rights. Of course, it is hard to know and im-
necessarily agree. They viewed their culture as unified and          possible to measure what we would have known had our re-
tended to emphasize continuity over change. Emphasizing             search experience and learning process been different. But,
change, in their view, made little sense in terms of the case       having to deal with the questions in the way that we did
and did not resonate with their own perceptions. Thus, al-          for the case brought me to my current understanding of
though anthropologists might understand identity as in-             how identity and identity formation was working in Nicol´ s a
herently unstable and unfixed (Lowe 1991), we may have               Ruiz.
to confront the fact that indigenous groups often find such               I am somewhat wary of “practical effectiveness” criteria
cultural fluidity contrary not only to their goals but also to       as a basis for evaluating the worth of activist research, both
their very understanding of themselves and their cultures.          because it suggests a certain positivist nostalgia for notions
     But importantly, the collaborative dialogue of an en-          of controlled studies and measurable results and because it
gaged activist research has the negotiation of these political      seems to place demands on activist research that are rarely
realities with critical cultural analysis built into the method-    placed either on anthropological research or an political
ology. Whether or not we resolved the questions, in the             activism alone. In political activism, the immediate ben-
Nicolas Ruiz case we did spend time debating them; un-              efits are often hard to see and impossible to measure. Rarely
doubtedly both my understanding and those of the com-               is this interpreted to mean that they do not exist. Insist-
munity members I worked with were altered in the process.           ing on definable and demonstrable positive results for the
74    American Anthropologist • Vol. 108, No. 1 • March 2006


community or group involved can be a circular drive diffi-         flection, forces us to address these contradictions, even if
cult to exit. Who defines what is a “positive result” and how      the conclusions generated are always partial, contingent,
is this defined? How immediate must it be to be identified as       and subject to debate (as they are in all research). It is pre-
a product of the activist research collaboration? Might not       cisely the contingent and “subject to debate” aspect of the
an outcome that seems negative in the short run contribute        activist commitment that, rather than letting anthropolo-
to a situation that generates a positive result in the medium     gists off the hook (“I’m just doing theoretical analysis”), in-
or long run (or vice versa for that matter)?                      stead requires us to acknowledge power relations up front,
     Perhaps a better criterion for evaluating the success of     deal with tensions as they arise, and find solutions in dia-
activist research undertakings would be to ask ourselves          logue with our research subjects. Maintaining critical anal-
whether they address the critical questions directed at the       ysis and political pragmatics in tension pushes us to con-
discipline. Do they address neocolonial power dynamics in         tinuously acknowledge and grapple with the contradictions
our research processes? Do they seek to engage rather than        inherent in such a project.
to protect our research subjects? Do they maintain a criti-            In today’s anthropology, especially when it entails work
cal focus even as they make explicit political commitments,       with people for whom the consequences may be grave, this
thus creating a productive tension in which critical analysis     kind of ongoing reflexivity and political accountability is
meets (and must come to terms with) day-to-day political          crucial. The paralysis in human rights research provoked
realities?                                                        by the universalism–relativism debate might be overcome
                                                                  by projects that merge political action and research. This is
                                                                  not because this research resolves definitively whether such
THE ROAD FORWARD: TOWARD A CRITICALLY                             rights are universal or particular, which is a philosophical
ENGAGED ANTHROPOLOGY OF RIGHTS                                    tension that cannot be resolved. The debate cannot be over-
For most anthropologists, field research and analysis entails      come by circumventing it to avoid paralysis; instead, that
a significant engagement with the communities that are             binary must be kept as a productive tension in the work.
the subjects of our research. But should this engagement          The universality of rights claims that give them their force
be explicitly activist? The tension between political–ethical     also allows for a convergence of struggle between disparate
commitment and critical analysis is always present in ac-         social actors. Yet the culturally specific (as well as the fluid
tivist research, alongside numerous other tensions: that of       nature of cultural specificity) is also a fundamental part of
universalism and relativism or particularlism, of power rela-     rights struggles today, based, as they often are, not on our
tions between researcher and researched, and of short-term        belonging to the human race but, rather, on belonging to a
pragmatics and longer-term implications. Yet such tensions        specific cultural group with which we are identified. Anthro-
are present in all research. The benefit of explicitly activist    pologists are uniquely positioned to harness this productive
research is precisely that it draws a focus on those tensions     tension through activist research by recognizing the contin-
and maintains them as central to the work.                        gent nature of rights discourses and approaching research
     Critiques of anthropological authority and feminist          and action from our own situated knowledges, reflexively
standpoint theory have given us a heightened awareness            and openly.
of the socially situated nature of our knowledge produc-               We also must negotiate the contradictions of engaging
tion. Understanding the inherent inequalities of research         in rights struggles, especially when we may recognize other
relationships, we have reached some consensus in an-              sources of oppression, such as capitalism, that will not be
thropology of the importance of “situating ourselves”—            eliminated by rights struggles—and that may even be re-
incorporating a reflexive consideration of how our position-       inforced by them. I have focused in particular on critiques
ing affects the knowledge that we produce. This includes          of rights and “Left legalism,” which argue that we may in-
considerations of our power and authority in the relation-        advertently support state efforts to define identity groups
ship with our research subject. Charles Hale (n.d.) argues        in ways that are limiting and undermining of their force
that formulating explicitly activist research alliances, mak-     as movements of resistance to oppression. But here again,
ing our political commitments explicit up front, and main-        I believe that critically engaged activist research is vital to
taining the social dynamics of the research process open          addressing, if not resolving, the inherent tension. Members
to an ongoing dialogue with the research subjects is sim-         of identity groups often understand their own identity in
ply taking “positioning” to its logical conclusion. Critical      ways that are as essentialized and static as the definitions
analysis that is informed by an explicit politics has to grap-    of them inscribed in law. But by keeping a critical analysis
ple with those politics overtly rather than cede to the ten-      that focuses on these larger structures of oppression, as an
dency to downplay their role. Critical analysis is continually    anthropologist is trained to do, definitions are more likely
drawn back to political grounding, whereas political strat-       to be negotiated out before they make it into case law. This
egy is continually challenged and potentially strengthened        is not to say that the anthropologist’s role is to tell mem-
by the insights of critical analysis.                             bers of a group that their understanding of their culture and
     To the extent that such research is possible, it will cer-   identity is wrong—far from it. It does mean engaging in a
tainly never be without contradictions. An explicitly activist    respectful dialogue with members of a group with whom
engagement, when maintained in tension with critical re-          the anthropologist is allied in a common struggle and
                                                            Speed •     At the Crossroads of Human Rights and Anthropology                75


reaching mutual understandings about legal strategies and                6. In fact, by 1868 when San Diego was designated a municipality,
their short- and long-term effects, both for the group in-               it was measured at only about one-fifth of its original land.
volved and for others like them. Although mutual under-                  7. Oral histories abound, and those collected by the author are
                                                                         presented in Speed in press.
standings may not always emerge, a critical dialogue based
                                                                         8. As early as 1900, census records show that there were no speak-
on shared commitment is, from my perspective, the best                                            a
                                                                         ers of Tzeltal in Nicol´ s Ruiz. However, in 1998 older adults told
way to keep the tension between critical analysis and polit-             me that their parents had spoken Tzeltal, and these people would
ical pragmatics ethically viable and productive.                         clearly have been alive after 1900. As recently as 1998, there were
                                                                         still several very elderly Tzeltal speakers.
     At the intersection of anthropology and human rights,
                                                                         9. This information was recounted to the author by authorities of
a critical activist engagement is ethically and practically                     a
                                                                         Nicol´ s Ruiz in August 2000.
warranted. Further, the kind of critical engagement im-                  10. Women do not hold land or participate in the assembly.
plied by activist research allows us to merge cultural                   11. Rus (1994) has demonstrated how indigenous communities in
critique with political action to create knowledge that                  highlands Chiapas were transformed into “Revolutionary Institu-
is at once empirically grounded, theoretically valuable,                 tional Communities” (after the ruling party’s name “Revolutionary
                                                                         Institutional Party”) as their local leaders and political processes
and contributes to the ongoing struggle for greater social               were integrated into the corporatist state through clientelism, as-
justice.                                                                 suring the party’s hegemony in Chiapas for decades.
                                                                         12. Although one might be tempted to interpret this as the gov-
                                                                         ernment fulfilling its role of protecting the rights of individuals to
S HANNON S PEED Departments of Anthropology and Latin                    choose their political allegiances, it is extremely unlikely that the
                                                                         government would have intervened on behalf of supporters of an
American Studies, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX              opposition party.
78712                                                                    13. A complaint regarding a violation of an ILO Convention by
                                                                         a signatory state is called a representation, and it is presented
NOTES                                                                    only through an established labor union. The Defenders’ Net-
                                                                                                                            e
                                                                         work worked in coordination with the Frente Aut´ ntico del Trabajo
Acknowledgments. I am grateful for the comments of Miguel Angel          (Authentic Labor Front, or FAT by its Spanish acronym) to present
de los Santos, Melissa Forbis, Kathleen Dill, Mark Goodale, Charles                                              a
                                                                         the representation on behalf of Nicol´ s Ruiz.
Hale, Susan Lees, and the reviewers at American Anthropologist, all
of which greatly improved the text. Research was supported by the                    a
                                                                         14. Nicol´ s Ruiz does not seek the return of lands lost to ejidal
SSRC-MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation–Mexico, and a             grants, recognizing that the communities established on them have
Mellon Faculty Research Grant of the Lozano Long Institute of Latin      now lived there for decades and have a right to remain.
American Studies at UT Austin.                                           15. Hale (2006) critiques this process in the important Awas Tigni
1. One aspect of these critiques was a challenge to the term research    case before the Inter-American Court.
subject. The term carries other meanings than subject as in “topic”—     16. Because the case was set aside, there is no way to know if this
including “subject of power,” which adds to the sensitivity about        would have worked as a convincing legal argument.
the hierarchical relations of power that inhere in the relationship
between researcher and the researched. I use the term purposefully
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