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 in this text to remind us of the problematics of those power re- REFERENCES CITED lations, although without the cumbersome quotation marks often American Anthropological Association used around the term to denote the author’s recognition of the 2002 Final Report of the AAA El Dorado Task Force. Electronic term’s negative implications. document, http://www.aaanet.org/edtf, accessed July 22, 2005. 2. Anthropologists made an increasingly signiﬁcant contribution Binford, Leigh to documenting human rights violations in the areas in which 1996 The El Mozote Massacre: Anthropology and Human they work (e.g., Binford 1996; Manz 1988; Sanford 2004; Scheper- Rights. 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