In this article, Thomas analyzes significant gaps between what branding means in Guatemalan Maya communities and how brands are understood in international projects of legal harmonization that are also about rebranding the Guatemalan nation. Following Guatemala’s internal armed conflict, neoliberal statecraft has involved policy approaches that amplify the presence of global brands while compounding conditions of socioeconomic inequality that limit Maya men and women’s access to authorized goods. Meanwhile, Maya people are invited to participate in a modernist vision of citizenship and social progress that encourages a privatized model of indigenous identity mediated by branded commodities and formal market transactions. In this context, the brand is a powerful medium through which claims to legitimacy and authority are negotiated at national and local levels.
In this engaging article, Thomas examines the practices of postwar statecraft in Guatemala through the lens of fashion, in particular the production and consumption of rebranded apparel by contemporary Mayan peoples. In an effort to strengthen the laws after several decades of internal conflict, the national legislature passed globalized intellectual property protections, among them trademark laws. These laws are mandatory for participation in international trade and they effectively criminalize Maya people who affix the logos of internationally well-known brands, like Nike and Adidas, to their products. Thomas argues that these laws are intended to not only strengthen law, but they are also a symbolic statement about national sovereignty in a turbulent postwar society. Furthermore, Thomas states that the production of clothing at the very margins of the fashion industry creates an excellent case study for examining the global spread of neoliberal legal and economic regimes. While Mayan people are encouraged to participate in state-building through initiatives that promote Western ideals, however, these same projects tend to inflame class and gender inequalities.
Ultimately, Thomas concludes that while the Guatemalan government has embraced cultural rights claims made by marginalized and disadvantaged groups, they only support these rights so long as they do not interfere with control of resources necessary for these rights to be manifested. Consequently, while conditions of poverty that make it impossible for Guatemalan consumers to purchase "original" branded commodities persist, the government simultaneously labels as "pirates" the people who participate in the structures and symbols of a modernity promised to them in the Peace Accords, which in turns exacerbates longstanding racial and socio-economic inequalities.
Cultural Anthropology has published a number of related articles on business cultures, including Rosemary Coombe's "Embodied Trademarks: Mimesis and Alterity on American Commercial Frontiers" (1996), Robert Foster's "The Work of the New Economy: Consumers, Brands, and Value Creation" (2007), and George Lipsitz's "Learning from New Orleans: The Social Warrant of Hostile Privatismand Competitive Consumer Citizenship" (2006). Additionally, Cultural Anthropology has published several recent articles on counterfeiting and fashion, speficically, including Andrew Graan's "Counterfeiting the Nation? Skopje 2014 and the Politics of Nation Branding in Macedonia" (2013) and Brent Luvaas' "Material Interventions: Indonesian DIY Fashion and the Regime of the Global Brand" (2013).
About the Author
Kedron Thomas is an Assistant Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. Her intellectual pursuits center on the relationship between law and society. She is interested in the globalization of trade and legal regimes, the cultural and ethical dimensions of entrepreneurship and business, the semiotics of brands and branding, and the politics of indigeneity in Latin America. Her primary research focuses on intellectual property law in Guatemala. Since 2006, she has worked with small-scale indigenous Maya apparel manufacturers who make clothing that features unauthorized uses of fashion brands. She has sought to examine the cultural and moral context of brand piracy and the production of various fashion styles in the Guatemalan highlands, as well as what Maya manufacturers’ practices of copying and imitation reveal about changing economic and cultural conditions in the region. She is especially interested in how forms of moral and legal reckoning that hold sway in indigenous communities reflect the mounting insecurities and widespread impunity for violent crime that characterize contemporary Guatemalan society. In a co-edited volume entitled Securing the City: Neoliberalism, Space, and Insecurity in Postwar Guatemala, published by Duke University Press in 2011, she takes a closer look at state and local responses to rising crime rates and how these responses relate to larger processes of economic and legal reform. As she continues her research in Guatemala on law, security, trade policy, and entrepreneurship, she have also begun preliminary research on the US apparel industry. This project examines the consumer politics of environmental sustainability and labor rights from the perspective of managers at industry-leading apparel corporations based in the United States.
Selected Publications by the Author
Kedron Thomas. "Intellectual Property Law and the Ethics of Imitation in Guatemala." Anthropological Quarterly. 85.3 (2012): 785-814.
Kevin Lewis O’Neill and Kedron Thomas, eds. Securing the City: Neoliberalism, Space, and Insecurity in Postwar Guatemala. Durham, NC: Duke University Press: 2011.
Peter Benson and Kedron Thomas. "After Cultural Competency: Research Practice and Moral Experience in the Study of Brand Pirates and Tobacco Farmers." Qualitative Research 10.6 (2010): 679-697.
Kedron Thomas (2009) "Structural Adjustment, Spatial Imaginaries, and “Piracy” in Guatemala’s Apparel Industry. Anthropology of Work Review 30(1):1-10. Awarded the Eric R. Wolf Prize by the Society for the Anthropology of Work.
Peter Benson, Edward F. Fischer, and Kedron Thomas. Resocializing Suffering: Neoliberalism, Accusation, and the Sociopolitical Context of Guatemala’s New Violence." Latin American Perspectives 35.5 (2008):38-58.
Multimedia and Links
The International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalitions's "Real or Fake?" Counterfeiting Gallery - IACC's interactive gallery of counterfeit fashion items
GAP PS, G Jeans - The official website of GAP PS
Counterfeit Chic - Legal scholar Susan Scafidi's blog on design counterfeiting in the fashion industry
Questions for Classroom Discussion
1. Thomas argues that brands/logos are viewed as design elements and other social markers rather than "signatures of authenticity" in Guatemala. Can you think of other countries or cultures that might share this perspective?
2. How do these state sponsored programs and new laws exacerbate systemic racism and gender bias?
3. What other types of socio-economic problems do you see being created in the case of Guatemalan branding as a result of new intellectual property and trademark laws, if any?
4. Can you think of another example, besides fashion, where the implementation of similar laws might have negative socio-cultural or economic impacts? What some examples of the positive impacts of these laws?
Bharathi, S. Priya. "There Is More Than One Way to Skin a Copycat: The Emergence of Trade Dress to Combat Design Piracy in Fashion Works." Texas Tech Law Review 27 (1996):1667–1695.
DeHart, Monica. Ethnic Entrepreneurs. Stanford: Stanford University Press: 2010.
Green, Robert, and Tasman Smith. "Executive Insights: Countering Brand Counterfeiters." Journal of International Marketing 10.4 (2002):89–106.
Hemphill, C. Scott, and Jeannie Suk. "The Law, Culture, and Economics of Fashion." Stanford Law Review 61 (2009):1147–1200.
Nakassis, Constantine. "Counterfeiting What? Aesthetics of Brandedness and Brand in Tamil Nadu, India. Anthropological Quarterly 85.3 (2012):701–722.
Nelson, Diane. "Stumped Identities: Body Image, Bodies Politic, and the Mujer Maya as Prosthetic." Cultural Anthropology 16.3 (2001):314–353.