A Zapotecan Meritocracy

Essay Excerpt

Like Brecht's art (that is to say, like social science retaining its emancipatory interest), this essay seeks a discourse form that prevents the ethnographer's illusion of passive detachment from his subject, and the reader's illusion of passive detachment from the text. Rather than a contemplative detachment, this form attempts to restore ethnographers to their subjects and readers to their texts as they objectively are: the fragments of a single and continuous historical conflict, nevertheless pointing toward a comprehensible resolution in practice. The fragments I have restored here are two divergent understandings of my own field research, their inner forms meant to be drawn out to breaking point, as would Brecht. Although these accounts diverge irreconcilably, they do so within the same fieldwork data. The commentaries of the chirimitero are freely interpolated from actual anecdotes of the area, but without regard to any particular time or social group. On the other hand, the patterns of cargo careers and their rank order correlations with wealth are derived statistically from objective data on a particular community over a particular time, but without regard to the objective facts the data is assumed to report. Where as the latter account is an idealist exercise in abstract empiricism, the former account is a materialist exercise in specific narrative. Where as the latter account tilts the interpretation of statistics away from history and the root of the matter, the former account tilts the interpretation from historical romanticism toward radicalism, toward the root of the matter.

The result, as an essay form, is intended to describe not different perspectives or alternative paradigms passively apprehended, but rather real contradictions demanding resolution in the community, in the social theory, and in the ethnographic form. (347-348)

About the Author

Steven Webster, an Australian Anthropologist, studied mainly among the Maori of New Zealand. He has ben a professor at the University of Auckland. He has written many articles regarding Latin American culture, Maori sociopolitical status, and more. 

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