Activist Research v. Cultural Critique: Indigenous Land Rights and the Contradictions of Politically Engaged Anthropology

Peer Reviewed


With indigenous and Afro-Latin land rights in Central America as ethnographic context, this article makes the case for politically engaged anthropology. The argument builds from a juxtaposition between “cultural critique” and “activist research” distinguished mainly on methodological grounds. Activist scholars establish an alignment with an organized group of people in struggle and accompany them on the contradictory and partly compromised path toward their political goals. This yields research outcomes that are both troubled and deeply enriched by direct engagement with the complexities of political contention. A case in the Inter-American Human Rights Court, where an indigenous community called Awas Tingni forced the Nicaraguan government to recognize the community's ancestral lands, illustrates the promise of activist research, in spite of the inevitable contradictions that present themselves even when the struggle is ostensibly successful.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has also published many essays that examine how indigenous knowledge has been constructed and validated.

About the Author

(Uploaded from his University of Texas profile)

Internationally respected in his field of activist anthropology, Dr. Hale focuses on race and ethnicity, identity politics, and consciousness and resistance. He is a recent past president of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), and the author of Más que un Indio: Racial Ambivalence and Neoliberal Multiculturalism in Guatemala and Resistance and Contradiction: Miskitu Indians and the Nicaraguan State, 1894–1987. He is also editor of Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship. Dr. Hale received his B.A. From Harvard and his Ph.D. from Stanford University. He taught at the University of California, Davis, before joining the faculty at the University of Texas in 1996.

His longstanding association with LLILAS dates from the early 1990s when he came here as an SSRC/MacArthur Fellow; he later served as the institute’s associate director from 1999–2003. From 1999–2004, he co-directed, with Richard Flores, the Rockefeller Residency Program “Race, Rights, and Resources in the Americas” for Postdoctoral Studies. He also served as chair of the LLILAS Publications Committee, the acquisitions committee for the LLILAS book series with the University of Texas Press.

Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies welcomes Prof. Charles R. Hale, UT Dept. of Anthropology, as the institute's new director effective September 1, 2009. Following an international search, Dr. Hale was selected by a university-wide committee of representatives from the Colleges of Liberal Arts and Fine Arts, the LBJ School, and the Law School.

Relevant Links about the Author

Charles Hale's Univesity of texas faculty webpage

University of Texas Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (LLILAS)

Charles R. Hale Selected as New LLILAS Director

Additional Works by the Author


Más Que Un Indio =: More Than an Indian : Racial Ambivalence and Neoliberal Multiculturalism In Guatemala. Santa Fe, N.M.: School of American Research Press, 2006.

Resistance and Contradiction : Miskitu Indians and the Nicaraguan State, 1894-1987. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994.


"Comment on Arturo Escobar's Latin America at a Crossroads: Alternative Modernizations, Post-Liberalism, or Post-Development?'." Cultural Studies 25.3 (2011).

"Consciousness, Violence, and the Politics of Memory in Guatemala." Current Anthropology 38.5 (1997).

"Cultural Politics of Identity in Latin America." Annual Review of Anthropology 26 (1997).

Galdu, Resource Center for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, "" 

Relevant Links

Overview and Analysis of Awas Tingni Case

Court Ruling and New International Precedent

Transcript of Inter-American Court Proceedings in Awas Tingni Case (Spanish)

Transcript of Inter-American Court Proceedings in Awas Tingni Case (English)

Cultural Survival

Activist Anthropology UT--Austin

Related Readings

Michael Hathaway. "The Emergence of Indigeneity: Public Intellectuals and an Indigenous Space in Southwest China." Cultural Anthropology 25.2 (2010).

Marisol de la Cadena. "Indigenous Cosmopolotics In The Andes: Conceptual Reflections beyond "Politics." Cultural Anthropology 25.2 (2010).

Suzana Sawyer. “Bobbittizing Texaco: Dis-Membering CorporateCapital and Re-Membering the Nation in Ecuador.” Cultural Anthropology 17.2 (2002).

Stephen B. Brush. “Bioprospecting the Public Domain.” Cultural Anthropology 14.4 (1999).

Patricia Pierce Erikson. “A-Whaling We Will Go: Encounters of Knowledge and Memory at the Makah Cultural and Research Center.” Cultural Anthropology 14.4 (1999).

Charles V. Carnegie. “The Dundus and the Nation.” Cultural Anthropology 11.4 (1996).

Editorial Overview

It’s no secret that anthropologists today are concerned with the political struggles of marginalized populations. The many social movements which swept the globe in the Post-War Era made an indelible mark on the discipline as anthropologists began taking seriously questions related to politics, power and hegemony. And while few would deny that critical analyses of power continues to be central to anthropology, there remain questions about how, and the extent to which, anthropologists should become directly involved in the political struggles they study. Should anthropologists leverage their knowledge and expertise on behalf of marginalized communities? Or is it better, perhaps, to bracket the issue of direct action in order to get a broader—more critically nuanced—sense of the stage upon which various power relations are enacted?

Charles Hale takes up these questions in his essay “Activist Research v. Cultural Critique.” He draws on his work with the Awas Tingni—an indigenous community in Nicaragua—with whom he has collaborated in their struggles to secure lands rights. Hale argues that merely analyzing and critiquing power—what he calls “cultural critique,” e.g., doing a discursive analysis of the language used in courtrooms—does not go far enough in advancing political goals. Instead, researchers should combine cultural critique with activist anthropology. Indeed, he argues that activist anthropology requires a set of research methods that are distinct from the cultural-critical approach; for example, “positivist” research methods like statistics which can be presented as evidence in court. While he does not dismiss the “cultural critique” approach, he argues that the two sides should maintain a contentious dialogue over stakes and approaches to politics and power.

Hale’s essay provides several thought-provoking questions concerning the ethical responsibilities to the communities with whom we work. It also points to some of the real-world dilemmas and contradictions involved in explicitly activist projects. Ultimately, it exposes some of the generative fault lines that get unearthed when we think about what we can do with anthropological knowledge in heretofore unexplored domains.

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