Culture Theory and Cross-Cultural Comparison: Maya Culture and History in a Multicultural World

Advanced Seminar

October 22–26, 2000

The advanced seminar on “Culture Theory and Cross-Cultural Comparison: Maya Culture and History in a Multicultural World” brought together nine Maya specialists and an outside discussant to assess the contrasting historical circumstances and emerging cultural futures of Maya in Mexico and Guatemala.

Participants in the seminar included four scholars of Guatemala, including a prominent Maya scholar-activist, three specialists on Chiapas, and two on the Yucatan. Together they spanned anthropological inquiry in the region from the 1950s to the present. With expertise ranging from Maya linguistics, ritual, and religion, to economics, politics, and history, all participants were fully grounded in long-term, linguistically-informed ethnographic research.

Rather than presume a romanticized, timeless Maya culture—or the globalized predicaments of transnationalized Maya imaginings—this seminar took its cue from contemporary Maya cultural activists who derive their enduring sense of Mayan-ness from a historical consciousness of five hundred years of cultural resilience. Participants’ view of Maya culture was not simply derived from the idea of immutable cultural survival or subaltern resistance, evasion, or victimization.

Through a comparative study of Maya peoples in Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala, this seminar addressed the continuing usefulness of culture in recovering intermediate linkages between the personal and the political, the local and the global. It specifically addressed the articulation between locally constructed meanings and global transformations through controlled cross-cultural comparison across national boundaries and histories.

Two key questions were posed. First, what do similarities and differences in contemporary Maya communities across the region reveal about systematic patterns of cultural continuity and change—whether local or global, symbolic or material, personal or political? Second—as a necessary corollary to such close ethnographic comparison—how does more systematic attention to national differences between Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize (and to their respective places within a world system) enable us to gauge the relative importance of the historical, cultural, and political, and economic factors at play?

Edward F. Fischer, Chair Department of Anthropology, Vanderbilt University Toward a Political Economy of Maya Culture
John M. Watanabe, Chair Department of Anthropology, Dartmouth College Articulating Cultures and Histories through Cross-National Comparisons of 19th-Century Mexico and Guatemala
Victoria Bricker Department of Anthropology, Tulane University Linguistic Continuities and Discontinuities in the Maya Area
Richard Fox Discussant, Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research
Gary Gossen Department of Anthropology, State University of New York at Albany Everything has Begun to Change: Appraisals of the Mexican State in Chiapas Maya Discourse, 1980-2000
Christine A. Kray Department of Anthropology, Western Michigan University The Many Meanings of the Maya Bible
Victor D. Montejo Native American Studies, University of California Angering the Ancestors: Transnational and Economic Transformation of Mayan Communities in Western Guatemala
June Nash City College and Graduate Center, City University of New York The Mayan Quest for Autonomy in Mexico
Jan Rus Department of Anthropology, University of California, Riverside Rereading Tzotzil Ethnography: Recent Scholarship from Chiapas, Mexico
Kay B. Warren Department of Anthropology, Harvard University Lessons from the “Failure” of the 1999 Referendum on Indigenous Rights in Guatemala

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