Patricia Marks Greenfield

National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar


Weaving Patterns: Ontogenetic Constraint and Cultural Construction in the Creative Process

In 1969, when resident scholar Patricia Greenfield conducted her first study of Mayan weavers from the Zinacantec Maya hamlet of Nabenchauk, the young girls learning the process of the ancient backstrap looms were closely and carefully guided—usually by their mothers—so they had little chance to make a mistake. The resulting striped fabrics were defined by tradition had virtually no variation in woven design.

When Greenfield returned to Zinacantan in 1991, she found that the learning process had shifted to a more trial-and-error, discovery-oriented one, often directed by an older sister rather than the mother, and that there were changes in the fabrics, as well. "I found an infinite array of textile patterns," Greenfield says. "Individual uniqueness and self-expression—what some Western theorists call creativity—had arrived in Zinacantan." Why did this happen? During the twenty-one year interim between Greenfield’s research visits, the village had undergone a transition from agricultural subsistence to an entrepreneurial cash economy. She predicted that this shift would have significant effects not only on the way weaving is taught, but also on fabric design and variation. "The idea is that when you have entrepreneurship, novelty and innovation become important. Also, in a commercial, money-based economy, people become more independent," and women are less restricted to work in the home, says Greenfield.

Drawing on a unique set of data involving two generations of mothers and children, Greenfield documented dramatic shifts in the learning process. "I’m really studying the changes in models of creativity that happen as a result of economic development," she explains. Greenfield’s project, Weaving Patterns: Onotogenetic Constraint and Cultural Construction in the Creative Process, explores weaving apprenticeship, pattern representation, and textile design over two time scales: individual development and historical change. The resulting book, accessible to a popular audience, will be generously illustrated with color photographs taken for National Geographic by Greenfield’s daughter, Lauren.

Affiliation at time of award:
Professor of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles

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