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Chapter 5: Studing Anthropology

Doing a program of PhD studies in the social sciences is a strange and in many ways unnatural way to learn.

Photo: Seed maize is stored in the kitchen, where smoke keeps it safe from insect damage. Smoke inhalation is a serious health risk for the women that tend the open kitchen fire.


Doing a program of PhD studies in the social sciences is a strange and in many ways unnatural way to learn. It is based on traditions with roots in Greek antiquity and aspires to ideals first taught during the Enlightenment. These include freedom of thought and speech, the power of reasoning and the standards of literacy, science, advanced technology and workplace rationality. All are legacies we should not take for granted. At the same time, however, the relevance of higher education is a cause for concern, as are questions around social inclusion and scientific accountability addressed by Jacques and I in our books on participatory action research. My experience studying anthropology at university confronted a few of these concerns and hinted at new pedagogical strategies that later became important to my professional development and to the approach to research developed by Jacques and myself. Eventually, our perspective coalesced around two key questions neglected in the university teaching environment and in much research practice: what is the research for and who is it for?

Painting and drawing were no longer part of my daily practice once I became immersed in anthropological study. I did, however, continue to photograph using a documentary style and a large format camera I brought with me to Mexico. Fisherman mending nets at dawn and pulling in beach seines are among many pictures I made for the Museum of Anthropology in Jalapa and gave to their archive as part of my obligations under the Canada-Mexico exchange program. One of the pictures was adapted to create the cover for the Spanish language report Yvan produced of our work together in Alvarado. In Jicacal and Pajapan, I photographed many of the people and situations involved, although few of the pictures made their way into our book, which was already long and expensive to print. Some were poor technically because of problems I encountered developing negatives in Mexico. Others disappeared altogether. One day when I was taking pictures of port construction, with burning oil fires in the background, I was detained by the Mexican navy patrolling the expropriated area. They questioned me for over an hour, called higher ranking officers, and took all the film canisters from my camera, but allowed me to leave the site.

By then, there were rumours that the port project would not proceed after all. A dramatic decline in crude oil prices, which had started in 1982, quickly threw Mexico into a national crisis and by late in 1984, less than a year after our research had begun, the port project was officially cancelled. A process began to return the expropriated lands to the community. A new round of struggle unfolded before our eyes, including violent clashes among competing interests and groups cutting across the traditional divisions between ranchers and peasant farmers. Hamlets fought with the town, young people moved against their fathers, women gained rights to some land so their husbands could retain rights to other lands. At one point, some 1,500 Pajapeños protested in front of the municipal palace of Coatzacoalcos, demanding the release of jailed representatives and the expulsion of opposing groups occupying their land. Internal divisions, rather than classic class struggles, became more visible, isolating groups from each other. In the absence of a common enemy, the phase of communal action against the port project ended, giving way to factionalism.

Photo: The temporary bridge crossing the mouth of the Laguna del Ostión to Pajapan. It was abandoned by PEMEX after the port project was cancelled.


The intensity and complexity of the situation prompted me to ask myself whether or not I had anything to say about the political and environmental havoc we were witnessing. This question had been holding me back from committing to a PhD program and longer period of study. The experience among fishers along the Veracruz coast, in Alvarado and in Jicacal had provided me with ideas and data that went into a detailed report published in Spanish and distributed widely in Veracruz under Ivan’s leadership. Taking on a longer term project in the context of a PhD program was a more daunting task, and needed a compelling reason. I struggled to make sense of what was going on in Pajapan and what I could do with it all. Jacques later told me he too was unclear about what the initial research in Jicacal was for, except that it proved the setting was a rich context for anthropological study. His experience and commitment to scholarly work gave me confidence in the possibility of completing a study that might be converted into a book and published. Perhaps this would be useful, I thought, beyond my own professional development? With a leap of faith, and no real answer to the question of what I had to say, I decided to enter a PhD program and prepare myself for deeper study. As a single person of privilege, I could simply follow the road as it was unfolding.


Messy Discovery

At the time, the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University only had a PhD program in sociology (a PhD in anthropology was added many years later). Still, it was a reputable department with a focus on political economy and Jacques was not only an outstanding scholar of peasant studies but also committed to the research topic and Veracruz setting. Most importantly, he was willing to be my partner in the research project. Carleton University offered the prospect of modest funding support and Ottawa, being my home town, made it easy too. While I was dearly tempted by the offer from Yvan to study at Laval, and learn French along the way, these factors made Carleton University a good fit for me.

I was not, however, accepted directly into the program. With an undergraduate degree in Fine Arts, and a multi-disciplinary Masters degree in Canadian Studies, the sociologists of the department insisted that I take qualifying courses to beef up my knowledge of sociological basics. This was in keeping with the linear approach to learning typical of universities where disciplinary building blocks are put together in an orderly fashion and transmitted from professor to student. To get into the program, I was required to take qualifying courses on statistics and survey work, and read massive numbers of books on Marxism and post-Marxism, the theoretical fashion of the day. Once fully in the program, the learning process was broken into several programmatic steps, much like the assembly lines of the modern factory: course work, three comprehensive exams on distinct topics, followed by a dissertation proposal before any field work could begin.

One of my exams was on the anthropology of fishers, supervised by John Cove, a specialist in the people of the salmon on British Colombia’s West Coast. He gave me a second edition (1966) of the original 1946 book “Malay Fisherman: Their Peasant Economy,” by the New Zealand anthropologist Raymond Firth. Firth, who did his original field work from 1939 to 1941, was a contemporary of Malinowski and also taught for decades at the London School of Economics. His contribution was not methodological, as was Malinowski’s, but rather to the development of the field of Economic Anthropology — the study of human economic behaviour in its widest historical, geographic and cultural scope. My thesis in the Yukon, also completed at Carleton University, fit within that field as did many of my later studies. I consider myself an economic anthropologist, although political ecology is another disciplinary term I am comfortable with.

Firth had a concern for improving the economic conditions of peasant communities, a perspective that informs much of what later became “international development studies.” John Cove passed away a decade ago so I cannot ask him again why he gave me this book but reflecting on it now brings several things to mind. First, it is a richly detailed study of virtually every dimension of fishing livelihoods one can think of, illustrated extensively with straight forward photographs of people, places and activities. I admired this. Second, it provokes in modern readers a critical yet somewhat sympathetic understanding of the colonial thinking of the time and its attention to so-called “administrative problems” of the British Empire. John, as an academic personally involved in Canadian indigenous politics of the 1980s, was acutely aware of the risk that anthropologists might become government spys, knowingly or not. Firth was aware of the risk too, and in his Preface takes great pains to situate his book between disciplinary concerns (curiosity-based science) and a genuine preoccupation with the improvement of livelihoods (action-oriented assessments). He and others in this tradition got it in the neck from both sides — by theoreticians for being “merely practical” and by politically aware researchers for being (at best) naive about the use of anthropology to advance the interests of Western colonial powers.

This debate is informed by Greek notions of pure knowledge (epistêmê) rising above knowledgeable craft work (technê) and practice based on experience of the senses alone (emperia). Western divisions between mind and body, spirit and flesh, are also part of the ideological landscape. Jacques discusses the concepts at length in our newer books, ideas I can relate to as an artist deeply committed to the craft of making paper as well as drawing on it. As a student of anthropology though, and even for Jacques at the time, the possibility of a different approach to learning was only just forming in our minds. In the institutional context of a university, I had little real choice but to toe the line of theory over practice. Fortunately for me, John Cove had an ironic personality that could embrace both practical work and an “eyes wide open” perspective on who research is for, whose values it promotes and how it might be used. His open perspective also allowed me to include “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville in the reading list for my comprehensive exam on fishers. As an expression of thanks, I did a drawing for him of a traditional Tlingit fort he was fond of. He also attended my wedding when I completed my dissertation.


Photo: Doña Carmen made food for Jacques and I on a periodic basis. I have never tasted tortillas and fish as delicious.


Others in the department were also sympathetic to the unusual situation I was in of having started a PhD program after having already selected a topic and completed a substantial amount of field work. This sequence of study is frowned upon in university programs, where committee agreement to the student topic and theoretical approach is needed before any encounter with the real world. Placing students in complex situations from the start, and helping them progressively develop the capacity to deal with difficult obstacles, persistent confusion and the inevitable unknown, a learning approach Jacques and I later promoted through our work together, would have been considered irresponsible in the university context of Carleton University. Still, in the course on statistics I was allowed to make use of data from a creel survey (fish count) I had conducted in Jicacal. As it turned out, my sampling method improvised “in the field” totally invalidated the survey findings. This was embarrassing, and made me feel I had wasted not only my time but also the time of Gustavo, the field assistant that meticulously and sometimes covertly counted the fish in the bottom of his friend’s canoes. In retrospect, the incident showed me that it was not such a bad idea after all to learn the basics of statistics, learning that came in handy later when I had to design more consequential surveys. At the same time, the sampling mistake undoubtedly accelerated my learning about sampling methods tenfold.

Not everyone at Carleton was so accommodating of my patchy training and practical orientation. The only graduate course where I did not get an A was in the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs. The paper I submitted, grounded in original research on fisheries in Alvarado, received a B+ because it lacked an adequate literature review. I had no regrets, however, about integrating my field work directly into my course work and generally trying to be as efficient as possible about moving through the multiple steps of graduate study. I have encouraged every student I advised since to do the same. As Jacques and I later came to argue, the art of discovery in a messy world calls for a very different set of skills and dynamic strategies than those normally taught in the university context. The social sciences in particular place too much emphasis on students applying theoretical reasoning to social issues, at considerable cost to teamwork, collaborative problem solving and engagement with the people affected and their myriad knowledge systems.

While this judgment is harsh, the stakes are high. At the end of his Foreword to Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (1970, p. 34), Shaull reminds us that “There is no such thing as a neutral educational process. Education either functions as an instrument that is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes “the practice of freedom,” the means by which people deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” Jacques and I later became committed to this task, as many others do as well, by pursuing “another possible world” in the field of science and education, one that values the full integration of mind, technê and life in society.


Photo: Potable water was available only in some sections of Pajapan. At higher elevations in town people used the natural springs bringing water to the surface near their homes.


Entering the Academy

Jacques, who supervised my PhD studies, was already beginning to question the territorial and ivory-tower mindset of university life, informed by his own experiences with his PhD studies in Peru and the complexity and real-life dramas we witnessed together in Pajapan. He protected me, although mainly by the virtue of his academic reputation. Wally Clement, who had supervised my thesis in Canadian Studies and was a committed advocate of politically informed empirical studies, was also a strong supporter. Other faculty would not casually challenge their judgement. In later years, Jacques became more vocal in his criticisms of university studies at all levels, including undergraduate, that is divorced from student engagement with the real world and the crucible this provides for grounded and strategic learning. I was his first experiment in the benefits of a pragmatic and engaged approach to student learning. The department eventually created a PhD program called “Engaged Anthropology,” which Jacques helped to establish. The initial program was a disappointment to him, however, as it treated the challenge as a topic of research rather than an opportunity to fundamentally change how students actually learn the trade and do their own research. Ironically, participatory action research traditions did not become central to the department’s approach to anthropology or hiring, despite the program name.

While making use of practical work was not prohibited at Carleton, there was no getting around the standard requirement of literature reviews, and a heavy dose of Marxist theory characteristic of a department that featured Wally’s approach to political economy and had the prominent Marxist scholar Leo Panitch working next door in the Department of Political Science. Fortunately for me, Mexican social sciences was at the leading edge of critical thinking on land, conflict and agrarian struggles central to our experience in Pajapan. My fluency in Spanish meant that I could offer Carleton faculty access to the dense theory and rich narrative description of Mexican authors such as Gustavo Esteva, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, Roger and Armando Bartra, and Luisa Paré. I moved to Mexico to read them, settling into the tourist village of Tepotzlán near Cuernavaca, Malcolm Lowry’s home when doing his own alcohol soaked research for the classic novel “Under the Volcano.”

The village was quiet, and one day I met and fell in love with a Mexican doctor living next door. In less than a year we were engaged. Rosa Maria was a Mexican nationalist from an upper middle class family in Mexico City. She spoke English very well, having completed a Masters Degree in Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but was proud of her strong Mexican accent. We always spoke together in Spanish, and she told me that my fluency and Mexican-style accent meant that she was not embarrassed to be dating a pale-skinned and bearded North American. I did not, however, have what she needed in the way of secure ties to the country and reasonable livelihood prospects. To compensate, I bought a brand new pickup truck on credit and put in an offer on a small property in Tepotzlán. Eventually, however, she broke off the engagement, and helped me sell the truck. I was heart broken, but stayed in Tepotzlán long enough to finish reading the Mexican theorists.


Photo: "The Madonna". A peasant woman caring for the child of a middle-class Mexican family in Queretaro.


Luisa Paré was the most consequential of the authors I read, not just because of her pioneering work on “the Mexican rural proletariat,” but also because we later worked closely together in the Sierra de Santa Marta, Veracruz and became good friends. While in Tepoztlán, I sought her out at the offices of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and learned that she was originally from Quebec City. Neither of us recall anything from the meeting, which was undoubtedly comprised simply of me asking a few predictable questions about her work and influence on the agrarian literature of the time. Luisa was a firebrand among very sophisticated and politically engaged intellectuals at UNAM, and had just completed fieldwork on the ecological decline of Lake Chapala bordering the Mexican states of Jalisco and Michoacan. Her tenacity and concern for marginalized people was reflected in her strong jaw and intense gaze, making her a formidable activist as well as an effective researcher. Jacques later arranged for her to receive an honorary PhD from Carleton University, in recognition of her many contributions to Mexican anthropology.

Happenstance brought us together again two years later when she visited family in Gatineau, across the river from Ottawa. She, Jacques and I met at a patio restaurant across the street from Canada’s international development agency (CIDA), and hatched a plan to write a proposal for an action-oriented research project. We called it “Sustainable Development of the Sierra de Santa Marta,” later funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) as a joint project between Carleton University and UNAM. Our book on the Gulf Nahua, still in draft form at the time, was the basis for the proposal. We added in additional ideas about how to mobilize people around conservation and livelihood objectives to make the proposal more action oriented.

The proposal was an opportunity for me to imagine my own job, and launch my professional life as an academic and married man. In the spring of 1988, I had met Debra Huron, my future wife. Our first date, at an outdoor patio restaurant, was all I needed to know this was the woman for me. She wore a single silver snake earring, spoke of her indigenous and Spanish heritage and feminist perspective on the world and showed a keen interest in the outdoors. We fell in love, and married in less than a year. The marriage plans hung, however, on completion of my dissertation. Debra, a practical person, did not want a lingering PhD project hanging over our married life so she made completion a condition of the marriage agreement. I obliged, just barely, by submitting the final version of the dissertation to my committee 24 hours before we got married. While not yet defended before a committee, this was good enough for Debra.

The next day I was a happy man, married and with a final version of the dissertation in my hand. Thanks to her wisdom, and the efficiencies of combining field work with study, I had completed the degree from start to finish in four years, dealing with cancer along the way. My older brother Steve, and my father, both attended the dissertation defence, as did Debra. Wally Clement chaired while Yvan Breton came from Quebec City to be the external examiner, a degree of nepotism acceptable to all involved because the dissertation had already been vetted by a large committee through several iterations. The biggest challenges of the afternoon, a necessary right of passage, came from the “internal external examiner,” a professor in Carleton’s Norman Patterson School of International Affairs. He asked some tough questions, but seemed satisfied with the answers and supported Jacques’ recommendation of “graduation with distinction.” Ironically, the B+ I had received from the school for a paper submitted at the beginning of the PhD program made me ineligible for the award. This was a small price to pay, however. Sadly, too many Phd students become mired in endless literature reviews, immobilized by the pretentious goal of writing the _Magnus opus_, or rushed into the practical demands of making ends meet — some 70% of students entering Canadian PhD programs in the social sciences never finish, and those that do average 7 years to completion.


Entering the real world

Finding a job after completing my PhD proved to be more difficult. While a graduate, I was not a good candidate for the few university positions available in Canada at the time. In the late 1980s, most universities were well stocked with forty-something white, male faculty and hard pressed by declining budgets and stagnant student numbers. Women and visible minorities were the only graduates getting interviews for entry level university positions. This made sense to me, of course, and I was not so committed to university life that I would not consider other livelihoods.

As an Ottawa resident, reaching out to the Federal Government was simple enough but here too I met with resistance. I knocked at a lot of doors, and was greeted with polite indifference to my doctoral degree. One official at CIDA remarked after listening to my pitch, “We only hire people that have worked for us before.” I guess he meant that I needed practical work experience in government to prove that I was more than just an academic with my head in the clouds. Perhaps what I really needed was a better designed C.V. and elevator speech highlighting my non-academic life and Yukon bush skills. What I could do, however, is write so I put time and energy into writing the grant proposal with Luisa and Jacques that included a modest salary for me.

The proposal also meant Debra would move to Mexico, pregnant with our son Ryan. This was a reasonable adventure for me, with my Spanish language skills and deep knowledge of Mexico’s geography and people. For Debra, however, it was a leap of faith. She showed remarkable courage, and was willing to put on hold her own career as a journalist and editor. Her explanation now is that youth, and nine months she had spent a few years earlier in Botswana working on an anti-apartheid campaign, made her think she was invincible. “People disappeared in the middle of the night there,” she said of the situation in South Africa and Botswana at the time, “Mexico,” she went on, “would be relatively tame in comparison.” She felt excited about the prospect of starting our life together with an adventure far from the suburban lifestyle of most Canadians of her age and professional situation.

So we moved to Mexico, although not to pick up coordination of the Sierra de Santa Marta project as planned out in the proposal. The grant application was successful and the funded project went on to eventually establish the region as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. It also supported many livelihood initiatives with the indigenous population. It did so, however, under Luisa’s leadership. The project became an element of a different dream job in Mexico that unexpectedly came my way.

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