June C. Nash stimulated feminist anthropology and the anthropology of work, and she has been a key figure in the study of social change within the global economy. She received her PhD from the University of Chicago in 1961 and spent most of her career at City College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, retiring as Distinguished Professor of Anthropology. Nash, together with her City College colleague Eleanor Leacock, and Eric Wolf, Sidney Mintz, William Roseberry, and others, developed the neo-Marxist school in anthropology that is often called “political economy.”
Nash’s first book-length ethnography, In the Eyes of the Ancestors, examined a Maya-language peasant community in Chiapas, Mexico. Although using a now outdated and awkward behaviorist terminology, she innovatively addressed how indigenous social relations and ideologies were changing through the commercialization of crops, markets, and transportation systems, and she spoke honestly about the sometimes violent conflict that ensued. Most Mesoamerican anthropologists at this time treated indigenous communities in unrealistic ways—as changeless “cultures” or perhaps as folk traditionalists influenced by “modern” values diffused from outside—and ignored dynamics occurring both inside and outside the local social field.
Nash’s next major project took her to the tin mines of the Bolivian Andes. The monumental ethnography she produced, We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us, stimulated the slumbering field of anthropology of work. This book explores the roots of the tin miners’ radicalism, including their synthesis of apparently opposite pre-Columbian and 20th-century secular Marxist idea systems; the contradictory but also tight relationship between community and workplace (being, at the same time, a relationship between women and men); and the solidarity of work groups in the demanding and dangerous work of underground mining. In addition, she recorded and edited two valuable Bolivian life histories.
Nash’s Bolivian fieldwork took place amid open struggles against nationalized mining corporations, military governments, and international economic controls. Her next major ethnographic venture examined a city (Pittsfield, Massachusetts, USA) long dominated by a capitalist giant, General Electric, in the throes of deindustrialization and militarization. Although she identified political struggles in Pittsfield, the lack of resistance compared to Bolivia was striking, with a long history of corporate hegemony over local politics and culture in her view substantially responsible.
From the 1970s through the 1990s, a series of edited volumes developed Nash’s key themes: social change within the global economy, artisan production, industrial work, and women’s lives. Anthropology, with its romantic attraction to the exotic and apparently traditional, benefited significantly from Nash’s attention to social change. In particular, her work on women (from a materialist feminist perspective) did not isolate gender as a topic, but rather examined the ideological and behavioral realities of women’s subordination within the context of broader transformations.
Nash’s most recent book, Mayan Visons, brings her back to the highland Maya country of Mexico and Guatemala. This work synthesizes the struggles of the Maya people to determine their fate in the face of powerful colonial and national political organizations and global economic relations. Nash, a superior ethnographer of local places within the world system, finishes by inquiring into the survival of plural cultures in the global community.
- Nash, J. C. (1979). We eat the mines and the mines eat us: Dependency and exploitation in Bolivian tin mines. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Nash, J. C. (1989). From tank town to high tech: The clash of community and industrial cycles. Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Nash, J. C. (2001). Mayan visions: The quest for autonomy in an age of globalization. New York: Routledge.