Mexico ranks among the world’s most important locations of anthropologists and anthropological research. It was a center of crop domestication and village settlement and one of the few sites of primary state formation. It witnessed a rich and varied history of complex societies, including writing, urbanization, and class hierarchies. Study of the Spanish conquest and colonial transformations has provided crucial understandings of how apparently “local” peasant communities and other social formations form part of world capitalism. Much anthropological work on power and inequality has taken place about and within Mexico. Finally, Mexico has provided the setting for key studies of cities and migration, and its contemporary politics contributes significantly to our understanding of indigenous peoples and social movements under the conditions of globalization.
Mexico includes most of the cultural region called Mesoamerica. Mesoamerica extends into the northern half of Central America. On the other hand, the arid north of Mexico falls outside of Mesoamerica proper, being a transitional cultural region with affinities to both the southwestern United States and Mesoamerica. These cultural boundaries, however, are not to be taken as hermetically sealed; during the pre-Columbian era, there was considerable interaction between Mesoamerica and Central America and even South America and North America. Within Mesoamerica, the Maya region in the south and the central Mexican highlands constitute strong foci, but there are other regional cultures due to the rugged and complex topography, so internal differences and interactions are also significant.
Mesoamerica during the post-Columbian period had involvements of even a wider scale, so that it must be viewed in terms of combined and uneven relationships with Europe (via Spain) and the United States. Indeed, emerging from colonial New Spain and then explicitly with Mexican nationhood in 1821, our unit of analysis shifts from a culture region approach (Mesoamerica) to one of a political entity with cultural consequences (Mexico). One cannot speak of the Mexican nation and its people as culturally uniform—indeed, Mexico’s linguistic, cultural, and regional variations are enormous—but recent work has addressed precisely the consolidation of the Mexican state as a cultural framework for more specific local and regional phenomena.
There is a long history of written records from Mesoamerica, but deliberate collection and analysis of knowledge about culture (anthropology, we might say) may be said to have begun after the Spanish conquest among literate indigenous Mexicans and European priests looking back on pre-Columbian societies and their practices. A notable instance was the project supervised by Father Bernardino de Sahagun, in which Nahua (central Mexican or “Mexica”) elites provided to the priest a vast body of information about the Aztec empire and its constituent city-states. Contemporary scholars carefully reread these documents, identifying the Mexica and European elements and noting the agreements, conflicts, and reinterpretations involved in this early anthropological collaboration.
Later colonial accounts are less notable. By the 19th century, much knowledge was hidden in dusty archives and overgrown ruins. Early explorations in Mexico started to recognize an important point, namely that the civilizations of the New World resembled key Old World civilizations in many ways but did not follow exactly the same sequences or have identical traits. This sparked the vital field of Mesoamerican archaeology, which continues to the present. Among its highlights is the study of the domestication of corn, which not only is an important crop but also presents unusual challenges in its reconstruction. The field includes seminal studies of sedentism and the formation of village societies in Tehuacan and Oaxaca and then the emergence of stratified societies in the Olmec and later central Mexican and Maya areas. Long-term longitudinal studies of changing settlement patterns have been particularly influential in Mesoamerican archaeology, addressing fundamental questions such as the relationship between irrigation and the centralization of power. Recent breakthroughs in reading pre-Columbian Maya writing has resulted in a much richer understanding of political dynamics in Maya city-states, and this in turn has provided a more processual approach to the cultural evolution of power that previously had been dominated by stage approaches. Finally, important intellectual linkages between cultural anthropology and archaeology developed in Mexico, notably a shared interest in agrarian class societies and relations among peasants and elites as well as among countryside and cities.
To understand the ethnohistory and cultural anthropology of Mexico, it is helpful to distinguish work done by Mexican anthropologists (including exiled Spaniards) from work done by foreign anthropologists, mostly from the United States (realizing, of course, that the two sets of anthropologists were constantly sharing ideas and findings). Mexican anthropology developed in relation to the Mexican state (sometimes in support, sometimes in opposition) and its project of unifying the varied cultures and regions of the country. U.S. anthropologists, on the other hand, had a more globalizing project, taking Mexican cases as sources for theoretical arguments that extended beyond one country (reflecting, nevertheless, the subtle neocolonial relationship of Mexico with the colossus of the north).
Post-1910 revolutionary Mexican intellectuals turned to Mexico’s indigenous past and present, abandoning the openly racist and pro-European perspectives that had existed previously. The pioneering Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio took as his agenda creating nationhood, as in the title of his principal book Forjando patria. The Mexican essence was supposedly mestizo, that is, a mixture of European and indigenous ancestry and cultures. This encouraged the study of native Mexican cultures, especially the glories of past Mesoamerican civilizations, but only as antecedents for the future—the mestizo nation. The problem was that this treated the nonindigenous people of Mexico (who included among them the political and economic elite) as the ideal toward which the nation would evolve, whereas indigenous peoples were relegated to being a cultural resource for nationalists rather than living communities with identities and trajectories of their own. In this way, Mexican anthropology developed a close relationship with the central state, including a national school and museum of anthropology, two large employers (a national indigenous institute and an agency for anthropological and historical heritage management and scholarship), and a presence in school curricula from elementary schools to universities.
This approach was challenged starting in the late 1940s. Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran argued that the obstacle to Mexican modernity came not from indigenous peoples themselves but rather from persistent colonial relationships between mestizo regional elites and indigenous peoples that obstructed change. Angel Palerm and Pedro Armillas (intellectuals exiled after the Spanish civil war) and Eric Wolf (a U.S. anthropologist who was also a European exile from the Nazis) went further, probing the long history of Mexican power and questioning the position of the Mexican mestizos as the carriers of modernity. They traced the continuity and transformations of central rule in Mexico from the Aztec era through Spanish colonialism to the rise of the 20th-century revolutionary elite. They linked seemingly backward Mexican institutions, such as the haciendas (great landed estates) and closed indigenous communities, to the most advanced dynamics of the world economy. Intellectually, they shifted the focus of Mexican anthropology from cultural traits to class relations, raising peasant studies to the fore. Palerm, Beltran, and others also labored valiantly to improve the quality of Mexican anthropological education, including greater knowledge of theory and more sophisticated field methods.
By the late 1960s, anthropologists, as part of the wider Mexican student movement for democracy and social justice, confronted the intimate relationship between Mexican anthropology and the Mexican state. Intellectually, this led to important, if sometimes arcane, debates between those who saw peasants as disappearing into the orthodox Marxist “working class” and those who saw the peasant-state- capital relationship as continuing to hold a vital role in the nation’s future. By the 1990s, the limitations of this work were visible. Poorly understood Marxist orthodoxy sometimes substituted for serious fieldwork. More important, indigenous peoples themselves demanded that they be taken seriously in cultural terms, not just as social classes. Radical social movements sprung up among indigenous peoples in Chiapas, Oaxaca, and elsewhere, simultaneously challenging capitalist globalization, the authoritarian Mexican state, and local race/class inequalities. Mexican and foreign anthropologists, by sympathy and necessity, reconsidered their frameworks, no longer contrasting but rather bringing together culture and political economy.
U.S. and other foreign anthropologists came to Mexico, often as romantic intellectual self-exiles from bourgeois societies seeking the culturally distinctive and exotic. This led, in the work of Robert Redfield, to the influential notion of folk culture, an integrated traditional local society and way of life. Other anthropologists focused on the most pre-Columbian features of indigenous Mexican cultures, often finding them in the esoterica of ritual performance. Yet as Oscar Lewis showed, the empirical basis for Redfield’s folk ideal was flawed, ignoring violent conflict and severe inequality in the Mexican countryside. Scholars began to follow Eric Wolf’s lead in tracing the connections between apparently non-European, traditional cultural practices and the European-focused capitalist world system. U.S. anthropologists, often interacting with Mexican scholars, then took Mexico as a key ground for debating issues of social change such as modernization theory and its critiques. Some of the best studies examined the economics of rituals in indigenous communities in terms of intracommunity and external relations of production and power. Recent work has converged with the social movement focus of contemporary Mexican anthropology.
Alongside this intellectual history, it is important to realize that Mexico itself has changed dramatically.
Four topics merit comment. First, the country has urbanized, and both U.S. and Mexican anthropologists followed displaced peasants and plantation workers into cities. Ethnographers demonstrated that the poor living in marginal areas of large cities had organized social patterns and were not anomic, socially isolated individuals. Likewise, huge industrial working classes emerged in Mexican domestic industries and increasingly in global export factories, many of them dedicated to the assembly of consumer goods for wealthier nations. Key studies of new global working classes have been located in Mexico, taking as their focus the interactions among class relations, work, gender, and household economies. Another key change, the emergence of large middle classes, has been less studied. Finally, Mexican migration to the United States is large and dynamic. This has provided a fertile field for Mexican and U.S. anthropologists, often working together. They have been leaders in developing the concept of transnationalism, that is, social-cultural practices that cut across conventional units such as “Mexico” and the “United States.” Migration is, in turn, closely connected to borders (e.g., Mexico’s borders with the United States and with Belize and Guatemala), and recent anthropology has begun to wrestle with the paradoxical combination of cultural crossing, economic inequalities, and political walls found in such places. In summary, Mexico is a place of nearly infinite complexity and cultural richness and is surely among the most stimulating and creative of all anthropological locations.
- Adams, R. E. W. (1991). Prehistoric Mesoamerica (rev. ed.). Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
- Fernandez-Kelly, M. P. (1983). For we are sold, I and my people: Women and industry in Mexico’s frontier. Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Hernandez Castillo, R. A. (2001). Histories and stories from Chiapas: Border identities in southern Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press.
- Hewitt de Alcantara, C. (1984). Anthropological perspectives on rural Mexico. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
- Wolf, E. R. (1959). Sons of the shaking Earth. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.