Rights in Rebellion: Indigenous Struggle and Human Rights in Chiapas

A review of the methodology in Shannon Speed’s ethnography from Chiapas, Mexico, focussing on her championing of activist anthropology.

Shannon Speed’s monograph charts the growth of human rights discourse in Chiapas in the wake of the 1994 Zapatista uprising (Speed 2006). Throughout the book, Speed argues strongly in favour of ‘activist anthropology’, and argues that anthropologists can move beyond the “demobilising” (Ibid. 3) reflexive turn of the 1980s by instead choosing to make their own political positioning clear in their texts. Speed uses her own experience as a human rights worker in multiple NGOs in Chiapas to inform her study of human rights, and argues that her professional work contributed positively to the communities she was studying.

Speed points out that in the context of the Zapatista uprising it is impossible to remain neutral, and that showing an interest in human rights automatically aligned her with the Zapatistas (Ibid. 8). Without making her political positioning clear, she argues, she would not have been able to gain access to communities loyal to the EZLN, and would have been shunned by the human rights communities. Speed explains how her work with the NGOs led her to produce a multi-cited ethnography where she “followed the discourse” as far as she could, but of course being aligned to the Zapatistas meant she was unable to follow the discourse into the arena of the State as this door was closed to her.

In the preface to her book, Speed examines her own motivations for carrying out this research, explaining that her background as a feminist Native American with a commitment to “ongoing struggle for social justice… shaped [her] engagement with anthropology and the kinds of questions [she] was interested in researching” (Ibid. 5). Whilst Speed does not make claims that the Zapatista struggle is her struggle, unlike many other well-meaning internationals “who have lost their hearts to someone else’s revolution” (Barmeyer 2009: xiii), she instead sought to find “overlaps” between her political goals and those of her research subjects (who she refers to as her political allies), whilst remaining constantly aware of the power imbalance implicit in their relationship.

Speed discusses the importance of “decolonizing practice” in anthropology in the preface to her book, and argues that “formulating explicitly activist research alliances, making our own political commitments explicit upfront, and maintaining the social dynamics of the research process open to an ongoing dialogue with the research subjects” is the logical conclusion of being a “reflexive” anthropologist (Speed 2006: 7). Speed assures us that her research subjects collaborated with her in setting the research agenda (Ibid. 8). She makes reference to “participant observation” (Ibid. 13) and interviews with informants, and stresses that her day to day work has been the most crucial tool in her research.

Methodology within the text

Large amounts of the monograph consist of historical reviews of human rights and legal discourse in Chiapas. Speed does not detail the process of this thorough historical research, and the reader must assume that many hours were spent researching the subject. Speed cites at the beginning of Chapter 7 that for certain subjects, such as the inner workings of the EZLN’s governance body, she did not seek permission to publish information gathered from fieldwork nor would she have wanted to, as to do so may compromise the security of the communities she worked in:

Even if I had permission to publish such description, at this time it would not have been prudent… descriptions of the workings of the [Zapatista] authority structure, while they provide fascinating material for analysis, could put some people at greater risk. (Ibid. 157)

Instead she relied on readily available speeches and texts to illustrate her arguments, although her words seem to express a certain regret for not being able to analyse her own material here.

 Speed opens up her chapters with short vignettes and quotes from her fieldwork that highlight the topics she wishes to address, and while these glimpses into the everyday lives of her informants are evocatively described, Speed does not attempt to paint a picture of daily life in Chiapas, and we do not “get to know” her informants, who make brief appearances to situate a discussion, before disappearing from the text to make way for more documentary evidence or explanations of the issues at hand which we can assume is based on the author’s own knowledge and experience of the subject matter. On the occasions that Speed does provide more typically ethnographic descriptions of her time in the field, these are used to great effect to illustrate her arguments. For example, her description of arriving in a Zapatista community for the first time beautifully captures the frustrations she experienced in trying to gain research permission in the first place and the tension she felt upon arrival to the community while the officials tried to determine exactly what kind of outsider she was, which is then juxtaposed by the immediate, unquestioning acceptance she was granted the moment it was clear she was “from human rights”:

His face broke into a relieved smile. I was from human rights. I was on their side. I was one of them. He began to shake my hand… and children poured out from behind the buildings and gathered around me. They whisked me off to a house… within an hour I had fresh tortillas, avocados and limes, and a dozen or more children to keep me company. (Ibid. 60)

This kind of description is rare in Speed’s monograph, which rarely strays from the examination of human rights work and the role of NGOs in Chiapas. Whilst other ethnographies may be criticised for similar tactics which could be seen to write the author out of the text, Speed gives the impression that she does not wish to remove herself from the text altogether but instead keep the focus on the indigenous communities she is concerned with. Warren warns against the tendency within activist anthropology to present the author as in some way “heroic”, or turn the work into an “individualised process of discovery” and thus fail to acknowledge other sources (Warren 2006: 221). Speed has avoided this trap by acknowledging her positioning and agenda upfront in the preface to her book, but then refused to make her own voice and journey the focus of her book.

Whilst Speed does not explain the everyday “methodology” involved in her NGO work, she instead explains the work of the NGO in general, and makes references throughout the text to “interviews” with informants, but rarely details what these involved or challenges she faced. An exception to this can be found in chapter 5, where she struggles to find a way to diplomatically represent a bitter feud between women in one of the communities she worked with, many of whom were close friends of hers. The women had fallen out in her absence over accusations of abuse of political power, and Speed discusses the difficulty she faced in trying to piece together what had happened in her absence and account for it in as unbiased a way as possible in her text:

As an activist and individual involved in the social dynamics, I was personally affected by some of the fallout associated with this conflict. Nevertheless, I deeply respect women in both camps… and owe a debt of gratitude to the time they spent answering my questions… There were many conflicting versions of events and it would be fruitless to attempt to establish whose account was right and whose was wrong. (Ibid. 129)

Speed makes further reference to the anxieties she faced in trying to broach this subject with the women she talked to, and it is clear from the text that this was a very difficult period of her fieldwork. She explains being wary of asking questions about it to her informants lest she inflame a situation that appeared to have died down, but yet she needs to gain some understanding before she will be able to work in the community again.

Speed is critical of the role played by the NGO she worked for during her fieldwork. She reveals elsewhere that the NGO in question was founded by her husband (Speed 2006a: 69), but this close personal link to the NGO is omitted from her monograph. In the monograph Speed explains how NGOs in Chiapas are at risk of reinforcing the rhetoric of personal responsibility and “active citizenship” central to the very neoliberal doctrine the Zapatistas are fighting against, and warns against promoting a human rights discourse that can be co-opted by the State in it’s attempts to discredit the movement, citing previous examples where “the government tried to utilise the discourse of individual human rights to justify it’s campaign of dismantling Zapatista autonomous municipalities” (Speed 2006: 77). Elsewhere in the text she describes the dilemmas she faces between her own notions of collective human rights and those promoted by NGOs and at time by the Zapatistas, and remains critical of NGO involvement in the region (Ibid. 115).

Speed concludes the book with a strong defence of her “activist anthropologist” stance, where she appears to anticipate her detractors and answer their criticisms, acknowledging that “there will be some who will feel I am romanticising the Zapatista movement” (Ibid. 175). She continues to argue that activist anthropology allows political positioning to be made explicit in the pursuit of wider social goals, an argument backed up by Sanford in her introduction to the book Engaged Observer, who states that “all research is inherently political, even, and perhaps especially, that scholarship presented under the guise of ‘objectivity’, which is really no more than a veiled defense of the status quo” (Sanford 2006: 14). In the same volume, Philipe Bourgois advocates for an anthropology with “political teeth as well as theoretical depth” (Bourgois 2006: xi) and argues that anthropologists have a duty to take a side and “write against inequality” (Ibid. x). Speed is open about her motives in researching the Chiapas conflict, and admits that she left out various data as “the likely political effects of publishing [it] were not ones I wished to participate in generating” (Speed 2006: 175).

Barmeyer, N. (2009): ‘Developing Zapatista Autonomy: Conflict and NGO Involvement in Rebel Chiapas’ University of New Mexico Press

Bourgois, P. (2006): ‘Anthropology in the Global State of Emergency’ in Engaged Observer: Anthropology, Advocacy and Activism, Sanford and Angel Ajani (eds), Rutgers University Press

Sanford, V. (2006): ‘Introduction’ in Engaged Observer: Anthropology, Advocacy and Activism, Sanford and Angel Ajani (eds), Rutgers University Press

Speed, S (2006a): ‘At the crossroads of Human Rights and Anthropology: Toward a Critically Engaged Activist Research’ in American Anthropologist 108(1)

Speed, S. (2006) ‘Rights in Rebellion: Indigenous Struggle and Human Rights in Chiapas’ Stanford University Press

Warren, K. (2006): ‘Perils and Promises of Engaged Anthropology’ in Engaged Observer: Anthropology, Advocacy and Activism, Sanford and Angel Ajani (eds), Rutgers University Press