OAC online seminar 26 September - 7 October Ryan Anderson "Landscapes of Wealth & Desire"

Welcome to a new season of online seminars. For those of you who are new to them, these last for 10-12 days. A paper is posted on the OAC Press site, in this case here, where it may be read in html or pdf format. After the seminar, we produce an e-publication with a link to the discussion included. The pace of the seminar is leisurely. There is time to read, reflect and respond to comments made by others. There is a chair who launches and moderates the discussion.

Ryan Anderson is a long-standing member of and contributor to the OAC. He is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Kentucky.  His research focuses on the politics of development and tourism in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is the editor of a collaborative online project anthropologies and blogs at ethnografix, as well as contributing to the collective anthropology blog, Savage Minds (For examples related to this paper, see this link, and this one). Ryan first encountered Baja California Sur in 2005 and is currently seeking funds to carry out his doctoral research there.

The present paper explores the historical background to a proposed study of political disputes over the value of large-scale tourism development in Baja California Sur. It starts with a review of anthropological discussions of value — focusing on the work of Kluckhohn, Graeber, Elyachar and Appadurai. The aim is to use an anthropological approach to value to place current conflicts over land and resources arising from recent developments within a historical perspective.  The paper then investigates how actors in different time periods have contributed to collective and often contradictory constructions of the area as a place of subsistence, adventure, possibilities, salvation, investment, leisure and conflict.  It is not a report on the contemporary situation, but rather it examines some of the key moments and events that have in the past created, reshaped, and defined Baja California Sur as a place of value, meaning, and importance. These episodes start with the Spanish contact period and focus primarily on the southern portion of the peninsula.

The paper concludes with an appendix containing some rather stunning photos of the place. Ryan and I encourage you to treat this as a work in progress. His main field research is still in the future! So we hope that the conversation will help him to clarify what he wants to do, as well as allowing him to share new ideas and information with us. The paper has two main parts: one is a discussion of some anthropological theories of value and the other is an episodic reconstruction of some of the key moments in the region's history. I would like our discussion to focus on these first and especially on how they might be made to illuminate each other . But of course ethnographers are mainly concerned with what is contemporary and our discussion wil inevitably gravitate towards the main point of the research, the politics of tourism development today. Perhaps we could save this issue for later. First let us engage with the paper.

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The "place" is sold in Baja, but in a different way.

 

Ryan, since you are a native Californian, let me tease you a bit. The more I read what you say about Los Cabos, the more I find myself sensing a vibe that is more Southern California than Mexico, by which I mean a place where there isn't any local history to speak of, no famous local products, because everything is only skin/studio set deep, hyperreal (Eco) or simulacrum (Baudrillard). You're trying to say it just ain't so; there's geology, geography, there were people who were here for a long time, others who spent a little time here a long time ago before they packed it in. But the brute fact remains. The resorts have been plopped down on that landscape like a flying saucer landing on an alien planet. They are now part of the landscape but not of the place, if you see what I mean. Just like when I say "Southern California," I sure as hell don't mean Ishii or even Zorro. 

 

Yes, I'm being irritating. Hoping some pearl of wisdom will form around the irritation.

Ryan, I was interested in your attention to Kluckhohn and his point that culture isn't just a pattern of ideas and symbols, it describes what people want from life; or, at least, a spread of the values that certain people aspire to in a particular setting at a particular time.


The approach you have taken is one of calling up the ghosts of people who were there but are no longer. Their values seem strange but are not necessarily much more so than those of a tourist sitting under a parasol in a (presumably) fenced segment of beach. All this suggests a writing strategy in which the voices of people who live/stay there now are explored in parallel with these discontinuously present historical voices - other people who were there once, who valued different things. I certainly like the beginnings of that narrative here.

 

My sense is that this paper is a first step to entering closely into the lives of the people involved in these developments today - perhaps people who stay as tourists, who work there, fishermen, people who live in the colonias (how do they consider themselves - as displaced indigenas/mestizos?). What do they value and how do they express those values?

 

Thanks a million, Huon. I was feeling for something like this when I invoked archaeology. But this is much richer and well-suited to an ethnohistorical project. "Calling up the ghosts of people who were there but are no longer" is inspired, especially when taken with "entering closely into the lives of the people involved in these developments today".

@John:

 

Yes, I'm being irritating. Hoping some pearl of wisdom will form around the irritation.

I don't think it's irritating at all, actually. This raises an interesting point about the spaces that are being produced in these places. There is a tremendous amount of differentiation, if not segregation between the tourism zones and the surrounding areas. In fact, in many ways the tourism zones are all about segregation...or building a certain kind of place, with a certain kind of atmosphere. The roped off beaches and security guards at the entrance to hotels are just one layer of this. So I agree with you that there is a kind of production of Southern California-esque space (or maybe Las Vegas) going on here--and these spaces are pretty detached and ahistorical--there isn't much of a connection to the histories of the region. But then again, there are plenty of Mexican citizens who have taken part in making these places, so the story isn't a simple one about external impacts or something. At the same time, these tourism zones don't completely remap these places, even if they get the most media attention and generate the most revenue. There are still other histories, other voices, and other perspectives about what BCS is all about.

@Huon:

All this suggests a writing strategy in which the voices of people who live/stay there now are explored in parallel with these discontinuously present historical voices - other people who were there once, who valued different things. I certainly like the beginnings of that narrative here.

I like how you frame that, Huon. This idea of trying to capture the meanings of the present (values, etc) in the context of the past is really fascinating to me.

My sense is that this paper is a first step to entering closely into the lives of the people involved in these developments today - perhaps people who stay as tourists, who work there, fishermen, people who live in the colonias (how do they consider themselves - as displaced indigenas/mestizos?). What do they value and how do they express those values?


Exactly--you nailed it. This is indeed a first step for trying to approach what is going on there now. I have been down for some prelim work, which gave me some insights about how to start approaching this, but now I need to get into the details. You are right on the mark here--what I want to look into is how some of these different social groups view this place, and then explore those perspectives/values in terms of the changes related to tourism development. The question of how they express those values (ie through work, daily practices, narratives, attachment to place via memory) is a hard one to approach, but I think some of this will come out through interviews and just being there. Elyachar's work provides a good model for how to try to get at something like the expression of "value" ethnographically, and I am interested to see how things will play out when I get into some of this in more depth. Thanks for these comments--they help me to think and rethink what I'm doing, and my upcoming fieldwork.

@Keith:

Thanks a million, Huon. I was feeling for something like this when I invoked archaeology. But this is much richer and well-suited to an ethnohistorical project.

I really like how Huon framed things, but I am not quite ready to give up on your invocation of archaeology. I mean, when does archaeology stop and ethnography begin? Can ethnography be an "archaeology of the present" in some ways? There is something about the archaeological perspective that I really appreciate, and I think it can be pretty complementary to ethnohistoric and ethnographic perspectives. But then, maybe in the end I have been too brainwashed by the church of four-field anthropology!!!

We are now entering the last couple of days of this seminar. I would like to ask you to comment on the politics of this research project, Ryan. Even if you claim that you are just an apprentice scholar whose thesis is intended for a professional audience, that is politics. I wonder also about the politics of online dissemination. Could your research be compromised by what is published here, for example? Some anthropologists blog about their research community while in the field. Have you considered that? Your subject matter is contentious. How will you answer questions like Whose side are you on? What will be the value of your work for us?

I don't expect you to answer all these questions, although I am interested in your political line, since you seem to be very self-aware. But I ask them since I have long thought that the results of field research are more often determined by the political choices we make on the spot than by how we justify it theoretically beforehand. From the beginning you will have to make choices concerning whose patronage to accept or reject. It builds from there.

For my own doctoral fieldwork in Ghana, I tried to straddle the line between the law and criminality, but eventually, I decided that I had to join the criminals or leave. This had enormous consequences for the research I did and for the way I wrote it up. Towards the end of fieldwork, I stayed some months in a Northern village. I accepted a ride from a big man in Accra, a very rich soldier visiting home. I only learned years later that it was widely assumed by the villagers that I was employed by him to spy on them, with inevitable results for fieldwork practice.

In the 70s, I was hired to work in Hong Kong and had the idea of studying one of the top three British firms there. I thought of entering this society as a company historian, since that would let me study the contemporary situation informally, while allegedly not doing that. The project fell through anyway. But your paper -- and the remarks I made earlier about history in the long run as a sort of archaeology -- potentially echoes that idea.

Just ruminating and please don't compromise yourself in your answers. Someone might be watching. And of course you have to fill in all those research ethics questionnaires. I'm sure I would never have survived them.

Before we close down, I'd like to thank Ryan for a paper that deserves a lot more attention than it got and toss out a last couple of random thoughts.

 

First, a trip down memory lane: I've been thinking about where the ideas expressed in my "irritation" message came from and can identify three sources. The first to pop up was an interview with Japanese market researcher Ota Masakazu that made it into my book on Japanese consumer behavior. Ota had studied plant ecology and during the early 80s done a series of studies based on the premise that there would be a natural succession of businesses as the areas around commuter line stations developed. But he hadn't done any similar studies since. I asked him why.

 

OM: Things were very different then. Streets were changing in a lawlike way, following economic principles. During the Bubble, though, development became mechanical, with no relation to economic laws. People were opening new stores and developing out-of-the-way places with no economic rhyme or reason. But back in the early eighties, places like Shibuya seemed to be growing naturally. One type of shop would fail, another would take its place. Since what was happening was lawlike, you could predict what would happen next. 

As a student, I studied botany. The field called plant ecology lets us understand why a willow tree was growing on a certain place on a mountain. A deciduous tree would replace it, a beech, for example. Then the beech would give way to an evergreen, a pine or a cypress. You could understand the succession of different kinds of plants and why some plants would flourish in places that others couldn’t enter. I continued to study plant ecology in graduate school. So, then, when I looked at places like Shibuya, I found myself asking why some businesses did well while others went out of business. Or why certain businesses appeared in residential areas. That made them very interesting to me. Looking at Tokyo from an ecological point of view led me to the kinds of research reported in ‘600 Meter Shops’.

 

JLM: But, then, you say, the Bubble era was different?

 

OM: Completely different. Before then, shops set up away from stations had been at a disadvantage. Conversely, land was cheap, so that people with only a little capital could try out new types of business. During the Bubble, everything came down to money. People with money didn’t set up small, experimental businesses. Instead they would rush in and throw up a whole new shopping complex. Small shops with only one or two rooms were suddenly replaced by tall buildings. The power of money changed the face of the city. It had nothing to do with ecological processes. If we go back to the mountain, it was like a bulldozer, chewing up everything in its path.

 

The image of the flying saucer landing on an alien planet came from a translation we did about a Japanese architect Endo Shuhei.  Finally, there is living with a wife who has a private passion for geology in a volcanically active country. Both have sharpened my awareness of fault lines in cultural as well as physical space. 

 

But, that brings me to another thought. I agree with Keith that Huon's idea of evoking the ghosts of the past is a rich and promising literary device. That said, I, like Ryan, see a lot of promise in bringing archaeological thinking back into cultural anthropology. Why? Because while cultural anthropologists were haring off in search of interpretive nuance and phenomenological perspectives, archeologists were stuck with material realities and what can be inferred from them. And now, new technology like Google Earth makes it possible to look at places like Los Cabos with an archeological eye trained to look for the implications of what are literally facts on the ground. (In one of our side projects, looking at the history of city planning in Yokohama, we now benefit enormously from the work of people who have made it possible to overlay Google Map images of the current city with historical maps and see how things have changed over time.)

 

Last night, this thought led me to do a Google search for "Los Cabos," and I found myself confronted with masses of information, mostly about resorts and real estate. "What a context for ethnographic research!" I thought.

 

Anyway, best of luck, Ryan. I look forward to seeing how your project develops.

 

Archaeology, local archives, Jesuit and conquistador texts, U.S. government documents - you've got your work cut out for a long time! Not to mention the question of how these diverse narratives impinge on the values of those who live/visit in the South of the Peninsula now. Thanks for the seminar, Ryan, and the engaged responses.

Thanks for these questions, Keith.


We are now entering the last couple of days of this seminar. I would like to ask you to comment on the politics of this research project, Ryan. Even if you claim that you are just an apprentice scholar whose thesis is intended for a professional audience, that is politics.

The question of politics is an important one. Development in Mexico (and pretty much everywhere else) is absolutely political, and this case is no different. There are many different sides, many different positions, and many different meanings. I have kept the details of my actual research pretty vague here because of some of the politics that surround these conflicts over development. My overall goal is to get an understanding of the perspectives of different sides involved so that I can better understand where various factions are coming from. At present I would say that I have a decent understanding of why there is conflict and why a few different social groups are in opposition. But I need to get further into this, and it will require a conversation that passes back and forth across some different political lines. That's probably going to be one of the hardest parts.

I wonder also about the politics of online dissemination. Could your research be compromised by what is published here, for example?

I kept things pretty vague in this paper for a reason when it comes to the real details of what my actual research is about. The histories talk about a few key events, and provide some background for the discussion and investigation of tourism development, which is the most recent (and arguably most successful) attempt to "develop" the landscape of this part of the peninsula. I am not sure that everyone on all sides would "like" this paper, since I take a somewhat critical stance about development. At least, I don't assume that development is some panacea, let alone tourism development (despite what the UNWTO seems to think). At the same time, not all tourism development is the same, and there are plenty of examples of differing types of tourism development efforts on this peninsula that bear this out. The whole question of development is really fascinating to me, because what it's really about is reshaping some place according to the plans, needs, and desires of certain people, sometimes to the detriment of others. Development is very much about making a place serve a particular purpose--and it should come as no surprise that this gets political, since there are often competing views about what a place should be. Should it serve international tourism markets, or one particular community? Is it possible to do both? This paper is about some of the past conflicts over this place, and one of the main points is that what we're seeing in the present has some history behind it. To me, it matters to think about things this way. The value and meaning of these territories have been in contestation for a long time. My research is going to be about a contemporary manifestation of this kind of conflict of value, meaning, and power. I'd be interested to see what some people think.

Some anthropologists blog about their research community while in the field. Have you considered that? Your subject matter is contentious. How will you answer questions like Whose side are you on? What will be the value of your work for us?

I've thought about doing something like that, but I am not sure if it would be a good idea to talk about the details of my actual research as it happens. I have thought about doing some writing/blogging about development in the region from a more general perspective, maybe talking about some of the overall trends, conflicts, etc on the peninsula as a whole. And I have also thought about writing about some research experiences, and many some bits and pieces of local history. These are some questions that I am actually thinking through right now (as I work on the IRB, actually).

Whose side am I on? Well, there are a lot of sides. This isn't really a case in which there are these really clear sides. There people who fall in the pro-development camp, and others who are kind of anti-development. Then there are others who want development, but they don't want it to take certain forms, to go too far. The interesting thing is that the positions about this cut through many categories--nationality, class, etc. There are plenty of Mexican citizens who are both for and against development, and the same goes for tourists. Overall I am interested in looking at how things work--how different sides or coalitions form based upon shared values and ideals about place, development, etc. That's what I am looking at. I try to approach development by taking as much of the literature (and my own experiences) into account as possible. I know that tourism development generates lots of revenue, and that it CAN be a positive thing. But I also know that certain models for development, which are pretty popular, are often plagued with lots of complications, problems, and inequalities. People may not like to hear that, but that seems pretty clear. At the same time, many people want what development has to offer--they aren't exactly "anti-development." You mention this in your chapter on development in the human economy. So I am not here making the "let's move beyond development" argument, because I am not sure where that leads, if anywhere. I definitely do not idealize or romanticize "the locals," since their politics are by no means uniform. So there's a lot to weave through here. Overall I am trying to look at this case of tourism development, gain a better understanding of the positions of the various sides of the conflict, and analyze/assess how the power dynamics play out. One of the underlying questions is about participation in development, what role power plays, and whether or not the results are fair, just, democratic, etc. Something like that.

I would like to thank Ryan first for presenting to us and second for answering our questions so fully and honestly. Ryan's presentation is a first in that he is not just a graduate student, but one who is in that tense period of grant-seeking and qualifying in order to take up his field research. In fact, he spent the last two days doing his comprehensive examinations! It is always easier to reason backwards than forwards and that is why he offered us two kinds of literature review: one on anthropological theory and one on historical narratives of the area. I have seen Ryan's research proposal and it is much more closely focused on what he has to do than this more discursive essay has touched upon. Perhaps this seminar has offered him some relief from wasting away in Grantlandia and even more from the dreaded comps. If so -- and even if it didn't -- we have benefited enormously from his gift to us.

I now close this seminar.

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