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ANTHROPOLOGY: What is it/



Linda Nyquist, a Mexico expert who is compassionate but not a compassionate conservative, tells her experience with anthropology:

"This posting brought to mind my own unhappy experiences in Mexico in the pursuit of a doctorate in anthropology many years ago. I was living in a remote village in the Sierra of Oaxaca (San Juan Coatzospan) studying the illness behavior and healing practices of a group of Mixtecos. As budding anthropologists, our mission was to record what we observed; no more, no less. I soon realized that the people I was studying were dying from diseases for which there was help, and it was help I could get for them. Tuberculosis, for example, was killing many young mothers. Gastrointestinal disorders were wreaking havoc. The list goes on. After about 1 month of "recording," I could stand the situation no longer and enlisted the help of physician friends in Puebla and Mexico City to provide care for the severely ill. There was a little missionary air service in the area, and if I could get the person carried down the mountain (6 hours), and radio for help (shortwave radio), the little airplane would pick the person up and fly them to Puebla. Then I conned all my friends into putting people into the hospital for surgery, acute care, etc.

Of course, when this was discovered by my superiors, all hell broke loose. And I was accused of being a terrible anthropologist, with no hope of a future. Although I argued my actions, it was clear that I was losing. When I insisted that this was a moral issue, I was told that I should be in divinity school, no graduate school. So, I promised to be compliant, and then went ahead and continued my work surreptitiously.

Although I earned the degree, I have never felt really happy about it. It seems to me that anthropology wants to keep people isolated and out of the economic loop of the country almost to have study subjects. We talked at length about "preserving the culture" in the indigenous areas, but I'm not sure what they were talking about. With the advent of roads and radios, the people aren't completely isolated. Their traditional culture has all but vanished, and what remains is abysmal poverty and lack of education. It is a heartbreaking scenario.

What responsibility, if any, does one have who waltzes into one of these areas, documents the misery (for personal gain, i.e., a graduate degree), and then leaves? "

Ronald Hilton - 8/29/00


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