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Ethnicity and Class Conflict in Rural Mexico

Ethnicity and Class Conflict in Rural Mexico

by Frans J. Schryer

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In this case study of a recent peasant uprising in an ethnically diverse region of Mexico, Frans Schryer addresses an important issue in the cultural history of Latin America: what is the relationship of class to ethnicity, and how do these two elements of cultural perception and social hierarchy reinforce or contradict each other? Examining the interaction between


In this case study of a recent peasant uprising in an ethnically diverse region of Mexico, Frans Schryer addresses an important issue in the cultural history of Latin America: what is the relationship of class to ethnicity, and how do these two elements of cultural perception and social hierarchy reinforce or contradict each other? Examining the interaction between commercial cattle raisers and subsistence agricultural workers in both Nahua and Mestizo villages, Schryer focuses on how ethnic identities and administrative structures affect the form and outcome of agrarian struggles. He shows that class, culture, and social organization are interconnected but vary independently and demonstrates that communal land tenure and corporate structures are compatible with class differentiation and even overt class conflict within peasant communities. Schryer's data is based on archival research, direct observation, and extensive interviews with key actors involved in the conflict. His book traces the origins of local variations in legal status and ethnic relations back to the development of Indian republics, haciendas, and ranchos. By considering competing interpretations of more recent history, especially the CNBrdenas era, the author also provides insights into the mentality of protagonists involved in both ideological confrontations and armed encounters. What emerges is a detailed, comprehensive study that places as much emphasis on culture and discourse as on economic structures and political forces.

Editorial Reviews

A study of the main ethnic groups in California, offering a direct comparison of these various groups. Presents the thesis that the upward mobility of an ethnic group is determined not only by its infrastructure but also by the infrastructure of the situation the group encounters. A study of a recent peasant uprising in an ethnically diverse region of Mexico. Looking at the interaction between commercial cattle raisers and subsistence agricultural workers in two Mexican villages, the study focuses on how ethnic identities and administrative structures affect the form and outcome of agrarian struggles. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Princeton Legacy Library Series
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9.20(w) x 5.90(h) x 1.00(d)

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Ethnicity and Class Conflict Rural Mexico

By Frans J. Schryer


Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07829-8


Ethnicity and Class: Class Conflict in Plural Societies

The complex relationship between class and ethnicity presents an intellectual challenge to scholars, especially those using a Marxist framework of analysis. Some researchers simply avoid this challenge by disregarding the phenomenon of ethnicity altogether. Others only look at ethnicity as a negative factor, which hinders or retards the development of class consciousness necessary for class struggles. Still others (see Nnoli 1977) equate ethnicity and class whenever ethnic groups are overrepresented or underrepresented in different economic classes. According to this interpretation, ethnic or racial strife is an expression of class conflict whenever different ethnic groups are unequally ranked and where it is possible to identify subordinate and superordinate ethnic groups who have unequal access to power. Even in such cases of ethnic subordination, however, the correlation between class position and membership in antagonistic ethnic groups is far from perfect.

This debate and the resulting confusion is also true for the literature dealing with Latin America. For example, Christian Deverre (1980, 12) considers any form of ethnic conflict in Latin America to be "profoundly conservative and reactionary." In contrast, Jean-Loup Herbert, Carlos Guzman and Julio Quan (1972) argue that the class struggle can only take the form of an ethnic conflict between a class of Ladinos and a class of Indians. Herbert (1972, 151) divides each of these opposing classes into various substrata, and he calls this ethnic opposition the "principle contradiction" of Guatemalan society. Ricardo Pozas (1971) makes a similar argument for ethnically diverse regions in Mexico. Some earlier writers (Tumin 1952; Gillin 1957) even used the notion of caste to describe Indian-Mestizo relationships in Mesoamerica because of the low level of social mobility and rigid social barriers between these two hierarchically ranked ethnic groups.

The term caste has also been used to refer to similar situations of ethnic inequality resulting from the conquest of a population by people with a different culture or different somatic features. For example, Donald Horowitz (1985, 22) portrays Rwanda, in Africa, as having a caste-like system consisting of a small minority of pastoral Tutsi (the original invaders) exploiting the predominantly agricultural Hutu. He also analyzes the eruption of ethnic conflict in Rwanda as a purely vertical opposition of two ethnically based classes (p. 35). Such situations, where class membership was empirically synonymous with ascribed ethnic status as a result of conquest, might possibly have existed in some precapitalist state-level societies and also in some colonies in the early stages of mercantile capitalism. Such situations, however, could not have continued for any length of time given the considerable cultural assimilation and changes in the boundaries between ethnic groups that have occurred over the past several hundred years.

In the case of Rwanda, Leo Kuper (1975, 125) has shown that the mass of Tutsi in Rwanda belonged to the same impoverished class of subsistence cultivators as the Hutu. Here a dichotomous conception of the social structure, originating from a period of conquest in the seventeenth century, no longer accurately reflected the considerable overlap between ethnic membership and position in the class structure two hundred years later. Scholars who portray contemporary, ethnically based "caste-like" societies in dichotomous terms thus give too much credence to institutional prescription or ideological categories without examining the actual economic class structure. Certainly in Mexico, legal distinctions defining the class structure of New Spain in terms of various ethnic categories no longer corresponded to reality as early as the mid-sixteenth century, as shown in a historical study of the colonial city of Oaxaca undertaken by Chance (1978). He demonstrates that these legal ethnic categories more closely corresponded to the world view of an upper class of landowners than the actual combination of economic classes and ethnic groups. This complex relationship between class and ethnicity is characteristic of all ethnically diverse societies in today's world. At the same time, one cannot deny the existence of often violent confrontations between rival ethnic groups that frequently involve factional disputes among people who occupy the same position in the class structure. Oliver Cox (1970, 319), who has examined such ethnic conflict from a Marxist perspective, states that "ethnic antagonism may so diffuse other interests that political-class differences are constantly held in abeyance." This situation often presents itself in former colonial societies, which social anthropologists refer to as plural societies.

Conflict in Plural Societies

Complex, multiethnic societies present a challenge not only to Marxists interested in class struggle and revolution but to scholars interested in accounting for social order and stability. Ethnically diverse nation states contradict the consensus assumption used by social anthropologists who at one point studied mainly small-scale, culturally homogeneous societies. At first such anthropologists analyzed ethnic enclaves without taking into account the larger context of the nation state. However, different ethnic groups in complex societies may participate in a single economic system and be subject to the same government without sharing a common set of values or having the same form of social organization. Anthropologists who started to broaden their scope of analysis to include such complex, ethnically diverse societies referred to them as multiple or plural societies (see Furnivall 1939; Nash 1957; Smith i960; Rex 1959). These anthropologists used case studies from former European colonies to illustrate that a common culture and value consensus were not prerequisites for long-term social stability. They were also interested in conflict and inequality, following the examples set by Max Gluckman (1963), who did fieldwork in South Africa.

Although this new brand of anthropology became associated with a school of thought known as "conflict theory," its advocates analyzed such conflict in terms of how it contributed to long-term stability and the continuity and equilibrium of basic social institutions (Gluckman 1968). The theoretical approach used by members of this pluralist school is most clearly articulated by Colby and van den Berghe, who did fieldwork in Africa and Mesoamerica. These authors define plural societies as having parallel but distinguishable sets of institutions as well as functionally similar corporate groups, whose members have different cultures or subcultures (Colby and van den Berghe 1969, 7). They argue that their framework for analyzing such plural societies (whether Switzerland or South Africa) brings together the "functionalist" and "conflict" streams of sociological thought (p. 4). According to their theory, plural societies, which are more prone to various types of conflicts, nevertheless remain stable over time because of the economic interdependence of their various ethnic groups and a common polity that articulates relations between its constituent groups (p. 10).

Their case study, Ixil Country (Guatemala), is used as an example of a plural society in which the "balance of power and wealth" between the two ethnic groups, Ladinos and Indians, was unstable and where there was neither complete equality nor complete domination. Colby and Van den Berghe primarily focus on ethnic conflict in terms of competition for both economic resources and political power between these two ethnic groups (both of which are internally stratified). The Marxist term "class conflict" is reserved for those rare situations where a subordinate ethnic group is engaged in revolutionary struggle in a classical colonial situation, as in some parts of Asia and Africa (Colby and van den Berghe 1969, 15). However, these authors do not mention the possibility of class conflicts that cut across the boundaries of ethnic groups.

The emphasis on the priority of interethnic or racial conflict is also apparent in Leo Kuper's work (1975) on political conflict in plural societies. From an analysis of revolutionary movements in Rwanda and Zanzibar (based on secondary sources), he concludes that in such plural societies, "the dialectic of conflict is essentially racial" (p. 202). Kuper goes even further than Colby and van den Berghe and argues that ethnically diverse, plural societies are never subject to class conflict in the Marxist sense (pp. 224–25). Kuper also holds that although such ethnic conflicts usually include competition for economic resources, economic concerns and intraethnic class stratification are secondary. Unlike the authors discussed above, I believe that what they called plural societies can be analyzed from a class perspective. The case study of Huejutla shows that such societies are not immune to class conflicts (as defined from a Marxist perspective).

Marxist Approaches to Class and Ethnicity

Much of the controversy about the relative importance of class and ethnicity revolves around Marx's notion of class and class struggle. These terms have also been subject to different interpretations. In this study I will use the term social class to refer to a group of people belonging to the same economic class who share a common identity and enough awareness of their common interests to be able to act in accordance with their long-term economic interests. The term economic class (or just class) will be used as an analytical category to identify only people's relationship to the means of production and distribution, regardless of how such relations may be perceived. The interrelationships among members of such economic classes compose the class structure of a society, which almost always cuts across linguistic and cultural boundaries. While researchers should be able to examine this class structure on the basis of an examination of purely objective data, the analysis of social class could not be done without taking into account subjective factors, including class consciousness. Using the terminology of social anthropologists, the study of social class and class conflict requires both an etic and an emic analysis. Class conflicts (or conflicts between social classes) involve people who share symbols and values based on specific cultural patterns. According to a strictly Marxist definition, members of social classes engaged in struggles vis-à-vis other classes must also occupy the same or similar positions in the class structure.

Orthodox Marxist scholars deal with the development of class conflict in ethnically diverse societies in one of two ways. They predict either that class consciousness automatically involves the loss of ethnic identity or that the ethnic identity of members of a subordinated class undergoes a qualitative change to become the expression of class consciousness. In the latter case, they assume that those members of this "revolutionary" ethnic group who belong to other, opposing economic classes (i.e., those who technically form part of the exploiters from the viewpoint of an outside analyst) will reject their ethnic identity or else support the class struggle despite their own objective class position. The logical extension of such a theoretical position is that members of the subordinate class who belong to the superordinate ethnic group should also change their ethnic identity. For example, all poor, landless Mestizos in Mesoamerica could only achieve full class consciousness by identifying themselves as Indians! Jean-Loup Herbert (1972, 72), who was mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, comes close to this position. In contrast, opponents of Marxism in the field of ethnic studies completely reject class analysis for ethnically diverse societies because of what they see as the preponderance of ethnicity in people's self-perception as well as the important role played by ethnic groups in the political arena. Such opponents argue that the primordial ties associated with ethnic groups make ethnicity a basic group identity that overrides any other "secondary" ones such as those associated with class or occupation (see Isaacs 1975). For these reasons, many students of ethnicity have concluded that a class model is inapplicable or irrelevant for ethnically diverse, non-Western societies (see Horowitz 1985, 89–92).

A number of social scientists have managed to overcome this false dichotomy between class and ethnicity. Orlando Patterson, inspired by Barth's work (1969) on ethnic boundaries, examines how the ethnic identity of immigrant populations of common origin who have settled in different countries changes depending on how they become incorporated into the class structure of a new society. According to Patterson (1975, 334), economic factors affect the size, continuity and even the definition of specific ethnic groups over time because ethnic identity may serve the economic class interests of individuals who belong to specific ethnic groups. The point is not whether people have a class identity or an ethnic identity — this is an erroneous question because people can have multiple identities — but rather how people abandon, maintain or change their ethnic identity depending on their position in the class structure. Such an analysis is quite different from a vulgar economic determinism, such as that of Deverre (1980), which predicts the gradual but inevitable disappearance of any ethnic distinctions. However, Patterson does not address the issues of how class consciousness develops (alongside or despite ethnic consciousness), nor does he examine class conflict.

While Patterson focuses on the manner in which individuals manipulate their multiple identities within the broader context of a changing class structure, other Marxist scholars place greater emphasis on the function of ethnic stereotypes or symbolic systems involving ethnic stratification in maintaining a class structure (thus preventing the emergence of class conflict). For example, Rodolfo Stavenhagen (1975), who has written about southern Mexico (just like van den Berghe), analyzes Indian-Ladino relations as an expression of an ideology of ethnic superiority that reinforces the class position of upper class Ladinos. Stavenhagen also makes an analytical distinction between the class structure and a corresponding ideological system of stratification involving the use of ethnic categories. Such an ideological system, consisting of ascribed status categories, may not correspond to the actual class structure since members of subordinate or stigmatized ethnic groups may belong to the same economic classes as the dominant ethnic group. He explains this lack of fit between class and ethnicity as a type of lag effect (p. 34). Old stereotypes and their associated practices of discrimination do not just face away; an ideology of ethnic stratification resulting from colonization, conquest or forced migration may linger on even when the class structure has already become significantly altered. In such situations, people belonging to the dominant ethnic group continue to conceptualize class differences in primarily ethnic terms and hence, ethnic labels and certain customs and institutions associated with ethnic stratification may impede the upward mobility of members of stigmatized ethnic groups within the economic class structure. This then accounts for the strong correlation in so many countries between people's places in the class structure and certain cultural or culturally defined somatic traits.

According to Stavenhagen, discrepancies between ethnic status and objective class position may result in ethnic conflicts led by better-off or upwardly mobile members of the subordinate ethnic group, which would, in turn, alter the system of ethnic statification. It could be argued, however, that this type of ethnic conflict resulting from limited economic upward mobility does not really constitute class conflict since it would result in the embourgeoisement of upper class members of a formerly subordinate ethnic group and a preservation of the original class structure, albeit with different personnel (see Colby and van den Berghe 1969, 245). Like Patterson, Stavenhagen thus does not specify how real class conflicts would actually develop in societies which continue to be ethnically diverse. Nor does he mention that prejudice against a particular ethnic group is not incompatible with members of that group in turn discriminating against still other ethnic minorities in a hierarchy of exploitation. This is the case in rural Mexico, where a system of discrimination against people labeled as "Indians" is not incompatible with class differences within predominantly Indian regions with unique institutions and values (which in turn reinforce such internal class differentiation among members of a subordinate ethnic group).


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