Evon Z. Vogt, Fieldwork among the Maya: The Harvard Chiapas Project (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994).

There is a moment in Evon Vogt’s Fieldwork Among the Maya: Reflections on the Harvard Chiapas Project when Paul Lazersfeld—the sociologist famous for his methodological rigor­—passes a stack of books sitting on Vogt’s desk on the Chukchee of northeastern Siberia and remarks: “My God, you anthropologists know a lot. You don’t know how you found it all out, but you certainly know a lot” (47). How Vogt knows what he knows—and more generally, the methods through which anthropologists come to know other cultures—is the motivating question in this “autobiography of his fieldwork.”[1] Fieldwork Among the Maya traces the impact of Vogt’s participation in multiple interdisciplinary, collaborative ethnographic projects— including W. Lloyd Warner’s study of social stratification in the Midwest and Clyde Kluckhohn’s investigation of values in five cultures in Ramah, New Mexico—on the development and operation of the Harvard Chiapas Project.[2] Written fifteen years after the “official” conclusion of the project, Vogt’s memoir traverses, in a personal and intimate fashion, over forty years of tumultuous transformation in anthropology.

George Foster characterized the Harvard Chiapas Project, which operated from 1957 to 1980, as the “the largest and most productive research-cum-student-training enterprise in the history of anthropology.”[3] The project was originally intended as a “cultural laboratory” (83) for tracing the forces of culture change unleashed by the Mexican government’s modernization programs on Tzotzil and Tzeltal communities. Under Vogt’s tutelage the HCP instituted group fieldwork techniques that positioned students to question the assumption that the forces of global capitalist modernization were turning all “tribal peoples [into] peasants [which] have a kind of dreary sameness all over the world.”[4] The emphasis Vogt put “on long-range research, the stress on fine-grained and penetrating ethnographic work, the training of students in a field situation, the involvement of several scientific disciplines, and the flexible organization that permitted individual researchers to design and carry out innovative projects,” (59) led to yearly rounds of fieldworkers filling out more complete and reliable data on the continued religious, political, and cultural complexity of the Maya. As a result of these methodological precautions, the project too came to emphasize the persistence of cultural continuity, not change, in Chiapas.

Vogt toed the line between giving students enough guidance and freedom to develop their own research and committing the overall group to the goal of obtaining a cumulative understanding of the Tzotzil language and culture. He came to realize the value of obliging fieldworkers with different theoretical and methodological orientations to reconcile their findings through the “double-checking of field data over long time periods and among quite disparate observers.” (358)  The field strategies and social routines of the HCP—such as field conferences “in which students were expected to report on their research progress and be critiqued and advised by both the field leader and their student peers,” (344)—not only enhanced the reliability, depth and breadth of the project’s accumulating ethnographic knowledge, but also fostered an atmosphere of “collaboration and academic generosity” (348). Such an approach sidestepped many of the issues “that often paralyze large research projects,” (457) including the tendency of anthropologists to feel ownership over “their people” or culture of study.[5] As Vogt explained, this requirement of “having two or more observers agree to the basic correctness of ethnographic descriptions” (346) expressed to his students the validity of “varying modes for reaching ethnographic conclusions” (364). It was also a “far cry from the traditional methods of doing ethnography when a single person…went out to a particular tribe or community, studied it for a year…and then returned to publish their results….[which] became the God’s Truth about the tribe or community” (347).

Relevance Today.

Vogt’s memoir shakes up what historians and anthropologists have come to view as “typical” or representative fieldwork experiences in the past. It demonstrates the value of both collaboration and training in ethnographic research and unsettles the types of academic labor we traditionally award with prestige and accord influence in shaping the history of anthropology. With regard to the former—as fellow Mesoamericanist John Watanabe has pointed out—Vogt’s memoir “calls into question the academic myths, postmodern or not, about pioneer anthropologists who are considered solitary field researchers in exotic places with little methodological preparation.” Watanabe goes on to suggest that Vogt’s participation in multiple long-term, collaborative ethnographic projects offers testimony to how “the training, supervision, and coordination of anthropological research did exist in the past, perhaps to a greater extent than today.”[6] More pointedly, Alan Sandstrom contends that “Vogt’s approach to the ethnological enterprise represents far better the American experience than the likes of Clifford Geertz or Marshall Sahlins.”[7]

In considering the crop of “now-famous Mesoamerican anthropologists who ‘grew up’ anthropologically in the nurturant environment of Vogt’s field school,”[8] one can trace the influence of the routine, everyday labor of mentorship on the formation of anthropology, an all too often unacknowledged type of work in a discipline afflicted with an “almost childish enchantment with the latest trendy theories, theorists, and topics.”[9] Vogt’s graduate students Victoria Bricker and Gary Gossen termed his style of mentorship “rolling flexibility…a pragmatic philosophy of problem-solving in the field”​; it made clear, in other words, that “there are lots of ways to achieve the same end.”​​[10] By fostering an open intellectual community that welcomed eclectic approaches to research and was marked by a “deep skepticism for theoretical abstractions that were difficult to connect to empirical ethnography”[11]—Vogt’s field school not only encouraged the creation of “lifelong friendships…but resulted in a frequent sharing and interchange of knowledge” (363). The collective cross-checked ethnographic observations on more and more domains of Maya life that emerged from the Harvard Chiapas Project’s “symbiotic relationship of expanding knowledge and developing careers,”[12] signaled—at a time of postmodern nihilism about scientific authority—that there was “still hope for the writing of objective ethnographies” (345).

Vogt and his wife Catherine, “Nan,” poured vast emotional and social labor into creating a supportive environment for his students to succeed—from pre-field language courses with native Tzotzil speakers to the “delicate operation,” of Vogt and his field leaders in “establishing each [student] in a productive field situation” (190) geared to their particular research interests. This meant that students “could get off the bus in San Cristobal and be doing first-class, productive field ethnography within the first few days of arrival in Chiapas” (345). Vogt devoted considerable effort to supervising students and maintaining a productive, safe field setting by managing tensions between students, indigenous informants, local elite Ladinos, and Euro-Americans. As a result, his individual scholarly work and personal achievements often took a backseat to the overall goal of the Project. However, Vogt readily acknowledged and celebrated students who surpassed him in their rapport-building skill. Graduate student Victoria Bricker developed a field manual for students in response to one of Vogt’s undergraduates complaining quite bluntly: “You teach us a lot of nonessential stuff in that field training seminar during the spring term at Harvard, but you never get around to teaching us how to behave in a well-mannered way in Zinacantan” (269). Vogt gracefully supported this iniative, underscoring how essential field training is to assuring the continuance, safety, and productivity of the Project.[13]

[1] As characterized by John P. Hawkins, American Ethnologist 24, no. 1 (February 1997): 225;

[2] Regarding the Five Cultures Project, see Willow Roberts Powers, “The Harvard Five Cultures Values Study and Post War Anthropology,” (PhD diss., University of New Mexico, 1986). See also, Rebecca Lemov, “Toward a History of Collaboration in Anthropology,” ARC Exchange, No. 1 (July 2007): 45-53, http://anthropos-lab.net/wp/publications/2007/08/exchangeno1.pdf.

[3] George M. Foster, American Anthropologist 100, no. 1 (March 1998): 229.

[4] Evon Z. Vogt, “The Harvard Chiapas Project:1957-1975,” in Long-Term Field Research in Social Anthropology, eds. George M. Foster, Thayer Scudder, Elizabeth Colson, and Robert V. Kemper (New York: Academic Press, 1979), 297.

[5] See Peter Mandler’s Return from the Natives: How Margaret Mead Won the Second World War and Lost the Cold War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013) on how Franz Boas “emphasized to his students that their first responsibility was to ‘their’ culture: that is, their adopted culture of study…this gave students a sense of ownership in ‘their’ culture.” (5) Also, Fred Eggan,“Among the Anthropologists,” Annual Review of Anthropology 3 (October 1974): 1-20: “Margaret Mead notes that Boas had refused to let her and Reo Fortune work among the Navaho because they ‘belonged’ to Gladys Reichard, and these ‘ethics of field work’ lasted well into the 1930s…I had been studying other people’s tribes, and it would have been fun to have a tribe of my own.” (10-12)

[6] See John Watanabe, Mesoamérica 32, Vol 17 (December 1996): 458-459, my translation. Longstanding myths about the individuality of fieldwork have submerged the impact of Vogt’s work—and more generally the prevalence of collaborative group fieldwork projects in the past; this is evident in James Urry’s claim that when anthropologists began to confront “the complexity of issues…faced in the study of social change…[it] might have been better to have abandoned the principle of individual fieldwork in favor of group studies, but by the 1930s the ideal of individual fieldwork in a single culture had become the accepted norm of anthropological investigation.” (54) See James Urry, “A History of Field Methods,” in Ethnographic Research: A General Guide to Conduct, ed. R.F. Ellen (London: Academic Press, 1984): 35–61.

[7] Alan R. Sandstrom, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 2, no. 2 (June 1996): 375-376.

[8] Hawkins, 225.

[9] Orin Starn, “Introduction,” in Writing Culture and the Life of Anthropology, ed. Orin Starn (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 1.

[10] Victoria R. Bricker and Gary Gossen, eds, Ethnographic Encounters in Southern Mesoamerica: Essays in Honor of Evon Zartman Vogt, Jr. (Institute for Mesoamerican Studies, 1989): 1. 

[11] George A. Collier, “Evon Zartman Vogt Jr. (1918-2004)” American Anthropologist 107, No. 3 (Sept 2005): 559-562.

[12] Hawkins, 225.

[13] Victoria Reifler Bricker’s field manual is called “Good Manners in Zinacantan: A Manual on Etiquette for Fieldworkers” (1963) and can be located in the Peabody Museum’s Harvard Chiapas Project/Evon Vogt Collection (2016.21), Box 1 Folder 14.

Lauren Kapsalakis: contributions / website / lkapsa@mit.edu