Methodological Dissension on Sol Tax’s Training Expedition to Chiapas

Fernando Cámara Barbachano, Zinacantán Field Diary, 10 December 1942, Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

Sol Tax is well known for developing the concept of “action anthropology,” which takes the goals and problems of research subjects as its point of departure ahead of the researcher’s desire for knowledge. However, he began his career with a much more conventional philosophy of science, and during the 1940s vigorously defended “basic” research against calls for anthropology to emphasize its political relevance.[1]

In the winter of 1942-3, Tax took a small group of students from Mexico’s Escuela Nacional de Antropología on a fieldwork training expedition to Zinacantán, Chiapas. The trip proved to be much more than that, however, giving rise to intercultural frictions and occasionally blunt disagreements between teacher and students.[2]

While the group stayed only two months, the field diaries from this expedition and from several similar ones in the early 40s are invaluable: since everyone read each other’s entries regularly, the diaries served as a record of debates, and sometimes of conversations people preferred not to have face-to-face. Students wrote down their complaints about Tax, their concerns about the methods they were being taught, their opinions on local politics, and their justifications for questionable decisions—and Tax responded in kind.

One of the most conflicted students was Fernando Cámara Barbachano, who went on to become one of Mexico’s foremost ethnographers and to teach regular courses on anthropological theory and method. He wrote quite bluntly in the early days of the expedition about his desire to do beneficial work, and about his disdain for cloistered, purely academic research. In summarizing a discussion with his fellow students, he described them as aimless and perhaps naive:

No one offered a concrete idea regarding the end that they thought to bring about when they concluded their studies and the plans that they wanted to realize to benefit the Indian. It is something that interests me much, in that the greater part of these classmates are foreigners and do not think seriously about the large problem that Mexico has with its Indians, but some of us like R[icardo Pozas], M[iguel Acosta] and myself believe that we see things from another point of view.[3]

He quickly moved on to the more specific issue of method. Tax, following his own training, believed that to do a community study right you needed to make a map, a census, and a genealogical chart as complete as possible. That meant going around to all the houses and asking people for their names and their kinship relations. Many of the students, including Cámara, felt this was excessive. Tax gave him some articles by W. H. R. Rivers to read, but these did not fully convince him. His goal, he wrote, was “to try to resolve the indigenous problem, and that for this it was not necessary to know the name of fulano or of sotano and if he is a brother or a cousin or if he is dead or alive.” Eventually Tax, with the help of a Mexican colleague, managed to convince Cámara that “once the Social Organization [of a community] is known, any method of help can be used to lift up its social and economic level.” Cámara fell in line, but grudgingly.

Actually it seemed to me that they were right, but as the majority of the group only studies the indian as if he were a strange animal in which they seek defects or try to find interesting customs and a life to criticize or compare with their own, and afterward in some meeting in their social life in Mexico [City], talk of them as abnormal, supernatural beings or something outside of the mainstream [lo corriente] and which they should study because they are people far from civilized life, and that they as scientists have the obligation to study them, well I accepted that they were half right.[4]

By the end of the trip, Tax had mostly won Cámara over to his style of data collection, and to the idea that theoretically grounded research was a necessary prerequisite for practical intervention. But in contrast to Tax’s belief that science should proceed thoroughly on its own grounds, Cámara held to the conviction that its guiding light should be political. In his subsequent teaching career, he would firmly maintain that anthropological research was a science with a proper method based on the systematic collection and comparison of data in its social context. But anthropology’s purpose was to integrate the national body by improving the material living conditions of its disadvantaged populations, and to use familiarity with local cultures to help them achieve that transition.

This episode reflects not only the growing “Americanization of social science” in the 20th century[5], but also a strong tradition of political engagement in Mexican anthropology. Indeed, to the extent that anthropologists who worked extensively with Mexican colleagues (like Sol Tax and George Foster) eventually softened their views on the basic-applied distinction, it suggests influences going back the other way.[6]


[1] His main publication in this vein was “Anthropology and Administration,” América Indígena 5, no. 1 (Jan 1945).

[2] Tax later wrote publicly about the experience in a conference paper, as part of an argument that “the culture that has developed in Latin America does not provide what we think of as the democratic way of behaving in social life.” He described the students as being “unable to grasp the idea that they were permitted, even expected, to govern themselves” instead of appealing to a sovereign monarch across the ocean. Sol Tax, “The Problem of Democracy in Middle America,” American Sociological Review 10, no. 2, 1944 Annual Meeting Papers (Apr 1945), 198.

[3] Fernando Cámara Barbachano, Zinacantán Field Diary, 7 December 1942. Sol Tax Papers, Box 101, Folder 3. Special Collections Research Center, Regenstein Library, University of Chicago.

[4] Cámara, Zinacantán Diary, 10 December 1942.

[5] Mauricio Tenorio, “Stereophonic Scientific Modernisms: Social Science between Mexico and the United States,1880s-1930s,” Journal of American History 86, no. 3 (Dec 1999), 1156-87.

[6] For more on cross-border influences in US and Mexican ideas of science and the state, see Ruben Flores, Backroads Pragmatists: Mexico’s Melting Pot and Civil Rights in the United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).

John Gee: contributions / / Department of History, Harvard University


  1. Richard Handler

    July 18, 2017 at 8:59 am

    Glad to read this informative piece–having just re-read George Stocking’s magisterial piece on Tax (“Do Good Young Man”) and, now, considering using it in an undergraduate course on “what is to be done in the face of Trump.” This piece was useful context … Richard Handler

  2. This is an interesting piece to read right before I head off to Mexico, Yucatán in this case, to do additional fieldwork. Even among the Fox Indians in Iowa, it was Tax’s students, not Tax himself, who were interested in helping the local community.

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