Madre de Dios, Peru. Photo courtesy Geoff Gallice and wikicommons

An NSF-funded Investigation of Cultural Change in Amazonia

I work at an ethnic boundary. “When they [the Matsigenka] first come, they have many problems, and they are used to not working. That is one of their customs. And when they come here they have to change their way of thinking. They have to see how to get ahead. It’s a struggle for them. He who does the most, is the most ambitious, obtains the best things. They see that, and they change.” “The Virácocha are a little lazy. We Matsigenka surpass them in work. Sometimes he [the boss] tells us crew members to wash the boat. The Virácocha [crew member] just stays watching. The Matsigenka [crew member] washes everything.” What happens when two culturally-distinct ethnic groups, such as the Matsigenka and Virácocha (Mestizos), come into contact and interact with each other? Will the cultural differences between them be maintained? Will they blend? Will power differences result in the supplanting of one group’s customs and beliefs by those of the other? Which aspects of culture will be affected? I study the processes by which cultural norms (beliefs about what constitutes appropriate behavior) change as a result of inter-ethnic interaction. This is an example of ongoing research funded by the Cultural Anthropology Program of the National Science Foundation. In addition to describing the project, my goal for this essay is to show other recent PhDs how NSF makes it possible to pursue one’s own research ideas very early in a career.

Madre de Dios, Peru. Photo courtesy Geoff Gallice and wikicommons

Madre de Dios, Peru. Photo courtesy Geoff Gallice and wikicommons

The Matsigenka are an Amazonian indigenous group living in the tropical lowlands of Southeastern Peru. Tayakome, the Matsigenka community where I work, is located inside Manu National Park, in the Department of Madre de Dios, and is a one- to two-day river trip from the nearest non-Matsigenka town, Boca Manu, situated just outside the park boundary. Boca Manu is a similarly-sized community composed primarily of Mestizos (called Virácocha by the Matsigenka), who are colonists from the highlands to the West and South. Studying processes of cultural change in this population means working on both sides of the Matsigenka-Mestizo ethnic boundary. Thus, in addition to Tayakome, I also work in Boca Manu, as well as another nearby Mestizo town called Atalaya. The two quotes above, the first from a Mestizo resident of Boca Manu, the second from a Matsigenka from Tayakome recounting his experience as a seasonal worker in Atalaya, illustrate one of the principal contexts of interaction across this ethnic boundary, wage labor. After several months living in each of the three study communities, I could identify other contexts where important inter-ethnic interactions occur, such as commerce, religion, and healthcare, as well as contexts such as family relations, early education, and community obligations, where Matsigenka and Mestizos seldom interact with each other. My objective is to understand how and why these patterns of interaction affect cultural change.

After identifying contexts of frequent and infrequent inter-ethnic interaction, the next step was to investigate individual people’s experiences in these contexts across the ethnic boundary. This focus on individual-level experience is particularly important, as neighbors in the same community can differ greatly in their dealings with the other ethnic group. Roughly two thirds of the adults in each community recounted their life stories, supplemented by my more specific questions about inter-ethnic experience in the identified contexts of interest. Listening to people tell the stories of their lives is a great privilege of ethnographic field work. After a short time in the communities, I learned that a bucket of manioc beer can turn a terse life history into a narrative nearly as long as the life it recounts. These interviews (occasionally abridged) allowed me to document individual inter-ethnic interaction experience within each community.

Next, I had to determine if and how Matsigenka and Mestizos differ culturally with respect to the identified contexts of interaction. To do this, I participated in the daily life of each community, living with a family, working in agricultural fields, teaching in the schools, etc, paying particular attention to activities in the contexts of interest. Such participant observation exposed me to behavior that people in each community deem appropriate (ie, the norm) in each context, and facilitated my attempts to conform to it. For instance, I discovered that during Matsigenka family labor, whether foraging for beetle larvae in the forest or planting a swidden manioc field, tools such as axes, hoes, and machetes are wielded with equal dexterity by both men and women, who, to the great relief of my blistered hands, take turns in their use. In contrast, while clearing a Mestizo family’s banana field in Atalaya, I and the other hired Mestizo and Matsigenka men were each assigned individual rows to clear. I was expected to finish my rows by myself, an individualistic wage labor norm making the task more challenging for one better acquainted with lawn mowers than machetes. In addition to observing norms across the ethnic boundary, these experiences afforded me an opportunity to observe power relations when Matsigenka and Mestizos interact. An understanding of such power structure becomes important later for interpreting how and why culture changes as a result of inter-ethnic interaction.

To complement this hands-on experience, I employed several other methods. For instance, I developed a series of vignettes (hypothetical situations) illustrating violation of the most common Matsigenka and Mestizo norms in each interaction context. I asked adults in each community to indicate either approval or disapproval of the behavior illustrated in each vignette, and the reasons for their response. These interviews provide an individual-level accounting of the norms held by Matsigenka and Mestizo participants for each context of interaction. Relating peoples’ norm responses to their inter-ethnic life experiences allows me to address questions such as: Do people who interact most across the ethnic boundary have norms that match those of the other ethnic group? Do their norms match those of the other ethnic group in all interaction contexts, or only in contexts for which they have direct inter-ethnic interaction experience? In contexts of frequent inter-ethnic interaction, do the norms of the interaction participants tend to be those most common among Matsigenka or those most common among Mestizos (eg, are Mestizo norms displacing Matsigenka norms in contexts of inter-ethnic interaction with power differentials)? Eventually, these data will be analyzed in conjunction with data from other phases of the investigation. For instance, I conducted a series of experiments in each community in which people had to guess the most common norms in their own and the other ethnic group, for each interaction context. This allows me to explore how inter-ethnic experience affects, and is affected by, an individual’s perceptions (eg, stereotypes) of the cultural characteristics of the other ethnic group. Additionally, although fairly isolated, these communities do not exist in a vacuum. Thus, another important aspect of this project has been to investigate the actions and views of external actors, such as government, religious, healthcare, and NGO personnel who engage with this population. The final phase of the project involves development of agent-based mathematical models to represent the changing distributions of cultural norms in a population of interacting ethnic groups. These models use insights from the ethnographic and quantitative field data to refine formal hypotheses about the causal processes underlying cultural change at this and other ethnic boundaries. Thus, this project takes a multifaceted approach to understanding how Matsigenka and Mestizo culture is changing as a result of inter-ethnic interaction.

Studies of cultural change in minority populations, like the Matsigenka, are important because they help us understand how and why so many ethnic minority groups modify or lose distinctive aspects of their cultural heritage as they begin to engage more fully with the global market-oriented majority culture. Ethnic communities themselves must decide what aspects of their culture should be protected for posterity, transformed, or discarded. A better understanding of the mechanisms underlying cultural change can help them design policies and programs that are effective in implementing their decisions. In particular, the changing cultural heritage of the Matsigenka of Manu National Park is of great concern to them, as well as to other regional actors, such as park authorities and international NGOs. External attempts to prevent Matsigenka culture from changing have been a source of friction between the indigenous communities and the park for over 40 years. A more nuanced understanding of how and why culture changes at ethnic boundaries may contribute to an equitable resolution to the tension.

The early post-PhD period can be a trying life stage. Many assume that they cannot advance with their own research ideas until they obtain a tenured faculty position or pass through a postdoctoral phase working on others’ ideas. For a recently graduated primatologist with a desire to study human cultural change, finding work in academia was particularly hard. A standard NSF senior grant allowed me to create a postdoctoral position for myself, conduct 19 months of fieldwork in the Peruvian study communities (from which I have just returned) and eight additional months of analysis and model development. NSF also encourages the dissemination of results to a wide audience. For instance, after completing analysis, I will return to Peru to discuss what I’ve learned with the people of Tayakome, Boca Manu, and Atalaya, as well as to give seminars at Peruvian universities and Manu National Park headquarters. The project has taught me that obtaining research funding and chewing peccary knee ligaments require a similar virtue: persistence. To encourage other early-career anthropologists to seek NSF funding, and to show that initial rejection is often part of the process, I have posted my NSF proposals and reviews for this investigation.

John Bunce is an evolutionary anthropologist and postdoctoral researcher in the department of anthropology at UC, Davis. Past research has examined the ecology and genetics of color vision in Neotropical monkeys. He currently studies cultural change among indigenous and colonial human populations in Amazonian Peru.

For the latest columns on news from the NSF, visit AN’s Gateway to NSF column.

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One Comment

  1. Kiran Jayaram
    Posted July 26, 2014 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Bunce, your piece was entertaining and instructive. As someone considering work in that area, I look forward to talking with you in another forum. In the mean time, I compliment you on writing a post that truly can benefit new/young Ph.D. holders. To wit, including a link to your proposals truly helps contribute to a community of scholars.

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