Activist Research v. Cultural Critique: Indigenous Land Rights and the Contradictions of Politically Engaged Anthropology



With indigenous and Afro-Latin land rights in Central America as ethnographic context, this article makes the case for politically engaged anthropology. The argument builds from a juxtaposition between “cultural critique” and “activist research” distinguished mainly on methodological grounds. Activist scholars establish an alignment with an organized group of people in struggle and accompany them on the contradictory and partly compromised path toward their political goals. This yields research outcomes that are both troubled and deeply enriched by direct engagement with the complexities of political contention. A case in the Inter-American Human Rights Court, where an indigenous community called Awas Tingni forced the Nicaraguan government to recognize the community's ancestral lands, illustrates the promise of activist research, in spite of the inevitable contradictions that present themselves even when the struggle is ostensibly successful.