John Gledhill FAcSS, FBA
Research Interests 
Photograph of John Gledhill  

This page outlines research conducted while I was based at University College London as well as my later work at Manchester. For details of research since my retirement from Manchester, please see my new website.

I strongly believe that one of anthropology's great strengths is its comparative perspective and our desire to capture the continuing variability and heterogeneity in human societies. Much of my work has, therefore, tried to look at my own ethnographic material in a broader comparative perspective, and some of it seeks to compare and contrast the experiences of different regions of the world in a systematic way. This is reflected in the book on political anthropology which I published in 1994, Power and Its Disguises, a second edition of which was published, in English and Spanish, in 2000, followed by further translations into Greek and Chinese (the Greek edition has a truly wonderful cover graphic). Nevertheless, there is also much to be learned from carrying out long-term fieldwork in a particular part of the world. Since the late 1970s, I have conducted field research in the state of  Michoacán, which lies between Mexico City and Guadalajara, the main city in western Mexico. Much of my multimedia on-line teaching project, Peasant Social Worlds and their Transformations, is based on this research. In the 1990s I also developed new research with some of my graduate students on Chiapas, the southern Mexican state which borders Guatemala, and from 2001 to 2003 conducted further field research on indigenous communities in the coastal sierras of Michoacán state. My most recent fieldwork has been in Salvador, capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia, carried out in a poor urban neighborhood with a population of some 60,000 people. I have always tried to do my field research in a collaborative way, working with local people and their organizations on issues that were important to them.

My Mexican Research in the 1980s

Lázaro Cárdenas
President Lázaro Cárdenas (centre). Picture courtesy of the Cárdenas archives at the Centro de Estudios de la Revolución Mexicana "Lázaro Cárdenas", A.C., Jiquilpan de Juárez, Michoacán.

My original interest was in the impact of the massive agrarian reform undertaken by President Lázaro Cárdenas in the period between 1934 and 1940. I decided to investigate the apparently paradoxical case of the expropriation of the gigantic landed estate (hacienda) of  Guaracha, immediately adjacent to Cárdenas's own home town, Jiquilpan, near Lake Chapala. A majority of the workers on the estate had rejected Cárdenas's land reform programme, which was finally carried through largely as a "revolution from above". They sympathized instead with the supposedly "reactionary" Cristero movement, a rebellion of loyal Catholics against the revolutionary government's efforts to break the social power of the Church.

Guaracha hacienda
The Chapel and Great House of the Guaracha Hacienda

Yet in 1988, their descendents proved the staunchest of supporters of the campaign of Cárdenas's son Cuauhtémoc to capture the presidency from the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional. Putting what I observed ethnographically into historical perspective forced me to consider a variety of themes:  the nature of state power in post-revolutionary Mexico, how rule was established over often recalcitrant regional societies and what were its limits; the nature of peasant economy and its relationship to capitalism over decades of transformation; the role of migration to the United States (which began here before the Great Depression of 1929) and its impacts on local society and culture; the complex patterns of change in family structures and gender relations in relation to both economic and socio-cultural changes; the forces which mobilized peasants in collective struggles at different moments in their history, some secular and radical, others religious and apparently conservative; and the successes and failures of different models of "rural development".

preparing for lunch in the ecuaro
Preparing for lunch during a corn harvest on one of the subsistence plots known as ecuaros in the hills overlooking the Ciénega plain.

In my original study of the Ciénega de Chapala, undertaken at the start of the 1980s, the key question of the day was the impact of state intervention in the rural economy, although even in this period, it was clear that the local agricultural system was being ever more firmly integrated into a larger transnational economy dominated by the United States.

Carrying Tomato Crates
Day-labourer and foreman with tomatoes grown by private entrepreneurs on land rented from a peasant farmer, 1980s

As state support for peasant agriculture diminished as a result of structural adjustment policies during the Eighties, however, it became clear that Mexico was changing course towards the neoliberal policies which culminated in the signing of the North American Free Trade agreement and modification of the land reform laws to open the way to privatization of the land held by members of the land reform communities, the ejidos.

ejidatarios with sorghum crop, early 1980s
Ejidatarios (land reform farmers) with a sorghum crop, 1980s

My work in the 1990s focused on the impacts of the shift to neoliberalism and the social, economic and political crisis that has resulted from it.

friends in the plaza
A long-term US migrant who dropped out of higher education and a primary school teacher drink with friends in the village plaza. By the end of the 1980s, neoliberal policies had reduced the real earnings of teachers to levels that made many decide to try their luck in the United States.

I tried to compare developments in different regions of the country and to consider the wider national and international implications of these processes. I considered, for example: the continuing significance of "boss rule" in some regions of Mexico and the implications of the increasing militarisation of internal security; and the impacts of the "ejido reform" on a countryside in which farmers and fishermen are often competing for control of resources with powerful business interests investing in tourist development and other kinds of projects aimed at more affluent consumers. In much of this work I sought to analyze the changing nature of state power in Mexico from an anthropological perspective, including the reconfiguration of political elites, and the 'shadow state' which lies behind the facade of official institutions of government.

Transnationalism and Indigenous Rights

Since people born in villages in Michoacán may end up living and working in U.S. cities like Los Angeles, Chicago or Atlanta, it makes little sense to try to separate rural from urban research, or to ignore the way increasing numbers of people inhabit social spaces that are transnational.

US migrants building a house
1995. The eldest son of an ejidatario (left) is building himself a house in Mexico, although his income is almost entirely earned in California as a farm worker, hotel handyman and suburban landscape gardener. After finishing his house, he married and his wife stayed behind in the village while he went back to the USA. Over the past ten years there had, however, been an increasing tendency for entire families to migrate.

Globalization is making it increasingly difficult for anthropologists to maintain what was always a defective view of "societies" and "cultures" as bounded entities, but the issues are practical and political as well as theoretical in an era in which, for example, anti-immigrant hysteria is again a prominent phenomenon in the United States and Western Europe. My studies of rural poverty in Mexico led me to become increasingly interested in questions of urban poverty, in Mexico itself, and in the cities of the United States, questions that link political economy and studies of the social and gendered impacts of transmigration to issues of U.S. domestic politics and racism. Although globalization and the forging of "transnational communities" can foster the empowerment of relatively poor people, the social and political dimensions of the continuing growth of cross-border movements were far from uniformly positive, as I tried to show in my 1995 book Neoliberalism, Transnationalization and Rural Poverty.

Another major political issue in Mexico which reflects wider global trends and is of particular importance for anthropology is the struggle for indigenous rights and autonomy.

This was the focus of much of my later research in the 1990s, in the context of broader perspectives on the recent development of other urban and rural social movements, and the changing shape of power relations and political culture. In all these areas of research, I think that it is the job of anthropologists to explore the complexities of the issues without either ducking the contradictions revealed by a close analysis of local situations or trying to maintain an increasingly impractical as well as ethically dubious stance of total academic detachment from the needs, aspirations, and all too often sufferings, of the people we study. In my work on Chiapas, I argued against the simplified views of a complex social and historical reality which have been presented by many of those who sympathise with the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, as well as by spokesmen for a national government that finds it convenient to absolve itself from responsibility for the problems of the region and negative social effects that result from its counter-insurgency strategies. In other, more general, writings, I have also explored some of the tensions and contradictions in the politics of indigenous rights in the context of the broader social polarization and mass impoverishment provoked by contemporary processes of capitalist globalization.

Historical Anthropology

Understanding what is new and distinctive in contemporary situations, whether we are talking about the politics of identity or ethnicity, or the politics of gender, demands that we add an historical to an ethnographic perspective. I have therefore also maintained a strong interest in long-term cultural and social history, from the pre-hispanic period to the present, which is reflected in various past and recent publications. Historical research in anthropology is a powerful means of questioning taken for granted assumptions made in ethnographic studies and very frequently produces surprising results which force us to reconsider our interpretations of the present. This is evident, for example, in the failure of earlier anthropological predictions on the way "modernization" would affect indigenous culture and society. Anthropological theories based on close ethnographic observation of social dynamics can, however, also suggest new ways of understanding historical processes.

Writing histories of the West's colonized 'others' is not, of course, a politically neutral activity. The slow shift of most Latin American states towards a redefinition of the nation as a ‘pluricultural’ entity marks a watershed in the postcolonial history of the region, but it also presents new challenges to inter-disciplinary historical research. We can achieve much more than was once thought possible in understanding the active history of the colonized ‘from below’ on the basis of documentary sources, and even more is possible with an interdisciplinary approach that puts ethnography and historiography into dialogue. The same is true of the populations from Africa and other regions that have made such important contributions to societies and cultures whose dynamism arguably lies precisely in the creative 'mixing' that took place even under conditions in which elites were most preoccupied with projects to purge these manifestations of of non-European 'otherness' from their nations. Nevertheless, the contemporary ‘relevance’ of a view of Latin American history that challenges the core ideologies of modern state formation in the region also creates new dilemmas. A history of ‘Latin’ America written from the perspective of a contemporary indigenous or black activist-scholar is likely to reflect different concerns from those of a scholar resident in the United States or Europe. Contemporary debates about the implications of different approaches to a postcolonial and politically self-conscious historiography are sometimes extremely challenging, but that makes them all the more important.

Research in Mexico, 2001-2003

At the end of my period as head of department, I began a year's sabbatical leave in Mexico on 1st September 2001. I was fortunate that the Mexican National Council for Science and Technology (CONACYT) awarded me a cátedra patrimonial based at the Centro de Estudios Antropológicos of El Colegio de Michoacán, with which I had a longstanding relationship that included teaching as well as research. Additional support from the UK Economic and Social Research Council enabled me to complete a second year in Mexico following the renewal of my cátedra for the 2002–2003 academic year.

The general project on which I began work during my sabbatical attempted a broad comparative analysis of the variety of rural social movements that are now emerging in Latin America. It included study of movements that many would regard as 'reactionary' or 'right-wing' rather than 'progressive', although I would argue that this kind of distinction is often simplistic, and it embraces movements of both indigenous and non-indigenous people, within a continuing context of neoliberal capitalist globalization that was beginning to face stronger political challenges in Latin America.

This broad project drew on the work of many other scholars in addition to my own field research, and I published a number of comparative papers (in English and Spanish) that embody the results of these reflections. But during my period in Mexico I also carried out new fieldwork, complemented by extensive historical archival research, in the previously little-known and marginalized indigenous communities of the coastal sierras of Michoacán and their non-indigenous neighbors. Among the first indigenous groups to be colonized after Cortés and his followers conquered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and began to move towards the Pacific in search of gold, the indigenous peoples of what was called the province of Motines adopted the Náhuatl language and survived a century of devastating exploitation to rebuild an elaborate postcolonial culture that equipped them to defend the resources of their communal territories until the present day. My fieldwork focused principally on the community of Ostula, which is the religious centre for the whole region. The reconstruction of their history and recording of their traditions was important for the people themselves as they confronted the new challenges presented by the forces of globalization and participated in the contemporary movement for indigenous rights and autonomy under difficult economic circumstances. Although the case is of great comparative academic and policy interest, this research was first and foremost for the communities themselves, and the documentary, audiovisual and ethnographic material collected was archived within the community for the use of present and future generations. The Ostula: Culture and Defiance website contains some of this material (click here to visit this site, opens in a new window). The academic results are reported in a monograph that I wrote in Spanish, which was published by El Colegio de Michoacán.

The pictures below were taken when I visited Ostula to give copies of the book and its accompanying DVD to members of the community.

Picture of book presentation Ostula

Picture of book presentation Ostula 02

Sadly, in the years since 2003, when I completed my original field research, Ostula's longstanding determination to defend its ancestral territory and autonomous control of local resources made the community the target of an increasingly savage paramilitary violence that led to the deaths of many community leaders and new internal divisions, which are described, along with the continuity of Ostulan "resistance", in my later publications on this region.

Multidisciplinary Research on Brazil and Mexico

Autumn 2008 saw the completion of a  multidisciplinary AHRC-funded research project that I directed with my colleague Dr Patience Schell under the auspices of CLACS, which brought together a group of anthropologists, sociologists and historians from universities in Brazil, Mexico, the UK and the USA, Rethinking Histories of Resistance in Brazil and Mexico. This project reflected my own growing interest in Brazil, where I began to do field research in a low-income neighborhood of Salvador, Bahia, in 2006, in collaboration with colleagues from the Federal University of Bahia. The AHRC project led to the publication of the edited book New Perspectives on Resistance in Brazil and Mexico, by Duke University Press in 2012, and I also published some articles and book chapters in English, Spanish and Portuguese on the research in urban Salvador, some co-authored with the Brazilian sociologist Maria Gabriela Hita, who was a CAPES-funded visiting researcher at Manchester in 2008-9 and 2013-14.

New Research

I was awarded a three year Major Research Fellowship by the Leverhulme Trust in 2010 to carry out research on the securitization of social issues in Brazil and Mexico. Entitled "Security for all in the Age of Securitization?" my research looked at issues such as the policing of low income neighborhoods in Brazilian cities and how issues of security are seen by residents in such neighborhoods and amongst members of other social classes in the city; how securitization affects migrants crossing Mexico's southern border with Guatemala and northern border with the United States; the social and political consequences of the counter-insurgency operations conducted against supporters of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas and the continuing legacies of the Mexican state's earlier "dirty war" in Guerrero; and the more recent history of Ostula, which anticipated the Purhépecha community of Cherán, its close ally, in using its communal police as an armed self-defence force and paid a heavy price of loss of life after the military disarmed it. This work forms the basis for my monograph The New War on the Poor: The Production of Insecurity in Latin America, published by Zed Books in 2015.