Green, Linda ‘Fear As A Way Of Life: Mayan Widows In Rural Guatemala’ 2012-12-12 8-49-50

Columbia University Press, 1999

This is an anthropology of structural violence. As Linda Green explains in her introduction, it began as a conventional study of rural communities in Guatemala. But along she realized that to understand the ways, choices and lives of the widows she had to face the constant presence of violence – psychological and physical, in their communities. Linda Green has produced a book that is perhaps one of the clearest examinations of structural violence – social, economic and political arrangements, that disadvantage some while enriching others.

The study does not shy away from seeing the structures of power and coercion that define the daily lives of the widows in the western highlands of Guatemala. She identifies and reveals the social and political arrangements that perpetuate gender inequalities, ethnic discrimination and class privileges. It is a classic micro-foundational examination of how social arrangements create poverty and regulate injustice regulated. It challenges us to see the poverty of the widows not only as an economic issue – the widows have tremendous insight into the conditions and realities of the markets and how best to navigate it, but also as question of human justice.

Once again, this is a crucial missing link in today’s institutional discussions about ‘poverty alleviation’ and ‘development’. Considered as economic questions, they rarely if ever, look at poverty, de-development and social marginalization as questions of human injustice and intentional social and political arrangement. The normative language of development assumes a ‘backwardness’ of the very people it hopes to ‘elevate’ towards an individualistic, capitalist model of society. However, development models avoids highlighting the reasons for why people are poor, or ‘under developed’ in the first place.

This takes me back to the wonderful question that Mathew Nelson asks in his work In The Shadow of Shari’ah: Islam, Islamic Law & Democracy In Pakistan – why do people do what they do? This very poignant question when asked about the lives of Pakistan’s poorest communities, can begin to unravel the reasons behind the choices people make, the limits imposed on them, the options denied them.

To understand the choices made by people and the limits to their freedoms imposed by society allows us to understand the problems of our society, and highlight a new language of justice that has to underpin any work towards economic and social development. Seeing economic deprivation, and social marginalization as issues of justice is the essential starting point for making arguments for accountability and responsibility. If a child in Pakistan dies of malnutrition, the only way to hold someone accountable for this crime, is to see the social, economic and political arrangements that deprived the child of a right to food and life, and to hold someone accountable for this crime. I will write more about these issues as I explore them through the lives of those dealing with these injustices.

A bottom-up critical analysis is largely missing from how we look at poverty and deprivation, and how we understand our society. The problems of social marginalization and economic deprivation appear overwhelming and insoluble. It is too easy to simply throw up our hands in surrender. But this sense of being overwhelmed may also come from not knowing how to go about examining and exploring it. Linda Green’s work (along with others whose books I will highlight in the coming weeks) gives us a way to begin. The problems are not insurmountable, the economic conditions not permanent, and the social squalor and deprivations not complex. We have to begin by seeing them in their complete social, economic and political reality.

And perhaps more importantly for the work that I am doing in Pakistan, such micro-foundational analysis is crucial for seeing the fundamental injustices that remain unaddressed and unacknowledged. Listening to the stories of the lives of those who lost loved ones in the garment factory fire in Baldia Town, Karachi on September 11, 2012, I hear the many difficult, desperate and crippling decisions people make when faced with the constraints placed in front of them. Their words show the social and economic arrangements that are the real cause of injustice, and social violence. That is, millions are left hopeless and tenuously hanging on to a modicum of decency and humanity because as a society we either assumed it as their lot, reneged on our role in the arrangement, or convinced ourselves that there cannot be another way.

We need to challenge what is really a failure of the imagination, and show how human decisions and choices manufacture and sustain inequality, discrimination, repression and impoverishment. Linda Green’s work in the western highlands of Guatemala offers an important example of the approach needed.