Matters of method; Or, why method matters toward a not only colonial anthropology

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Marisol de la Cadena. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.2.002


Matters of method; Or, why method matters toward a not only colonial anthropology

Marisol DE LA CADENA, University of California–Davis

The following is a response to the comments on de la Cadena, Marisol. 2015. Earth beings: Ecologies of practice across Andean worlds. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, which was published in HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7(1): 537–565.

Once a book is published, it acquires a life of its own. When readers embrace it either with gusto or disgust, without apathy, the satisfaction is big: like mine. My goal was to provoke thought—mine had been provoked by the years spent with Mariano and Nazario; provocations can be controversial, and so is Earth beings (2015). Academic colleagues, whether I know them or not, either engage the argument or reject it, many times without engaging it from within. The engagement, of course, is not blind acceptance; it is the practice that offers creative critical comment, a demand for more rigor, complexity, and subtlety—like Catherine Allen’s (2017) and Valentina Napolitano’s (2017) comments for this symposium, and with which I will start.

Catherine Allen’s first book was published the same year I arrived in the United States as a graduate student: 1988. Back then I was critical of it. I still remember thinking “people died throughout the period of Allen’s fieldwork—how could she not have included that more prominently in her narrative?” Little did I know how much her narrative would assist my efforts to accept the Turpo’s challenge to engage with what, as I say in the book, “I did not get.” She responded to a related challenge using tools that were different and also similar to mine, with dialogic anthropology being a good example of it. My conversation with Mariano and Nazario [2]as a shared practice of thought participates in such lineage. Yet, unlike the 1980s dialogic anthropology, I do not use our conversation toward linguistic analysis, to get close to “meaning,” or to alter the politics of representation. Maybe we also do all that. But the goal of our conversation was to create a shared condition where equivocations and their control (when possible) were enacted. This allowed us an awareness—as much as possible, at least—of practices and entities as they emerged among us as more than one (because they also were with and through our mutual excess) yet less than many (because we shared them). Our conversation became the shared site where our worlds also diverged as they emerged in/with their constitutive difference. A partial connection par excellence, “our conversation” was the complex site from where I felt and thought with my friends, even when I was doing it alone. This may be “dialogic anthropology,” but also exceeds it. As Catherine Allen acknowledges, it is not the same wheel (just like “dialogic anthropology” was not the same dialogical wheel that anthropology had been before!).

The richly equivocal conversation that was our partially shared condition, offered possibilities to displace and redescribe practices, entities, and conditions that appeared different from, but still connected to, what (or who or how) had initially been to me.1 I borrow displacement and redescription as ethnographic practices from Marilyn Strathern (1992).2 Displacement results from controlling—without canceling—(the practice of) categories, concepts, or analytics that may overpower, perhaps even kidnap the situation that is up for description. Marilyn Strathern calls what results from this practice “a better description”—one that, for my purposes, also indicates the limits and therefore excesses to the displaced categories/practices that, while present yet controlled, cannot further explain away the situation in question, which remains opened to a “better description”; this can go on endlessly, without closure. As a method and an analytical site for displacement and redescription, our conversation was also the place from where to perform what I call ontological openings, the possibility to unsettle “the onto-epistemic stance that drives to ‘secure’ intelligibility between worldings,” to use Valentina Napolitano’s precise words in her comment.3

Sonqo ayllu and Pacchanta ayllu are other similar and different sources of inspiration Allen and I share. Located in the former, she challenges my rendition of ayllumanta parlaqta as “speaking from (not for) the ayllu”; she says it is insufficient. Intriguingly she writes: “Ayllumanta exceeds its possible English or Spanish translations because the materiality of the relations it references differ radically from relationality and materiality as we usually understand them” (Allen 2017: 541; her [3]emphasis). Manta, she explains, is a complex preposition with more than the meaning that I give it; it indicates an Andean kind of emergence in which detachment from an origin is impossible. The purpose of my translation was to indicate the inherent relationality between the ayllu and Mariano, and thus the impossibility of his role as a modern “representative” with the ability to detach himself from the collective. Allen’s comment does not thwart this interpretation. On the contrary, it continues the onto-epistemic opening of Mariano’s complex “political representation”—that is, Allen’s “there is more to it” beautifully resonates with “not only,” the analytics that Mariano taught me in order to constantly open up what seemed to have come to a closure. I think he would have joined Catherine Allen in her challenge to me.

Allen continues to demand more—in her words, “an ethnographic and theoretically more nuanced treatment” (2017: 541)—and she proposes that in-ayllu intrarelationality can be represented. It requires a semiotics and a practice specific to it such as the khipu, which, following Gary Urton (2003), Allen defines as “a complex communication device composed of knots and strings.” I want to open room for conversation here, and not only to acquit myself from ethnographic oversight by saying that I was specifically talking about modern forms of representation—which I was. But beyond that, and embracing refrains like Allen’s “there is more to it” and Mariano’s “not only,” I would like to briefly reflect about the potential analytical actions that “representation” may perform: an important one is severing the khipu (the representation device) from its being in-ayllu, which maybe it was (as was what I called Mariano’s archive, and as are some textiles depending, of course, on the practice that makes them and keeps them). Severing the in-ayllu khipu relation may have been a frequent practice performed in interactions between colonial functionaries and Andean khipukamayuq—these latter are individuals who may have also been intrarelated to the “device.” Considering/translating khipus as representation devices might have yielded much desirable information, for example, “records” about “ayllu,” rendering the latter through a relation between place and people. This would not be too different from representations of ayllu in modern documents, both legal and ethnographic. Avoiding the interpretation of khipu as a device to represent ayllu does not preclude its possibility as such. I do not want to cancel possibilities for alternative representational forms; however, to be cautious (also because it adds layers that enrich the analysis) I would like to suggest that khipu may have been a specific representational form, and not only.

Dwelling in equivocation—Allen’s title to her comment—is risky; it requires constant attention to its complexity. This takes me to an important point raised by Valentina Napolitano: what would an exploration of sexual difference that uses ontology as analytics look like? This is an immense question meriting a book of its own. In fact, she is right to say that women appear only peripherally in Earth beings, and sexuality simply does not appear at all. This not a neglect; instead, it’s a purposeful choice. My decision was also (but only in part) conditioned by Mariano’s agenda for the book and his personality towering everybody else’s in his family. Of course, this I could have interpreted through “patriarchy,” but I did not want to if only because I would have walked shopworn analytical paths. And then there was my close friendship with Nazario, which did not extend to Liberata, his wife, even if she was charming, strong, bright, and with tirakuna day and night. It was not easy for me to engage those relations and not just because I did not want to interfere—I [4]think to this day I was also not let into those relations. Thus, I left it there. Sexuality was also a constant event in Pacchanta—Nazario and Liberata’s kids partnered up, and they had children. Alcohol let loose sexual jokes all the time, and talk about body parts was loud among men, among women, and among men and women. I participated in the conversation, teased along with everyone else, and also avoided serious engagement—it would have been another book, or so I thought (and still think!). What would sexuality—a modern discursive field—partially connect in Pacchanta? I avoided the question with no regrets. Valentina Napolitano’s question, though, is specific to the sexuality of earth-beings. I never heard talk about it, but probably because I was not paying enough attention. Earth-beings are male and female, they have children—and they are both individuals and may emerge within each other, making them also indistinguishable individually—they are literally everywhere, below our shoes of course. Both female and male tirakuna are munayniyuq—they can destroy anything if disrespected. Sometimes the destruction is spoken about as eating—consuming someone’s body, crops, animals.4 Eating is also a word used in sexual jokes throughout the country, and in the environs of Ausangate I have heard such use of the word in Spanish. Eating, sexually speaking, may overlap with tirakuna’s consumption of bodies; in both cases, it may be a munayniyuq practice, a powerful exercise of the will, and Napolitano’s invitation to such exploration is well taken.

During a recent visit to Lima, I participated in a workshop attended by a diverse group of intellectuals. Some of them were Latin American academic colleagues working in North America and Europe, while others work in South America, and still others were “ethnic politics” activists (ethnicity is the category through which indigenous claims are routed to the state). My feeling of achievement was unprecedented when they explained that it was impossible to oppose the current destruction of tirakuna (at the hands of the mighty mining machinery amalgamated by an alliance between the Peruvian state and global corporations, currently termed extractivism) in their terms—namely, from an in-ayllu condition. And my feeling came from the realization that the book could live up to the life-purpose that Mariano and Nazario wanted it to carry and that these activists shared: their profound weariness at the impossible fact of their being accepted as who they are by the state, their acknowledgement that “the common parameters through which power can be gauged and challenged” (Hornborg 2017: 554; my emphasis) are precisely not common. Rather, they are decided by those who make them usual—or “common,” as in Alf Hornborg’s comment. Hornborg’s comment denotes annoyance at the disqualification of these (one-sided) usual terms by what he sees as the “extreme exoticism” of my rendition of runakuna-tirakuna inherent relationality. While he is willing to accept the relations (between humans and mountains, I guess) he would only [5]accept “animated mountains” (not tirakuna, although Hornborg would not care about this difference) as beliefs to which he would respectfully relate. (Hornborg’s separation between relations and tirakuna is consequential as it sways the analysis away from the relational grammar I use. I discuss this below.)

Hornborg relates to me with respect, too—but he would accept to engage in disagreement with me (like he does in his response). Instead, I suspect that he would not engage in a serious practice of disagreement with Mariano, Nazario, and the several activists that I recently met in Lima. He would very respectfully think they are wrong, and consequentially reveal the “uncommonality” of the usual terms with which power is gauged. From those terms, mountains as earth-beings are beliefs and to say otherwise is “exotic.” I agree: earth-beings and their world are indeed exotic to the world in which they are mountains; however, this “exoticism” is an intricate historical condition that is both able to impose the reality of mountains (and their world) in the world [6]of earth-beings, and unable to cancel the latter—at least so far. The historical condition that makes earth-beings exotic to Hornborg is the reason that mountains are not exotic to the Turpos or the activists who I recently met. Hornborg’s reading rejects “partial connections,” the analytics that underpin the book throughout and that I like to think is also the condition that pins my world and the Turpos’ world; both, therefore, emerge together as both similar and radically different from each other. And because the radically different cannot be, when official political negotiations are needed, they are conducted in the terms made common to both worlds via a historical imposition that Hornborg’s comment also illustrates. “Accommodations to modernity” (Hornborg 2017: 554) are not new in the Andes; in fact, such (benevolent) phrasing is historically problematic. Rather than simply “accommodating to modernity,” Mariano’s collaboration with leftist politicians in the 1960s and current indigenous participation in environmental movements were and are necessary political alliances to recover hacienda land, in the first case, and against the destruction of nature, in the second case. Yet, hacienda land and nature are not only such. As I explain in Earth beings, they occupy a complex space also occupied by runakuna and tirakuna in-ayllu: the inherent relations through which they take-place together. Hornborg asks what the political implications for anthropology would be if these in-ayllu relations were to be taken seriously. My answer: the practice of a not only colonial anthropology would be closer to possible.

I am as surprised by Hornborg’s question as he is by what he sees as my proposal to take tirakuna seriously, although his words translate my proposal inaccurately. I will extensively quote one section in his comments to explain how he makes several steps that move my analysis to the place of his criticism. At that site, he makes statements that I do not make, but that he can make because of the place where he moves my analysis. This is Hornborg:

Remarkably, however, de la Cadena asks her readers to take seriously not only the relationships that runakuna maintain with earth-beings but also the existence of those earth-beings themselves. The former [relations] is a crucial and obvious foundation for the ethnographic project since its inception, while the latter [earth-beings] has become a shibboleth for the so-called ontological turn in anthropology. If we are seriously prepared to endorse animistic mountain worship, to the point of deploring the exclusion of earth-beings from the public policy discourse that saved Ausangate from a mining project, what are the political implications for anthropology? What is the significance of animism for our endorsement of a land reform or environmental protection? (Hornborg 2017: 554; my emphasis)

And this is my comment: as I say over and over in the book (and he acknowledges, if with obvious disgust, that I do so) runakuna and tirakuna (what he calls people and mountains) are in/through their relation; I cannot separate the relations from either without undoing them. Therefore, I do not want the reader to take seriously earth-beings alone: I am asking them to think—to take seriously—a relational form from which tirakuna emerge with runakuna (not generic, or even Andean, people or mountains). “Animistic mountain worship” articulates a different form of relation: one that religion (and also modern politics) uses to connect a subject and object (in this case, people’s worship of nature) that exist independently of their connection. Modern political representation is premised on the same kind of relation: a representative stands for (represents) his or her constituency; distinct from each other, this relation connects them. Mariano’s situation was similar and it overlapped with his in-ayllu relational being as personero: as such, he was unable to detach himself from what granted him speech.5 I thank Allen for allowing me to make my initial point stronger. Perhaps it slows down Hornborg’s hasty analytical move to the form of relation that connects subjects and objects as entities (also facts, events, and so forth) that exist independently of their connection and subsist their disconnection.6

Performing what I call ontological openings requires that we slow down our analytical habits; it demands that we pause at our grammars. I am not arguing, like the comments suggest, that subject and object relations are obsolete—I am strongly arguing that in-ayllu is a different relational form. If there is any subject in my account, I would say that is the ayllu: the intrarelational condition that makes runakuna with tirakuna. Perhaps the latter (together, that is, as more than one, less than [7]many) are the complex objects of such complex subject:relations. It matters what relations we use to think other relations with—this is a refrain Donna Haraway (2016) repeats, which she learned from Marilyn Strathern. Form and content are important; they mutually correspond to the event whose expression they are. I am sorry if the grammar of those events is cumbersome to Canessa—and maybe other readers too—but I felt they were necessary.

Finally, a word about history, neoliberalism, and ontologically informed analysis. As I explained in previous work (de la Cadena 2010), I became aware of earth-beings when Nazario and I attended a demonstration to protest a prospective mining venture that threatened to destroy Ausangate. During the weeks that followed this event, I learned that what to me was a mountain was also an earth-being and that this was not a discussion about different views of the same thing—it was not a relativist situation. Ausangate was both a mountain and an earth-being; however, one of them could not be when the interlocutors were state officials. They would respect Ausangate as a cultural belief but could not accept its reality—like Hornborg in his comment. I was privy to a politics of what could be, where who decided what was could not be in question: an ontological politics at the limits of state recognition. The defense of Ausangate was a consequence of what in Latin America we call extractivism: the neoliberal opening of the region to the brutal corporate extraction of resources to satisfy the global demand of minerals, energy, and cattle feed.

Thus, I agree with Hornborg: confronting neoliberalism is important. Yet, even in its multicultural version, neoliberalism is not without colonialist and modernist aspirations for uniformity as he apparently claims. Prioritizing the former brings about the latter—it is impossible to purify neoliberalism from coloniality. Extractivism is a neoliberal practice with the economic, technological, and political capacity to—in modern colonial practice—make uniform nature out of other-than-human entities. Hornborg positions himself within that uniformity; given his comment, even if he would fight extractivism from an environmental positioning, he would be among those with the unquestionable power to decide what is. To clarify Hornborg’s misunderstanding: siding with the indigenous defense of earth-beings does not demand the suspension of disbelief; that might be equivalent to conversion. What we need to suspend is the power we grant our disbelief to define what is!

Paradoxically, Ausangate as earth-being, an ahistorical entity, became part of my analytical attention because of neoliberal extractivism, a historical practice.7 Mariano’s insistence that there was more to his story than what I could read in the documents in his archive offered the opportunity of similar paradox: historical events made with the participation of ahistorical entities. Rather than a foil (Canessa’s word) the story of Nazario using historical documents as kindling opened up possibilities beyond history. Yet, I do not reject history (like Canessa thinks); instead complex history—the possibility that it might be with the ahistorical—is one of the projects of the book. I work with a historical object—Mariano’s [8]archive—conceptualized as boundary object with the capacity to open up the historical to the ahistorical (in this specific case, in-ayllu practices).8 I am not worried, as Canessa understands, that “extending historicity to subalterns . . . may serve to include them within a coloniality of history and displace other ways of seeing the past and the present” (my emphasis). Displacement in this simple, unidirectional way—one way of “seeing the past and the present” is replaced by another one—is not an analytic form in my book.9 In fact, it is hard (to say the least) to make such a proposition using partial connections as analytics. What I propose is that both ways—modern history and ahistorical events—are complexly together, that the historical is not the only regime for “events.” Canessa’s phrasing above is itself problematic: it implies a hierarchical place from where historicity is “extended” to the so-called subalterns—as if the latter were without it, which is not what I wrote. A note specifically about subalterns: in an earlier work (de la Cadena 2000) I used Gramscian categories to conceptualize runakuna as peasants. In Earth beings, my concern is runakuna’s ahistorical eventful intrarelationality with tirakuna—it would be hard to think the latter through the category subaltern. Finally, and on a related note, although I quote Bruno Latour, I do not go “further” than him as Canessa (mis)understands. Latour includes things in history. I do not conceptualize tirakuna as things—emerging in-ayllu they are not supernatural entities, and they are not like the saints Spaniards brought with them either! Likening relations between people and saints—religious relations—to the in-ayllu relationality of tirakuna with runakuna ignores the specificity of this relation. It also translates it to “people intimately related with the animated landscape”—a different relational form. If I have dwelled on that too much already, it is because many of Hornborg’s and Canessa’s critical comments result from their rejecting—or misunderstanding—this relational form. It is true, like Canessa says, that the Andean ethnographic record is replete with references to the “animated landscape” of “ayllus.” I do not write about “animated landscapes”; that phrase transpires within the grammar of nature. Earth beings are not nature. This short sentence obliges a method that displaces that grammar (that of a subject and an object, I repeat!) without canceling it.10 Practicing such displacement, Earth beings (the book) is also about method: the grammar it uses redescribes “most ethnographic descriptions of the Andean community” (Canessa’s words) including the habit of assuming that individuals are not the ayllu—because the habit indicates that the ayllu is the sum (the added plurality) of individuals, and that practices (like those of Mariano and Nazario) are individual only. Redescribing the Andean ethnographic record through the grammar of Roy Wagner’s “fractal person” (1991), the ayllu emerges through, for [9]example, Mariano or Nazario,11 and their practices are not only theirs: they also emerge in-ayllu. This displaces the analytic habit that describes those practices as being shared/ not shared by individuals (summing up to more or less numbers of individuals involved in “traditional practices”—or those of Mariano and Nazario). And one last caveat: Earth beings does not seek to demonstrate anything. It seeks to affect our usual concepts to enable “descriptions that would be better” toward the possibility of a de-colonial anthropology.


Allen, Catherine. 1988. The hold life has: Coca and cultural identity in an Andean community. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

———. 2017. “Dwelling in equivocation.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7 (1): 537–43.

Canessa, Andrew. 2017. “Bearing witness: Testimonies, translations, and ontologies in the Andes.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7 (1): 545–51.

Corsin Jimenez, Alberto. 2015. “The capacity for redescription” in Detachment: Essays on the limits of relational thinking, edited by Matei Candea, Joanna Cook, Catherine Trundle, and Thomas Yarrow, 179–96. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

de Certeau, Michel. 1988. The writing of history. New York: Columbia University Press.

de la Cadena, Marisol. 2000. Indigenous mestizos: The politics of race and culture in Cuzco, Peru, 1919–1991 Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

———. 2010. “Indigenous cosmopolitics: Conceptual reflections beyond ‘politics.’” Cultural Anthropology 25 (2): 334–70.

———. 2015. Earth beings: Ecologies of practice across Andean worlds. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1987. A thousand plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Haraway, Donna. 2016. Staying with the trouble. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Hornborg, Alf. 2017. “Convictions, beliefs, and the suspension of disbelief: On the insidious logic of neoliberalism.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7 (1): 553–58.

Lebner, Ashley. 2016. “La redescription de la anthropologie selon Marilyn Strathern.” L’Homme 218:117–50.

Napolitano, Valentina. 2017. “Writings edges and the sex of Earth beings.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7 (1): 559–65.

Strathern, Marilyn. 1992. After nature: English kinship in the late twentieth century. Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures, 1989. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.[10]

Urton, Gary. 2003. Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary coding in the Andean knotted-string records. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Wagner, Roy. 1991. “The fractal person.” In Big men and great men: Personifications of power in Melanesia, edited by Marilyn Strathern and Maurice Godelier, 159–73. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Marisol de la Cadena
Department of Anthropology
University of California-Davis
135 Young Hall Davis, CA 95616 USA


1. Thus, perhaps different from dialogic anthropology, my relationship with the other was to affect the way I/we think.

2. See also Ashley Lebner (2016) and Alberto Corsín Jimenez (2015)

3. Andrew Canessa (2017) refers to our conversations as “interviews.” Such reading simplifies my conversations with the Turpos; it is also an analytical error, if only because interviews aim to produce “information” in a relation where a person asks and the other responds. A conversation is dialogic: utterances (of diverse sorts, including practices) are shared. This productively obfuscates the difference between originating and ending points even when the conversation is composed by questions and answers and their overlap. Also, instead of “information,” in my opinion, the usual goal of the interview, a conversation seeks to share ideas through togetherness.

4. This is a point that Allen makes and she wishes I would have developed it—there are many more things I did not develop. My intention was not to render a narrative with the pretense of being complete. That would have been impossible, as instructed by Mariano’s “not only”: this phrase is conceptually powerful as in opening up the possibility of events, things, relational forms to be more than what they already are, it potentially cancels the “order-word” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 79) that structures the desire implicit in modern knowledge to master it all.

5. Maybe using Michael de Certeau I can explain the inseparability of Mariano from in-ayllu speech (and runakuna from tirakuna) in terms that some readers will listen to with less discomfort. He explains that writing separates speech from the place of its enunciation, signifier from signified—without writing, speech remains with the place where it happens (de Certeau 1988: 216). The form of relation from which Mariano was in-ayllu personero was similar. It was also different because, grounded in-ayllu, it did not depend on the presence (or absence) of writing.

6. Canessa makes a similar hasty analytical move when, describing what he sees as the redundancy of my book, he writes: “The Andean ethnographic record is clear that many Andean people inhabit an animated landscape where the mountains and the earth are beings intimately connected to the lives of people” (2017: 547; my emphasis). He is right, that is what the Andean ethnographic record says—and I do not say it is wrong. But there is a difference that Canessa does not apprehend and that makes him think his sentence above and the sentence “runakuna are in-ayllu with tirakuna” say the same thing. The difference—which Allen notices—is one between an interrelation (between mountains and the lives of people) and ayllu as intrarelation (from where runakuna emerge with tirakuna). Consequently, Canessa misses my reading ayllu as relational form.

7. Similar events—the local defense of other-than-human entities that are also nature—continued to happen in Latin America; most of them were only locally known, others appear in websites, rarely they make it to central newspapers.

8. I wrote that my intention was to open “the historical archive to the otherwise; that is, to the ahistorical in-ayllu practices that contributed to the making of this archive” (2015: 150).

9. See above for my use of displacement as analytics toward redescription.

10. In the sense of displacement explained above; that is, not implying replacement (the sense with which Canessa uses the term.)

11. A small yet important correction: neither is “a being in-ayllu,” like Canessa paraphrases me. They are in-ayllu, one again, the relational form—the grammar—in those two phrases is different!