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Reinventing Practice in a Disenchanted World

Reinventing Practice in a Disenchanted World
Bourdieu and Urban Poverty in Oaxaca, Mexico

A unique intergenerational ethnography about Oaxaca that uses Pierre Bourdieu's practice-theoretical approach.

January 2010
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195 pages | 6 x 9 | 12 b&w photos |

Colonia Hermosa, now considered a suburb of Oaxaca, began as a squatter settlement in the 1950s. The original residents came in search of transformation from migrants to urban citizens, struggling from rural poverty for the chance to be part of the global economy in Oaxaca.

Cheleen Ann-Catherine Mahar charts the lives of a group of residents in Colonia Hermosa over a period of thirty years, as Mexico became more closely tied into the structures of global capital, and the residents of Colonia Hermosa struggled to survive. Residents shape their discussions within a larger narrative, and their talk is the language of the heroic individual, so necessary to the ideology and the functioning of capital. However, this logic only tenuously connects to the actual material circumstances of their lives.

Mahar applies the theories of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to her data from Mexico in order to examine the class trajectories of migrant families over more than three decades. Through this investigation, Mahar adds an important intergenerational study to the existing body of literature on Oaxaca, particularly concerning the factors that have reshaped the lives of urban working poor families and have created a working-class fraction of globalized citizenship.

  • To the Reader
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Colonia Life in Oaxaca
  • Chapter Two: Creating the Object of Study
  • Chapter Three: Consuelo's Story
  • Chapter Four: Place and Identity
  • Chapter Five: Work, Money, and Dreams: Transforming Capital
  • Chapter Six: Social Capital as a Strategic Choice
  • Chapter Seven: The Disenchanted World and the Question of Success
  • Chapter Summaries and Discussion Questions for Teachers and Students
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Cheleen Ann-Catherine Mahar is Professor of Social Anthropology and Chair of International Studies at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon.


As a young woman in graduate school, I went with other anthropologists to work with the urban poor in Oaxaca, Mexico. Since then, over a period of thirty years, a group of Mexican women, as well as a number of their daughters and sons, have confided stories about their lives to me. These stories tell of the struggles they overcame to create homes in a squatter settlement on an urban hillside, on land they did not own. Here they raised their families, found work, and created a future for themselves. Between 1968 and 1974, I worked with another anthropologist in Colonia Hermosa. Later, from 1996 to 2000, I returned again to visit and to exchange news and stories.

These accounts were private, yet the inhabitants of Colonia Hermosa have allowed me to share them more widely in order to explicate the broader story of Mexico and globalization. The people I spoke to, and who became friends, felt their experiences might be helpful to others following a similar path. In general, these were rural people coming to the city for the first time, and they believed their own journeys might serve as useful sources of information for others. The relationships I developed in this community were based on trust: trust that I would not misrepresent their stories, and trust that I would not use their names. I have taken pains in transcribing their words, as the process of writing clearly changes the experience of the actual interview. I have tried to set each individual in context, and to draw a vivid picture both of the circumstances of each interview session and of each person's broader life history.

Subjectivity is essential to the story social science tells, but like its counterpart, objectivity, it is rarely enough. Our job in anthropology and sociology is not only to record and witness the lives of others, but also to learn how to listen at a deeper level and, through listening, discern the social logic of the domination and symbolic violence that are common in the global community. The personal accounts presented in this book are, on one hand, personal and subjective, but on the other, reflective of larger societal structures. In Colonia Hermosa, families and individuals are framed by personal dispositions and familial logic, but also by a larger social logic of late and developing capitalism. My hope is that readers will find that this book helps unlock both the logic of the self and, in part, the logic of the global system. The theoretical armature of the analysis is taken from the work of Pierre Bourdieu and offers a very specific interpretation of the daily life of the urban poor within the context of a developing economy in Mexico.

I also hope that students will find this book of value as an introduction to ethnography. It should be of use to those who are interested in the lives of the urban poor, and who want to approach the task of ethnographic fieldwork. Just as I undertook this study as a graduate student first entering the field, it is my hope that the text that follows will be helpful in guiding other ethnographers through their first forays into practical anthropology.