Methodological Individualism and the Menchú Debate

Recently, I re-engaged with a fascinating volume, The Rigoberta Menchú Controversy, edited by Arturo Arias. I was struck by the ease with which the Menchú controversy fits into the larger debates of ethnicity and identity construction, and how researchers employ different methodological constructs to explore identity.

The Arias volume is a compilation of previously published and newly comissioned essays that tackle the many dimensions of the firestorm that swelled following the publication of Richard Stoll’s Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans. Stoll explored and strongly challenged the veracity of Menchú’s claims in her pathbreaking memoir, I, Rigoberta Menchú, for which Menchú was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Many of the factual claims made by Menchú are strongly contradicted by Stoll, which he uses as a platform to undermine all of Menchú’s story and her work as Guatemala’s premier human rights advocate. However, Menchú and her supporters claims that her story is an act of testimonio, which is a means by which traditionally weak, in this case indigenous, populations can reclaim a position in the historical narratives. It is an attempt to construct their own identity and history, where traditionally the dominant narrative has been that of political elites (Beverley 2001:221). It differs from the stricter, more realist versions of history and ascribes collective experiences, or those experiences by others, to a single person as a means of personalizing a story (Pratt 2001:42-3). It is an effort to build an indigenous narrative into the larger historical context, to represent traditionally forgotten or downplayed voices.

As Udehn (2002) convincingly argues, methodological individualism is more a collection of approaches and assumptions about epistemology, ontology, and methodology than a consistent, unified school of thought. The common feature of any individualist approach is the assumption that individuals matter, which may remind us of the institutions that matter in historical institutionalism or the states that still matter. Udehn distinguishes between strong and weak methodological individualism, and even further disaggregates these into five distinct versions – the social contract, general equilibrium theory, social individualism, institutional individualism, and structural individualism. The first three are considered strong methodological individualism, treating individuals as independent of institutions and, if constrained, only by social and cultural ties.  The fourth and fifth allow that social institutions and structures exist a priori, and therefore exogenous, to individuals.

If we approach ethnicity from either of the first two variants, what Udehn terms natural individualism, we have to treat culture and ethnicity as purely instrumental phenomena.  These perspectives regard the individual as asocial, interacting nakedly in the brutal world or via a market. Culture and ethnicity become very problematic in this perspective not because they become instrumental, but because it is rather questionable how culture could even arise as an instrument. For example, a natural individualist might allege that Menchú’s ethnicity means nothing to her except as she can fashion and use it in the world to her advantage. While this is a reasonable proposition, it becomes problematic because her identity must mean something to someone in order for her to use it instrumentally. If everyone exists in the Hobbesian state of nature, and culture or ethnicity mean nothing to anyone, then how culture becomes useful in any form is a rather tricky proposition.

The third strong variant – social individualism – is quite interesting and perhaps useful as distinctive lens to ethnicity. The Austrian school that developed this variant of methodological individualism distinguished it from previous iterations by emphasizing the role of society and culture in the lives of individuals. However, this is not to say that culture, or ethnicity, exist independent of individuals, or a priori. What social individualism does is make society and culture epiphenomenal (p. 487). This subjectivist infusion into the ontological origins of society moves one closer toward the possible utility of ethnicity in an instrumentalist paradigm, because this approach acknowledges that individuals attach meaning to social ties and culture. This gets us closer to understanding how an individual and their ethnicity could be examined instrumentally. However, there still remains the problem of aggregation: How do multiple individuals attach meaning to an ethnicity? Further, how do these individuals attach the same or related meanings to ethnicity, which would allow for the instrumentalist use of ethnicity of a political entrepreneur like Menchú?

Clearly, there is a problem in development of meaning attached to ethnicity. Is it purely endogenous or exogenous to individuals, and how do individuals develop different meanings for the same ethnicity yet still perceive a multiply understood identity as distinct? For, in order for one individual to treat ethnicity as instrumental, at least one other individual must perceive it differently. Otherwise the ethnicity would have no instrumental value.

Moving from strong to weak varieties of methodological individualism may prove much more useful. Both institutional (Popper) and structural (Coleman) individualist approaches are distinct from weak versions in that they consider institutions and structures as potentially exogenous to individuals. That is to say that institutions and structures can exist a priori to individuals (though they need not necessarily). At an intuitive level this makes sense. Consider language as an institution, for example. If one adhered to strict interpretations of natural individualism, language could not exist a priori to individuals, which is clearly untrue. Language does not make individuals but it exists, in many forms and is common to virtually all individuals, prior to the birth of new individuals. Of course, individuals did have to create language, but once created language develops an ability to survive independent of any one individual.

Ethnicity is much the same way as an institution. Although the interaction of individuals created and assigned first meaning to an ethnic identity, the ethnicity itself can persist as a meaningful common bond among individuals, and between groups of individuals. Individuals are born into ethnicities that exist prior to their participation in them. This is not to say, however, that individuals cannot alter, obliterate, or assign new meanings to the ethnicity.

From this perspective, the Popperian school has a lot to contribute to the Menchú controversy. Institutional individualism acknowledges that ethnicities are created by someone, though their persistence is not necessarily dependent on those progenitors. Menchú entered into a set of social institutions that ascribed her membership into an indigenous Guatemalan identity. Although this identity held specific meanings for its members, Menchú was able to expand that set of meanings and establish herself as a defender of human rights in the international arena. There is a balance between the preexisting institutions of ethnicity, human rights defense, and the international community, as well as the role of agency. The latter is especially important, as there is nothing about the person of Rigoberta Menchú that is inevitable. The institutions needed to exist in order to be exploited in any way, however Menchú demonstrated that institutions are fungible and manipulable by well-positioned individuals.

Though an explanation that originates somewhere between the institutional and structural individualist approaches seems best equipped to explain the Menchú controversy, her critics attempt to pigeonhole her into a social or natural individualist box (Rohter 1998; Martí 1999; Stoll 1999). This attempt to reduce Menchú’s culture and ethnicity to a tool without any meaning independent of Menchú herself, puts the burden of the falsified testimonio squarely on Menchú. She alone is responsible for constructing an ethnic identity and using it to her own ends against her readership. The trouble with this instrumental reduction of Menchú is that it implies standards to which she should be held. Although never explicitly stated, these standards are clearly those of another culture, namely that of her critics in the U.S. academy. I do not think that it is too bold to ask why it is appropriate to evaporate another individual’s culture and then to scrutinize them under the glare of another.

And while Menchú’s critics use a strong methodological individualism, many of her supporters in the U.S. academy move outside of methodological individualism altogether, and embrace a faintly primordial portrait of Menchú and the struggle of her people (Aceituno 1999; Aznárez 1999; Liano 1999; Smith 1999; Pratt 2001). The rush to a multiculturalist defense of why Menchú falsified parts of, or otherwise creatively constructed, her testimonio reveals an interesting schism in the relationships of many academics to the indigenous experience. On one (the agential) hand, this group advocates for special rights for indigenous peoples and for their right of self-determination, that is to say in favor of the unfettered agency to construct their own lives. Yet, on the other primordial hand, these same advocates argue that Menchú should not be held to account for her actions – that she was only an indigenous Guatemalan following her customs. It seems that many advocates fail to see the paradox they have developed in creating an identity for Menchú that consists of unchangeable, deterministic ethnicity and full, rational agency. I doubt that many of these advocates are generally primordialists, yet they seem to allow ethnicity to trump agency as their final defense.

Perhaps my analysis has actually set up several straw men. The reality is that sometimes agency wins and sometimes ethnicity or culture does. Rigoberta Menchú was able to navigate as a political entrepreneur not through the sheer force of her will, but because her agency was well positioned among structures and institutions that allowed her to more maximally exploit her position than other individuals were able to exploit theirs. However, just as Menchú’s agency did not determine her trajectory exclusively, nor did structures nor institutions (nor ethnicity) predetermine her preeminence as a symbol of human rights defense.

In the final analysis, it really depends on which type of methodological individualism is in question as to how ethnicity is understood, both ontologically and epistemologically. However, methodological individualism does generally make much easier certain propositions about ethnicity by emphasizing the role of agency, which heavily primordialist approaches deny or severely downplay. It is very interesting to note, however, that methodological individualism does confine understandings of ethnicity to the constructivist-instrumentalist range of the spectrum, leaving primordialism entirely out of the picture.  In the case of the Menchú controversy, this has proven particularly interesting because many of Menchú’s supporters have adopted what appear to be primordial defenses of her autobiography.

The Menchú controversy provides an opportunity to explore ethnicity at the subjectivist level, via social individualism, which is where Udehn places approaches such as ethnomethodology and phenomenology. These approaches go beyond the ever-downward spiral of Geertz’s thick description and urge the researcher to go into the everyday life of the subjects to determine what structures the social phenomena – power, conflict, identity, and so on – in their world rather than using the standard sociological approach of researcher-imposed order. The ethnomethodological researcher goes into an ultra-thick description of how individuals order their own lives in practical, everyday ways. Pioneered by sociologists such as Garfinkel (1967), ethnomethodology sets forth a research agenda researchers to suspend their preconceptions of social order so that they can more clearly understand the social order specific to subjects’ lives.

In this microfoundationalist approach, researchers can explore the agent and agent-specific structures that matter specific to their lives. Rather than holding Menchú’s testimonio up to the standards of the U.S. academy, we can measure and assess it on the terms relevant to Menchú.  It is misleading, in fact, to call this approach subjectivist because there are indeed standards in place: indigenous Guatemalan culture and the agenda of a human rights defender. Stoll misses the point entirely when he pokes holes in Menchú’s story, charging that she cannot represent “all poor Guatemalans.” Indeed, testimonio as a form of story telling does represent far more people than the subject herself (Pratt 2001). It is Stoll’s distinct failure to understand this central point that suggests that his study would have been far richer had he investigated the gaps between the facts and the narrative in the context of the testimonio. Such an ethnomethodological approach would have illuminated the cultural gaps between the researcher, the subject, and the wider audience, without sacrificing Stoll’s vigorous fact checking. Furthermore, this approach would also have made far more credible Stoll’s claims that he was not attempting to skewer Menchú with the truth.

Menchú’s supporters would have benefited from an ethnomethodological approach, which would go a long way toward squaring their conflicting primordial and instrumental views of Menchú. An ethnomethodological proponent of Menchú could argue that the specific ways in which power, ethnicity, and conflict interplay in Guatemalan indigenous life, specifically in the lives of those active in the human rights struggle, shape her various uses of ethnic identity and testimonio. In this way, the social and cultural bonds between individuals matter, but one does not need to go to primordial lengths to justify culture or identity.

In the end, it appears as though methodological individualist approaches can go a long way toward understanding ethnicity in the Menchú affair, however the particular variant of methodological individualism utilized is quite important. Some scholars, such as Stoll, Martí, and Rohter, attempt to impose strongly individualist analyses onto Menchú. These attempts fall flat as overly instrumental, and justly open the authors up to criticism. However, in defending Menchú, many scholars have set up a primordial (and structural) defense, which is inconsistent with the agency that they otherwise ascribe to indigenous struggles for human rights. I believe that the ethnomethodological approach, which lies at the cusp between strong and weak variants of methodological individualism, offers the best way out of the instrumental-primordial impasse that the two sides have staked out, allowing for agency as well as agent and culture-specific understandings of structure and institutions.


  • Aceituno, Luis. 2001 (1999). “Arturo Taracena Breaks His Silence.” In A. Arias (ed.). The Rigoberta Menchú Controversy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 82-94.
  • Arias, Arturo (ed.). 2001. The Rigoberta Menchú Controversy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Aznárez, Juan Jesus. 2001 (1999). “Rigoberta Menchú: Those Who Attack Me Humiliate the Victims.” In A. Arias (ed.). The Rigoberta Menchú Controversy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 109-118.
  • Garfinkel, Harold. 1967. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.
  • Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.
  • Liano, Dante. 2001 (1999). “The Anthropologist with the Old Hat.” In A. Arias (ed.). The Rigoberta Menchú Controversy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 121-125.
  • Martí, Octavio. 2001 (1999). “The Pitiful Lies of Rigoberta Menchú.” In A. Arias (ed.). The Rigoberta Menchú Controversy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 78-81.
  • Pratt, Mary Louise. 2001. “I, Rigoberta Menchú and the ‘Culture Wars.'” In A. Arias (ed.). The Rigoberta Menchú Controversy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 29-57.
  • Rohter, Larry. 2001 (1998). “Tarnished Laureate.” In A. Arias (ed.). The Rigoberta Menchú Controversy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 58-65.
  • Smith, Carol. 2001 (1999). “Why Write an Exposé of Rigoberta Menchú?” In A. Arias (ed.). The Rigoberta Menchú Controversy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 141-155.
  • Stoll, David. 1999. Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of all Poor Guatemalans. Boulder: Westview Press.
  • Udehn, Lars. 2002. “The Changing Face of Methodological Individualism.” American Journal of Sociology 83(6), 1420-1443.

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