The Burden and Lightness of Authenticity

  • Michelle Bigenho


When I began my fieldwork in 1993, I remember a brief conversation with a woman in a remote community of Toropalca. As I explained to her that I wanted to study the music of the area she quickly responded, “Oh, you want to study folklore and culture. But there is no culture here. If you really want to study culture you should go to Northern Potosi.” I was intrigued by this statement, which summarily negated the existence of culture in Toropalca and referred me to the place in Bolivia where many anthropologists have had a “field day.” The anthropologist, Olivia Harris, whose work has focused precisely on Northern Potosi, was advised by her British colleagues not to do any of her research in the highland Andes—an area believed to be too subject to external forces for a “distinctive” anthropological study (2000: 1). In his study of Peruvian peasant patrols in northern Peru, anthropologist Orin Starn was similarly advised by a Peruvian to shift his study to Cuzco, Machu Picchu, or Lake Titicaca, where peasants “had culture” (1999: 24). The assumed “purity” of the anthropologist’s fieldsite has certainly been buttressed from within the discipline. The discipline’s hang-ups over cultural purity, even as these hang-ups have generally moved to anthropological history, still remain present in the places where anthropologists have worked. The comments I heard reflected the degree to which people of the Andean region have incorporated the assumption that anthropologists arrive to study the visibly exotic, a description that did not match the visible presentation of most Toropalqueños.


Music Performance Protestant Church Lyrical Content Song Lyric Ritual Context 
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  1. 1.
    For a discussion of the way indigenous Otavleños in Ecuador maintain their social ties in spite of the migration involved in their transnational textile trade, see Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld’s The Native Leisure Class (1999).Google Scholar

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© Michelle Bigenho 2002

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  • Michelle Bigenho

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