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Book Review

 

Mendez, Jennifer Bickham. From the Revolution to the Maquiladoras: Gender, Labor, and Globalization in Nicaragua (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005). 284 pp, $22.95.
 
 

Globalization is a ubiquitous yet strangely nebulous concept. Travelers to Nicaragua can see the tangible signs of globalization as they drive from the international airport. Free Trade Zones flank the road where many women participate in the new global economy making textiles to be sold in the U.S. The goal (and challenge) of world history is to trace the interconnections that link people from diverse cultural backgrounds and regions. Fortunately, the threads that connect people are now more apparent. The economic–and to a greater degree, the cultural–interconnectedness caused by globalization is a force that structures the lives of people in subtle and direct ways. The everyday lives of people can be lost in the unfolding of outside machinations. Analyzing the effects of a concept like globalization, without also linking it to the ways ordinary people influence the system, is a challenge that has been met by Jennifer Bickham Mendez.

     The present work under review does a marvelous job of linking macro structures with micro experiences. Bickham shows how a seemingly powerless grassroots organization (The Working and Unemployed Women's Movement, "Maria Elena Cuadra," hereafter MEC) navigated through three global forces that greatly influenced Nicaragua: (1) the growth of global capitalism, and more importantly the inclusion of women as workers in the global economy; (2) the transition in Nicaragua from a revolutionary socialist regime to one predicated to neo-liberalism and the dictates of the so-called "Washington Consensus"; and (3) the growth of political organizations formed by women to protect women (p. 2). Bickham's contribution to world history is her incorporation of "global ethnography." Bickham defines this approach as a recognition "that the 'global' and 'local' are not separate realms˘nor are global conditions merely ethnographic backdrop for a local case study. Rather, globalization itself becomes an object of study; and micro-level processes are seen as expressions of the macro" (7). Local decisions, then, are seen as having some influence on larger economic and political processes.  

     From the Revolution to the Maquiladoras makes two very useful contributions which should appeal to teachers and scholars wishing to pursue more research. First, Bickham places gender at the forefront of larger economic forces; and second, the author goes to great lengths to show how local politics can shape the outside processes. Bickham's choice of case study is well timed as many students will have some tangential experiences with economic globalization (just ask students to tell you where their clothing and electronics are made). Secondary school teachers can use this book to impress upon their students not only the adverse effects of globalization but also the positive strides groups like the MEC have made to soften the blow of uneven economic development. Teachers should also stress the gendered aspect of globalization as many workers in maquiladoras are women. Scholars may view this work as an intriguing case study of New Social Movements (NSM). Anthropologist Marc Edelman identifies two important characteristics of NSMs which apply to the experiences of the MEC studied by Bickham. First, NSM profess classlessness and seek to distance themselves from party politics. This is seen in the Nicaraguan context when the MEC emerged as a result of dissatisfaction with Sandinista (and more particularly, patriarchal) policies and leadership. Second, NSMs "emerge out of a crisis of modernity" and are "engaged in 'cultural struggles' over meanings, symbols [and] collective identities" (Edelman, p. 17). The process of globalization is perhaps the most obvious manifestation of changing identities. Bickham's work, then, offers teachers and students various theoretical and analytical tools to explore similar phenomena.

     After providing the historical origins of the MEC, Bickham turns her attention to the core argument of her analysis. While many readers may question how a small group of women's rights activists in a small developing country can influence a process as large as globalization, Bickham is careful to ground her analysis in a world-historical setting by throwing into relief the linkages between macro and micro levels of analysis. Central to Bickham's "global ethnography" is the concept of transnationalism. For Bickham, transnationalism "refers to the ways in which people 'on the ground' in particular local settings react to, engage with, and even re-create and influence global processes" (p. 60). Bickham argues that the MEC is a transnational social movement that uses "global communications technologies such as the Internet to mobilize, establish, and maintain" transnational networks with other organizations with similar goals (p. 61). Among the goals the MEC sought to implement in Nicaragua was a code of ethics. The six point code was an effort to improve the working conditions for women and called for the enforcement of laws already on the books to be applied equally to the Free Trade Zones (maquila factories) (pp. 189-193).

     Bickham's work was complicated by the fact that the Free Trade Zones operate under a veil of secrecy making collecting data difficult if not impossible. To counterbalance the absence of access to the maquiladoras themselves, Bickham focused  much of her analysis on participant observation. Not only did Bickham see some of the inner workings of the MEC, she also was an active (participate) observer. This work, then, is firmly grounded in anthropological debates on the merits of outside and insider status. Unfortunately, scholars who are open to their own roles and their relationships to the people they study tend to place too great an emphasis on the scholar. That is, much of this type of scholarship is more about the anthropologist than the people being studied. In the introduction, the author is very open about her sympathies with the people she studies and laments the fact that her outsider status (despite the fact that she married a Nicaraguan) often times precludes her from being privy to the inner workings of the MEC. She did actively work for them, but her role was a limited one. The introduction provides interesting stories of how the author tried to straddle being an academic and being an activist (let us assume that the two are mutually exclusive). Bickham goes as far as showing her hand when she writes that she "gained a new appreciation for socialist ideas" (p. 24). Although the author is to be commended for her openness and dedication to the cause she studies, one has to wonder if the story then becomes more about her than the women of the MEC.

References

Marc Edelman, Peasants Against Globalization: Rural Social Movements in Costa Rica (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999).

 

 

Alberto E. Nickerson
Michigan State University

 

 
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