SUU Blog | T-Bird Nation

Research Takes Professor to Guatemala

Dean McDonald with the Maya.jpgWhen Dean James McDonald isn’t leading the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, he is working on an anthropological research program in Latin America.

Building upon 25 years of experience researching issues of rural development, inequality, and globalization in rural Mexico, McDonald recently turned his attention to the Maya Western Highlands of Guatemala. He teamed up with BYU anthropologist John Hawkins to explore the hardships the Maya, a group of indigenous peoples, face on a daily basis.

Along with colleague Walter Adams, they crafted “Crisis of Governance in Maya Guatemala: Indigenous Responses to a Failing State”, which explores conflict within and between Maya villages, insiders and outsiders, and local and federal governments.

The book focuses on two K’iche’ Maya communities in Guatemala’s western highlands and presents insights behind violence, conflict, and unpredictable insecurity across socioeconomic groups. The work identifies multiple ways in which one culture overtakes another and describes how the Maya were largely abandoned by the Guatemalan government.

When asked what the most surprising discovery was McDonald replied: “For me, it was seeing the grinding poverty and marginality of the Maya. There were striking levels of racism, and I saw how a government that abstains from interfering in economic affairs is a disadvantage to the majority.”

Maya in Guatemala.jpgThe volume they wrote emerged from a National Science Foundation funded undergraduate field school run by Hawkins in which McDonald participated as a faculty consultant and mentor starting in 2007. The volume’s groundbreaking chapters were produced by professional anthropologists and field school participants from BYU, Texas State University, University of Texas Pan American, and the University of Texas San Antonio.

As a measure of the volume’s impact, it was honored with the Knudson Latin American Prize from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication in 2014.  It is a strong demonstration that undergraduates can produce cutting-edge work that makes a contribution to our anthropological understanding of an increasingly complex world.

McDonald continues to actively work in Guatemala, and is moving into research on sustainable development with a focus on clean water and sanitation systems as a foundation to better public health.