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Technologies of commensuration in Guatemala

Early in The Chicken and the Quetzal, Paul Kockelman presents the reader with a rather delicious ethnographic vignette: his account of an ecotourist experience that didn’t quite go to plan. Primed to expect ‘a natural and cultural immersion with the Q’eqchi’ people’ (2016:27) in a beautiful cloud forest that’s home to the colourful, endangered quetzal, the small group of (Western) tourists that he accompanied seemed only to encounter problems and disappointments. A difficult mud-soaked journey, absent guides, uncomfortable accommodation, tasteless coffee, overpriced tourist tat, a missed hike through the cloud forest, and lots of chickens—but not a quetzal in sight. ‘Notwithstanding the NGO’s efforts,’ writes Kockelman, ‘the tourists felt cheated, the villagers felt surveilled, the cloud forest receded, and the number of quetzals dwindled. Only the anthropologist walked off with a surplus (of materials)’ (2016:40).

There is a lot to like about Kockelman’s monograph—not least the lively ethnographic accounts that pepper its pages and bring his often dense analytical discussions to life. At base, the book is an exploration of an ecotourism scheme and its effects in the Q’eqchi’ village of Chicacnab in post-civil-war Guatemala. Initially established in 1990 by German ecologists seeking to protect bird species in a rapidly vanishing cloud forest, the organization at the centre of all this—Proyecto Eco-Quetzal (PEQ)—grew and diversified, becoming involved in everything from sustainable development and conflict resolution to the promotion of healthcare and literacy. PEQ’s aim, at the outset, was to protect key species like the quetzal and its cloud forest habitat (and thus ‘global biodiversity’) by incentivizing local communities to give up slash-and-burn agriculture in favour of more environmentally friendly alternatives such as saleable craft production, small plantation programmes, and ecotourism—couched as an economic incentive for locals to conserve the cloud forest. In practice, however, things turned out to be more complicated than this self-consciously ‘simple’ intervention implied (2016:22).

At first glance, The Chicken and the Quetzal thus appears to cover familiar anthropological ground. Like international development, conservation has long been the object of critical anthropological scrutiny. Various scholars have expounded on how global conservation discourses and practices can often reproduce, foment and generate local inequalities and injustices on the ground (e.g. Anderson and Berglund 2003; Dove, Sajise and Doolittle 2011; Escobar 1998; Fairhead, Leach and Scoones 2012), while others have examined the often messy interactions of multiple agents in specific conservation contexts across the world (e.g. Hathaway 2013; Jalais 2010; Lowe 2006; West 2006). And in some ways, Kockelman’s book contributes to both these fields: steeped in long-term fieldwork among Q’eqchi’ speakers in the Guatemalan highlands, it brings ethnographic and temporal depth to an analysis of what it progressively reveals to be an encounter between often incommensurate values and ontologies.

But The Chicken and the Quetzal is also a distinctive beast unto itself: an energetic, original display of intellectual dexterity (occasionally verging on opacity) that pushes anthropological description and analysis onto new and different planes. What Kockelman draws attention to is not just standard anthropological fare—structural inequalities, political dynamics, conservation discourses, new environmental imaginaries, and so on—but the very ‘conditions of possibility’ (2016:133) that enable such phenomena to exist, emerge, and be evaluated. His focus is thus less on the ecotourism scheme itself than on the values, practices, mechanisms, and forms of measurement and assessment that made it tick (however imperfectly): on, for example, the means by which ecotourists were ‘primed’ to visit Chicacnab, rendered as a ‘typical Q’eqchi’’ village (e.g. through specific phrases in colourful information binders); on the methods used to ‘capacitate’, standardize, but also differentiate, villagers as hosts and guides (e.g. training workshops, detailed guidelines for tourist accommodation); and on the measures through which these villagers’ efforts and the NGO’s own effectiveness were assessed (e.g. through biomonitoring surveys, tourists’ feedback). By thinking through all these, Kockelman produces a more general framework for theorizing how values are generated, transformed, made portable, and put to work in diverse contexts.

The core question that runs through The Chicken and the Quetzal is that of how seemingly disparate entities and values can be rendered either equivalent or commensurate. For Kockelman, these processes are not simply offshoots of, say, power relations, shifting relations, emerging moral horizons, or any of the other things that tend to grab anthropologists’ attention. Rather, his book reveals the importance of attending to the mechanisms, categories, and evaluative practices that make up such processes—so often elided in anthropological writing—and to treat these as ethnographic phenomena inherently worth scrutinizing. This interest in making visible such mechanisms, categories, and practices is what grounds the chapters that follow.


Like PEQ’s conservation strategy, Chapter 1 begins on a deceptively simple note with a description of the NGO’s own ontology and the categories and values through which it operated. It identifies an important tension that underlay the ecotourism scheme from its inception: the NGO’s assumption (which anthropologists of conservation will find painfully familiar) that Mayan villagers were fuelled by instrumental values (economic advancement, cash, etc.) while ecotourists and funding organizations were fuelled by ethical values, notably a desire to save biodiversity. The challenge for PEQ was how to make these different values and evaluative standards, as well as the ‘disparate ontological domains’ (2016:16) that they embodied, commensurate—how, for example, to facilitate interactions between ‘instrumentally rational villagers’ who wanted money and ‘existentially motivated tourists’ (2016:47) who wanted to see the endangered quetzal and authentic Q’eqchi’ life, all while saving biodiversity.

As the anecdote above suggests, one way PEQ managed this was by priming ecotourists and capacitating Chicacnab’s inhabitants to interact under a semiotic regime in (what they hoped would be) standardized and globally recognizable ways. But as the book reveals, this wasn’t so straightforward. The modes of commensuration bundled into the ecotourism scheme were, of course, being ported into a distinct ontology, with its own values, evaluative frameworks, and modes of personhood. We get a partial glimpse of this ontology in Chapters 2 and 3, which expound on two key domains in indigenous Q’eqchi’ life: ‘the modes of significance that organize how and why the Q’eqchi’ care for chickens’ (2016:50); and the forms, values, and modes of what could be broadly glossed as a key organizing value of Q’eqchi’ life, ‘replacement’ (eeqaj). The first revolves around women, the second around men; together, these chapters constitute a sustained exposition of the multiple figurations, measurements, gradients, and evaluations of value in Q’ecqchi’ life.

To take one of many examples: labour pooling between adult men historically formed a key framework of village relations and exchange. This could occur on multiple scales, ranging from agricultural work groups who would work each member’s piece of land over successive days, to village-wide community service, entailing anything from fixing and cleaning a path to helping a family rebuild their house following a mudslide. This system was built around the immediacy (or immediate acknowledgement) of reciprocation, as well as the necessity of immediate replacement should an individual be unable to meet his obligations. For most anthropologists, a description of this ideal model—as context, perhaps, to a series of social or political encounters—would probably suffice. But Kockelman takes things a step further by asking: what criteria were required for replacement to occur, and how were individuals’ suitability as replacements actually gauged?

This, then, is a shift in analytical register: from categories and conventions to scales and practices of differentiation, measurement, grading, and assessment. In theory, everyone agreed that a man could send an older son—from about fifteen years old—to work in his stead, as boys of this age were thought to be strong and skilful enough to ‘endure’ the labour. In practice, however, a fifteen year-old was often seen as an inadequate replacement, perhaps because he wasn’t strong, hardworking, or skilled enough, or perhaps because of his unfamiliarity with the nature of the work (2016:106). Women, meanwhile, were allowed to replace only their husbands—but in limited situations. While labour pools were off-limits (because women were roundly viewed as not as strong as men), women could replace their husbands in either his solitary domestic tasks (weeding, chopping firewood, harvesting corn) or, increasingly, in guiding ecotourists (2016:107).

What thus mattered here were not age, gender, or other essential characteristics (although those too were important), but the qualities (e.g. strength)—and quantities of those qualities (e.g. enough strength to carry X)—that each party was adjudged to have. Here, equivalence—and thus the capacity to participate in the system of replacement—was measured in terms of the ‘use value’ of such attributes, which in turn defined their ‘exchange value’ (2016:115). By lingering on the rules and conventions surrounding replacement, Kockelman thus teases out a ‘local ontology of entification, qualification, quantification, and obligation’ (2016:115), as well as its social and political implications, namely that

if replacement was a local institution whereby certain entities were rendered equivalent in regards to their use value (or qualities and quantities), it was also a system whereby other entities were rendered nonequivalent (in particular, men and women). It was a system of exclusion as much as inclusion (2016:116).

Finally, Chapter 4 draws together the preceding three chapters’ discussions with an exploration of what transpired in the encounter between local Q’eqchi’ values and the value-laden interventions of PEQ’s ecotourism project. In brief, Kockelman argues that the project pressured ‘people, objects, and activities to change from being equivalent (via the local system of replacement) to being commensurate (via the money-making opportunities initiated by ecotourism)’ (2016:10). That is, whereas replacement pivoted on entities being more-or-less the same, commensuration pivoted on entities being ‘measurably different’ (2016:126)—the chief measure, in this case, being that most portable of units, money. This shift was most clearly manifested in the way the NGO’s interventions produced ‘irreplaceable’ persons, houses, and services that made sense only in the context of ecotourism: metal-roofed, decorated houses specifically for accommodating ecotourists, individuals ‘capacitated’ with the ‘semiotic and social competence[s]’ required to interact with such outsiders (2016:130), and so on. And regulating and ‘enclosing’ all these were constant standardization and grading: tests, competitions for the most tourist-friendly houses, certificates for successfully capacitated individuals, service-price calibrations that assigned monetary values to each house, service, or individual according to how well they conformed to the NGO’s benchmarks.

The critique implicit in Chapter 4 is devastating in its simplicity; in the way it traces, with scant fuss, the consequences of the unreflexive introduction of portable global values and practices (conservation-oriented ecotourism) into a specific local context. As the villagers involved in ecotourism jostled to render themselves and their effects more irreplaceable (irreplaceability having become a value in itself), they also dropped out of local systems of replacement, causing social and political tensions within the village that fanned out along gendered and generational lines. But their efforts also had unexpected, sometimes almost farcical, consequences. For example, the demand for better constructed and decorated tourist accommodation—houses with ‘precisely hewed and painted boards’ (2016:144) that looked good and kept out wind and cold—led to a surge in demand for chainsaws and chainsaw-owning men, whose equipment and services were required to make such construction possible. And yet, it was precisely these men and their forest-destroying activities that the ecotourism project originally sought to curtail. In this way, chainsaws became ‘the key index of nonreplaceability among non-tourist-taking villagers—a form of labor that was economically and semiotically parasitic on the success of ecotourism’ (2016:147) rather than embedded in local social relations and the system of replacement.

What Kockelman’s analysis reveals, then, is an interplay of signs, values, and relations that culminated in a curious outcome. Referencing Veblen’s (1991) notion of ‘pecuniary emulation’, he argues that ‘rather than removing the local system of replacement, it [the ecotourism project] inadvertently resonated with it’ (Kockelman 2016:150), turning irreplaceability into a key value in itself. And it was this value—manifested in the distinction or status associated with, for example, prize-winning tourist accommodation or expensive consumer goods—that the villagers ended up vying for. The sign, in other words, had become the thing that really mattered.


In his conclusion, Kockelman reframes his book in terms of paths—connections that put two or more entities in some sort of relation of (non-)equivalence. ‘An origin,’ he posits, ‘is equivalent to a destination in the context of a path that connects them’ (2016:157)’; accordingly, ‘some of what avails itself to the second (destination) avails itself to the first (origin) in the context of the third (path)’ (2016:160, italics in original). This focus on such thirds and ‘modes of thirdness’ (2016:162) are what make The Chicken and the Quetzal such an unusual and stimulating book. By making those thirds—those ‘codes, channels, norms, laws, habits, functions, compositions, conversions, interpretations, metaphors, productions, types, identities, fields, and, of course, paths in their original sense’ (2016:164)—visible, Kockelman reveals how they don’t just connect existing entities or domains, but are also transformative and generative devices that can produce new and unexpected realities.

This is not to suggest that Kockelman’s book doesn’t strike thematic or conceptual chords with other work in anthropology. For example, the extent to which new or external values can overhaul or be domesticated by local cultural systems has been the subject of many an anthropological debate—from the Sahlins-Obeyesekere dispute over Captain Cook’s ignominious fate (see Borofsky 1997) to recent theorizations of the nature of Christian conversion (see, e.g., Robbins 2007). Meanwhile, Kockelman’s exploration of the interplay of enclosure and disclosure—that is, ‘the ways in which processes that create, interpret, and reveal values are concomitant with processes that capture, carry, and reify them’ (2016:3)—brings to mind (among other things) Marilyn Strathern’s writings on form, revelation, effect, and personhood (e.g. 1988, 1999). And his reflexive, if cursory, extension of such notions to anthropology’s own ‘frames of equivalence’ and ‘modes of commensuration’ (2016:123) chimes with Strathern’s reflections on the theme, as well as with Roy Wagner’s (1981) and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s (2004) meditations on anthropological equivocation. Although Kockelman doesn’t engage much with these conversations, his ethnographically grounded focus on technologies of commensuration and equivocation (as things to be interrogated rather than as analytical devices) speaks refreshingly to many of their key themes and concerns.

But to whom, then, does The Chicken and the Quetzal speak? As will be manifestly clear to its readers, the book is the work of a highly accomplished linguistic anthropologist. And in many ways, it reads like an exposition to intellectual peers—to other linguistic anthropologists, or at least an audience of advanced anthropologists already steeped in linguistic theory and theories of exchange and value, who wouldn’t blanch at passages riddled with qualification and caveats, such as:

ontologies turn on the objects (signs and interpretants) projected from, and generating of, such [semiotic] processes and [semiological] structures [both discussed above]. In particular, such objects (signs and interpretants) stand at the intersection of two kinds of relations between relations. First, we have Saussurian semiological structures: sign-object (or signifier-signified) relations analyzed by their relation to virtual assemblages of other sign-object relations. …And second, we have Peircian semiotic processes: sign-object relations analysed by their relation to sequential unfoldings of interpretant-object relations (where an interpretant is whatever effect a sign has insofar as it stands for an object)…(2016:60)

All this does make sense through a close and careful reading—and a readerly commitment to sticking with the text. The Chicken and the Quetzal, I’ll be the first to admit, is hard work, tempered by the sheer likeability of the author’s wry, unpretentious voice. But it is also rewarding work that precipitates further questions—among them the question of what practices of anthropological commensuration themselves conjure and enact.

Kockelman’s book is itself an exercise in rendering diverse ethnographic phenomena commensurate via the conceptual categories and frameworks of linguistic and economic theory—which are then re-rendered through the analytics of enclosure/disclosure, paths, and portability. This re-rendering process is arguably what all good anthropology does, to a greater or lesser degree—although it is particularly noticeable here, thanks to the theoretical and analytical treatises that structure the book. But as Kockelman’s equally compelling ethnography reveals, processes of commensuration foreground certain things and bracket out others. What I found frustratingly occluded in this case were the historical, political, religious, and socio-economic ‘conditions of possibility’ that must also have been shaping Q’eqchi’ life and the ecotourism scheme. We catch glimpses of these throughout the book: the post-civil war context, the imbrication of chickens and quetzals with colonialism and national identities, church membership, the destructive histories and legacy of coffee cultivation. Yet every time the narrative broaches these topics, it draws back into the realm of lexical constructions and semiotic inquiry (see, e.g., 2016:88)—almost as if to hold at bay their potentially disruptive influence, their possible refusal to become commensurate/ble with/in the book’s main analytical scaffold.

There is, of course, something to be said about the ontologically productive—and disruptive—nature of language and linguistic forms, which Kockelman teases out so nicely. And admittedly his primary aim was not to write a comprehensive ethnographic account but to formulate a portable theoretical framework for anthropological understandings of value, portability, and incommensurability. This he achieves with admirable systematicity. Yet by enclosing persons, birds, experiences, and other ethnographic textures within this framework, I suggest, he also risks flattening them into values, signs, signifiers—all commensurable and portable as such. One wonders, however, what The Chicken and the Quetzal might have looked like if its own analytical and theoretical enclosure(s) had been more permeable: if those figures had (as in real life) been able to breach their semiotic roles within the book, and if those historical, political, religious, and other forces had been allowed to enter that breach.


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— 1999. Property, Substance and Effect: Anthropological Essays on Persons and Things. London: Athlone.

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