You are here:

  • blog

Overcoming Ethnocentrism: Collaborative Ethnography as a Decolonial Approach to Research

Written by María B. Batlle |

Since I started writing academically, there has been one question I have kept asking myself over time: what is the purpose of this type of writing? What sense does it make to write and learn complex scholarly terms if my writings will end up dusty in a library corner? As I have gradually learnt to be more honest with myself, I have also begun to understand why I do what I do, and the value it has.

I was born in Chile in 1985. Aside from the fact that the country was being ruled by a military dictatorship at that time, in the field of anthropology, the crisis of representation was just emerging and had not yet come to challenge the ways in which history was taught in ‘the Third World’. Thus, during the 1990s, I was taught that the indigenous peoples in my country were mostly ‘lazy,’ and ‘drunk’ (Quilaqueo & Merino 2003; Canales, Fernández & Rubio 2018)—and there are prominent national historians, authors of compulsory school textbooks, who still hold these views today. By the dictates of nationalism, I was also taught that the cultural differences between Chile and its neighbouring countries—Peru, Bolivia and Argentina—were extreme. On the other hand, we were taught that ‘Universal History’ focused on the history of Europe.

Mapuche peoples
Mapuche Peoples (Public domain)
Tiwanaku (produced by the author)

As an adult, and once living abroad, I understood that the pejorative teaching of the ancestral cultures of the territory where I grew up was not to be explained by ill-intentioned Chilean elites, but by something that we have carried since colonial times: a kind of ethnocentrism that is not centred on the mestizo cultures of our formerly colonised societies, but on the cultures of the European colonisers. In other words, we inherited and embraced Eurocentrism. Later on, having the chance to live in Peru for a couple of years, I also realised with great surprise that our cultural differences were much more tenuous than what I had grown to believe. I could easily perceive this in the use of Chilean-Spanish words that many of us Chileans assume come from the Mapudungun—the language of the Mapuche (indigenous peoples in southern Chile and Argentina)—when they actually come from the Quechua—the language of the Inca and other Andean peoples. Such is the case of the broadly used word wawa to refer to a baby, both in Chile and Peru. In addition to the fact that the Inca and Mapuche peoples had certain historical interactions, we must not forget the influence of the Tiwanaku. This was a cultural area that grouped several Andean states between c.100 and c.1200 CE and which covered a territory that encompassed parts of present-day Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Argentina; contemporary Andean cultures still inhabit these territories. Regarding ‘Universal History,’ it took me a while to understand that the pre-history of the world that I learnt in school did not concern these territories and languages, neither did it represent me or my ancestors.

We all have biases, and I myself am still struggling with all of these preconceptions that I grew up with. For over a decade I have been researching the subject of South American cantoras, who are women music-poets, traditionally understood as practitioners of Spanish-inherited folk song in rural environments. I started this work in Chile, while working for an institution that sought to list a particular form of folk song on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage. Among the folk musical practices to be listed, there were types of songs that in order to be considered valid had to be practiced only by men. Others had to be performed by women but could not by any means touch on political themes; only on love and countryside imaginaries. I was initially convinced that folk song in Chile was a kind of museum piece and that to maintain its ‘authenticity’, it had to remain within the limits of its ‘original’ rural habitat and gender categories.

I soon started wondering what the point was in preserving these practices if people were no longer interested in practising them. Later on, I saw that these practices were still alive, only in different settings and in the voices of other performers. Moreover, I understood that I was not going to find the historical backgrounds of Southern Cone cantoras by only looking through histories of the Andalusian cantaoras’s, or Sephardic cantaderas’s; that their study as part of the Chilean cultural heritage had been whitewashed by local historiographies; and that, it would be really interesting to also trace their history through, for example, the ceramic representations of women who sang with drums in ceremonies accompanying festivities of Aymaran or Incan agrarian cycles. This all led me to my current research on the pre-Hispanic antecedents to the practice of cantoras in the Andean Southern Cone.

Cantoras in Santiago de Chile, c.1910
Cantoras in Santiago de Chile, c.1910 (Public domain)

With all these learnings in my academic life, the question remained: who will benefit from me studying these cantoras? How can I ensure that my work will not be left dusty in a library, or even worse, in the unfathomable labyrinthine networks of the Internet, behind an expensive institutional paywall?

My interest in folk song led me to meet and become friends with urban cantoras of flesh and blood, with whom I learnt more and more in depth about this beautiful craft. Many of them participated as consultants in the ethnographic work that I carried out for my doctoral thesis on the cueca folk genre. However, after completing my PhD, I could not make sense of conducting more research on cantoras and their practice without actually including them in the work. It was then that I thought about the method of collaborative ethnography. It appeared as an epiphany that resolved all my internal conflicts, as even if the work was left lost and dusty in libraries or the Internet, it would at least make sense to those who practised the traditions we were studying. Thus, since 2023 I began working with three Chilean and two Argentine cantoras on our Southern Cone Cantora Project ( It has been a profound learning process, and we still have another year of work ahead of us so I am not in a position to evaluate, but I can share some insights.

Southern Cone Cantora Project
Proyecto Cantoras Cono Sur (produced by the author)

One of them is that collaborative ethnography is a powerful tool for decolonial practice. Instead of approaching an object of knowledge about which to develop individual interpretations centred on academic language and epistemology, this method allows for engagement with subjects of knowledge with whom to develop collective interpretations centred on their languages, practices and experiences. And this brings me to the core of my revelations. Many will say that decolonisation in South America was achieved two hundred years ago. My generation’s school learning experience suggests otherwise. I grew up in a context where Eurocentrism was naturalised to such an extent that it took me decades to realise that the ‘Universal History’ they taught me at school did not include my ancestors. I also realised recently that my maternal great-grandmothers who lived in the port city of Iquique had been Peruvian before being Chilean—Iquique went from being part of Perú to being part of Chile after the Pacific War (1879-1884); and that the cultural differences from one border to the other lay in the territory’s name only. Furthermore, I learnt that the Pacific War, like many others between colonised territories, could be largely explained by European interests linked to the exploitation of natural resources—nitrate in this case. Natural resources, and women, of course. As an anecdote, I can say that among my great-great-grandparents there is a certain Mr. Armstrong, who apparently left countless children and grandchildren scattered throughout Iquique and its surroundings, my grandmother among them.

Studying the issue of colonialism is as fascinating as it is urgent when we understand the extent to which it persists in our contemporary cultures. It is present in the embedded Eurocentrism which, at times, continues to blind us to the historical value of our own ancestral cultures and of the bonds that tie us with our equally historically-oppressed neighbours. And it is present in the unbalanced distribution of power within our Latin American societies, which is upheld by these Eurocentric historical narratives.

Academic or otherwise, I have come to realise that writing is most meaningful when it enables dialogue. In a knowledge culture that has been largely produced by monologic historical discourses, writing becomes meaningful when it helps adjust our ways of thinking, creating room for the confrontation of our inherently human biases.

María B. Batlle is Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London. 

María will be leading an ILCS training session on Collaborative Ethnography: Broadening Access to Knowledge Production on Wednesday 22 May at 1400. See the training page for updates and how to book.

Creative Commons License
This blog contribution has been published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0). The article may be distributed and republished, online or in print, provided the author and original publication are appropriately credited.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the position of CLACS, ILCS or the School of Advanced Study, University of London.