Translating Across Borders: A Conversation with Elsie Rockwell

When initiating ethnographic research with colleagues and students in the 1970s in Mexico, Elsie Rockwell, an anthropology and education professor at the Center for Advanced Studies (Cinvestav) in Mexico and recently the Edward Larocque Tinker Visiting Professor in the Teachers College Department of International and Transcultural Studies, found limited access to research in English in her university’s library. Although extensive academic exchange and the internet have solved this problem, she still finds conversation between US and Latin American researchers difficult. Though Rockwell’s work is now widely published in many languages, she notes a persistent lack of speaking across borders. We recently chatted with Rockwell about her work and the new book, Comparing Ethnographies: Local Studies of Education Across the Americas, co-edited with Kathryn Anderson-Levitt, which directly addresses these issues.


One of the spark’s for Elsie Rockwell and Kathryn Anderson-Levitt’s latest book came from a conference in 2013, hosted by the Inter-American Symposium on Ethnography in Education. The conference focused on “majorities, minorities and migrations in comparative perspective,” with Rockwell adding the word majorities because, in her words, “in Latin America, the idea of minorities doesn’t make sense.” The dialogues at this conference launched the idea of bringing together U.S. and Latin American scholars to work on comparative essays. Initially, Anderson-Levitt and Rockwell conceived of the project as simply an expansion of the presentations from the conference. Each session had included authors from different countries, with presentations being given in more than one language. This approach created a deeper transcultural experience that Anderson-Levitt and Rockwell hoped to translate to a book. However, in the process of creating these “dialogues” for a potential book, they noticed the work evolving toward comparisons of academic traditions of a very different nature in each place. The work was not simply the taking of themes like immigration and comparing and contrasting them across a North/South divide. Instead, the work became a conversation through which co-authors could reconceputalize ideas. To use the books summary, it offers “a fresh look at familiar concepts.”

To pursue these aims, the editors partnered with scholars from across the Americas, including Chile, Peru, and Argentina. Authors also partnered with U.S. scholars to write chapters on various themes. For instance, Patricia Ames and Ana Maria Gomes collaborated on a chapter on indigenous education in Peru and Brazil, resulting in interesting contrasts. Similarly, Gabriela Novaro and Lesley Bartlett wrote a chapter on challenging discourses on migration and assimilation in Argentina and the U.S. As scholars began writing together, Rockwell and Anderson-Levitt acted as mediators throughout the process, helping authors across contexts understand terminology and concepts. Authors often reached out to the editors saying “I don’t understand what the other author is talking about.” Authors relatedly came to discuss and critique similar concepts using different terminology. In the migration chapter, one author used the term “segmented assimilation” while the co-author used the term “subordinated inclusion” to convey a related concept. Rockwell describes these conversations as  requiring translation beyond language  that led to enriched theoretical perspectives.

Though the book opens new conversations across borders and offers new ways of understanding these issues, this line of work comes with certain risks. Rockwell hopes that publishing this book in the U.S. will encourage scholars to take up the challenges that Latin American anthropological traditions pose to the ways of thinking and working currently used in U.S.research, rather than simply to adapt ideas or cases to fit existing narratives. Even still, Rockwell contends that “all of the authors are committed to generating knowledge that questions existing policies.” The book includes an appendix of online sites for accessing Latin American as well as US sources in Anthropology and Education generally, and Rockwell invites readers to further explore research across the Americas.

Going forward, the Inter-American conversations launched by the 2013 conference and the book seem to be expanding. This year’s Symposium, jointly held in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, explored “Crossing Borders”, in multiple senses, and the next conference will hopefully be held in Lima, Perú. Contributing authors continue the conversation, for example in Educaçao e Pesquisa 41, 2015, Dossier “Significant currents of ethnographic research on education”. In March, Gita Steiner-Khamsi and Eduardo Weiss will discuss the Comparing Ethnographies book with the editors at the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) conference. Continuing this work will help conversations and translations moving across many different borders.

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