Research interests: Tourism and the commodification of culture, politics of representation, gender studies, human rights discourses, ethnic handicrafts and intellectual property rights, Central America​

My research focuses on the changes that have accompanied the expansion of neoliberal ideologies, including the individualization of responsibility, the growth of civil society and the professionalization of development work through the rise of non-governmental organizations, and the extension of market values to previously inalienable possessions. I am interested in how neoliberalism is reshaping how people represent themselves and value their cultural heritage. I situated my dissertation field research at the nexus of these trends, working in the volunteer program of a regional Mayan women’s weaving cooperative in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, that attracts international volunteer tourists from the United States and Europe.

With support from a Tinker Foundation Research Fellowship and major funding from an Inter-American Foundation Grassroots Development Fellowship, I spent 20 months in the weaving cooperative. My work shows that the Mayan weavers are ambivalent about the help they receive from international volunteer tourists because, while they view them as a proxy for their buyers and thus a valuable source of information about distant systems of value, they are also anxious about losing control over their images and proprietary knowledge to the hegemonic populations represented by their volunteers. I argue that the volunteer tourists create tension with the indigenous women by seeking to use increasingly specific information about their lives, their stories, and their cultural heritage, to give their products capital in the knowledge-dominated market for fair trade handicrafts.

In a related project funded by the University of Connecticut Human Rights Institute, I focused on how indigenous Guatemalan women vernacularize international human rights discourses. Using participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and life histories with women associated with the cooperative, I argued that the human rights language that constructed them as victims also created a limited space for them to imagine themselves as actors in the public sphere. While we typically associate the equation of womanhood with victimhood with a loss of agency, my research showed that it has been a resource to them that has opened up new possibilities for them to gain leverage within a social system that marginalizes them as indigenous and female.

Rebecca Nelson Jacobs CV

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