Date of Award

July 2016

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




John Burdick


Community Development, Ecotourism, Identity, Oaxaca, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Zapotec

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences


This dissertation examines how the desire to salir adelante, to improve oneself and one’s community, motivates townspeople to participate in development projects that promise to support and strengthen their pueblo. More specifically, I examine the material, social, and moral dimensions of progress and development, and the various ways indigenous people claim their place in the modern world. I am interested in the ways Zapotec people in Oaxaca, Mexico engage with development strategies and make them amenable to their own cultural practices and values. I am likewise interested in the extent to which the skills, habits, orientations and identities generated through development initiatives may contribute to the production of politicized forms of ethnic attachment in the struggle for indigenous rights.

I explore two very distinct arenas through which residents have pursued a better life. The first – community-based ecotourism – is a conventional, state-sponsored initiative that exemplifies current trends in participatory development. The second arena – the Seventh-day Adventist Church – is a more unexpected example of an organized effort to intervene in the lives of poor and marginalized people. It is an effort that seeks to advance a notion of progress and change, albeit in much smaller, less hegemonic, and profoundly spiritually ways.

Rather than rely on conventional economic or instrumentalist measures in my analysis of these two distinct but complementary groups, I elaborate on an alternative set of criteria for evaluating efforts to pursue a better life. These criteria speak to the broader social, cultural, moral and emotional fields within which these interventions take place, and include: the valorization of indigenous identity; support for the practices and values of reciprocity and service that make community; fulfillment of spiritual duties in the quest for salvation; and attention to personal achievement, such as the cultivation of habits and dispositions that strengthen community participation.

My research builds on current discussions about the moral dimensions of development, the link between development and the production of local identity, and the value of the community-studies approach in an era of hyper mobility and globalization. By re-enmeshing community in place, I provide an analysis of how, why, and where people form meaningful, intimate, and actionable bonds, as well as the limits to identity-based solidarity and action. I find that residents’ engagements with community-based ecotourism and the Seventh-day Adventist Church both complement and strengthen local, pueblo-oriented identities. At the same time, they also exacerbate already-existing structural factors that challenge the rise of region-wide ethnic solidarities.


Open Access