Interview with Claudio Lomnitz. Part One: The intellectual anthropologist

Receipt: May 17, 2023

Acceptance: May 20, 2023

The interdisciplinary spirit has become an aspiration and a cliché rather than a reality, since very few researchers have achieved it. One of them is Claudio Lomnitz Adler, Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University in New York and a renowned anthropologist who has developed an extraordinary multifaceted career. Lomnitz has received important distinctions such as the Latin American Studies Association's 2015 Latin American Studies Association Award for Best Book in the Humanities for The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores MagónThe Antonio García Cubas Award, 2006 and 2019; the invitation for one year to the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Award 2016, in Germany; in addition to his admission to El Colegio Nacional on March 5, 2021. 

I had the opportunity to interview him in Guadalajara on April 19, 2023 for Encartes and I decided to focus the talk on his reflections on the challenges, dilemmas and paradoxes of producing anthropological knowledge at the intersection of different fields and with different languages and repertoires. What stands out in the interview is that it allows us to enter into the ways of doing or, as Jorge Gonzalez called it, to get into the kitchen, not to know the recipes, but the ways in which an anthropology is prepared in dialogue with other disciplines and to be present and current in the public debate on the current problems of Mexico. This interview rescues a phenomenological perspective of his own trajectory as a researcher.

Claudio's published work is vast and covers a wide range of topics. Although he is considered one of the best contemporary Mexican anthropologists, no one hesitates to identify him also as a historian. He is known beyond the academic world, as he is an intellectual and an artistic creator. Claudio lives in continuous movement, he is neither from here nor there, and despite being a son of the Chilean diaspora and having lived in the United States for many years, his books and publications always show that he carries deep Mexico in his heart and in his ink. It could even be said that he is a sort of academic ambassador of Mexico in the United States, first as co-director of the Mexican Studies Program at the University of Chicago (with the historian of the Mexican Revolution, Friedrich Katz), later as director of the Latin American Studies Program at the University of Chicago and director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University and, finally, as founder and director of the Center for Mexican Studies at the same institution.

Claudio writes books, and they are not few. Among them, the following stand out The exits of the maze. Culture and ideology in the Mexican national space (1999), Indian modernity: nine essays on nation and mediation in Mexico. (1999), Idea of death in Mexico (2006), Antisemitism and the ideology of the Mexican Revolution (2002) y The Porfiriato and the Revolution in the history of Mexico: A Conversation (2011). Several of his books have received important awards. Lomnitz was appointed editor of the academic journal Public Culture. He is also a columnist for the newspaper The Day and essayist for the magazine Nexus, for which he has written a monthly essay since 2014 to date. He has also ventured into radio. As if that were not enough, with his brother Alberto, he has written theater scripts: Alberto Bulnes1 and the musical work The big family (2018). He also received the award of the Festival de Teatro y Artes de la Calle. Of Claudio it can be said that he is an academic-intellectual-creator, that is, someone versatile who does not accept classifications nor allows himself to be framed in themes, much less in styles.

In the first part of the interview, we talked about his book The exits of the maze. Culture and ideology in the Mexican national space (1999), which was his doctoral thesis and is already a classic in anthropology.

Before meeting Claudio personally I had the opportunity to read him in 1994. At that time I was studying for my PhD in Social Sciences and my teacher Guillermo de la Peña shared with us the draft of his thesis that was later published in Mexico. Fortunately, it was my turn to present his proposal at the seminar, so I read it from cover to cover. I remember that I thought it was daring that Claudio used an anthropological study of the Morelos state region to question the psychoanalytic vision of the famous essay The labyrinth of loneliness by Octavio Paz (2021). I was also struck by how ambitious his methodological proposal was, a useful analytical tool for establishing relationships between various modalities of culture, such as the distinction between intimate culture and the culture of social relations. As I was planning the interview script I thought that perhaps I could find my reading review in the encrypted files of some old computer. I searched and searched for it and, after several attempts, I found it.

As I read my notes, I was struck by the complexity of his proposal. "It is not the typical ethnographic study in which the stories and descriptions speak for themselves. It is a treatise that proposes a relational theoretical scheme of the functioning of culture, power, intimate life, social relations in the structuring of space articulated as a region by power, memory and culture. It is a kind of cartography to unravel the meanings of culture always in tension and a reconfiguration in the interaction of what he called localist culture (ideology of social relations) and intimate cultures." As I reread my notes I realized that his proposal was similar to the Rubik's cube (the cube of colored squares) which, when rotated, allows us to establish coincidences and sequences, as well as differentiations.

I find in his proposal an unusual dynamism provided by the combination of structural anthropology and historical genealogy to address processes in which the relationships between different types of cultural capital and power are articulated and disarticulated. I share with you one of my notes that reflect my perplexity before his proposal:

"Ideology plays a key role in the construction of the culture of social relations and in the construction of group identity outside intimate cultures. In order to address this concept, it is necessary to detect the places of tension and coincidence between localist ideologies and the culture of social relations. Localist ideology refers to the reformulation and construction of group identity boundaries: it is the ideological construction of group identity" (De la Torre, 1994).

I consider that the main contribution of this book is that it recognizes the importance of anthropological study to understand broader and more decisive issues, such as the production of nationalism. Therefore, the first part of the interview offers a reflection on how Claudio -as a young doctoral student- conceived this elaborate methodological theoretical proposal, so uncommon in the inductive and descriptive tendencies of classical anthropology. What were his influences? How did he conceive it? And, almost 30 years later, what do you think about your own work?

Another topic on which the interview focused was the contribution Claudio has made as an intellectual in the broader social sphere. A few years ago he wrote an article in the magazine Nexus in which he urged us academics to get out of our cubicles and communities of restricted meaning and to make an effort to access and influence the public debate. Claudio's facet of researcher and at the same time intellectual is little exercised by academics, especially anthropologists, who keep to languages and communities of restricted meaning. The common denominator of the population does not know what an anthropologist is, let alone what he/she can be useful for. I even believe that many anthropologists are not clear about the value of their knowledge production and how it influences society.

In this interview, Lomnitz shares what encourages him to step outside the comfortable boundaries of academic communities. One of the topics discussed was the prominent role played by anthropologists in the first part of the 20th century. xx in Mexico and then, during the eighties and nineties, it faded away. The anthropologist does not figure as the contemporary social analyst, even though the cultural transitions and changes that are currently being experienced would be better understood from phenomenological cultural approaches, and not only from economistic perspectives.

Likewise, taking up his famous book on anthropology of the dead and death, he talked about the historical genealogy of the invention of Mexican identity linked to death, but also reflects on what his work and anthropology in general have to say in order to culturally understand the problems linked to the cultures of death. He recognizes that Mexico is experiencing an unleashed violence with new rituals and symbolizations of death, in which, on the one hand, death is caricatured and turned into a spectacle, and on the other, there is an abundance of femicides, forced disappearances, what anthropologist Rossana Reguillo (2021), taking up Achille Mbembe, has defined as necropolitics (population death programmed by the State). In the interview, Lomnitz brings to the present the culture of death to reflect on the ways in which, from the accumulated and appropriated tradition, the settlers can symbolize, mythologize and ritualize death and their dead in the face of the situation of extreme violence that we live in today.

Another topic we addressed was how complicated it is in practice to combine creativity with academic rigor. Claudio tells us about the experience of collaborating with his brother in the creation of a play in which he contributed the historical script based on previous research. Although it may seem easy, in practice it is an exercise that requires negotiations between ways of writing, between fluency and the descriptive demands of anthropology or the contextual demands of history.

Finally, he also touched on the importance of engaging in dialogues with other disciplines, as was the exercise that gave rise to his most recent book The jurist and the anthropologist. Conversations from curiosity (2022), in which he talks with José Ramón Cossío about the different ways of understanding, interpreting and naming the world we live in. In the conversation, Claudio shares with us what anthropology has to learn from the legal world and what to teach lawyers so that they can legislate differently or understand the law. Dialogue requires not only the sharing of knowledge, but also the acceptance of ignorance as a source of curiosity to know the other. In this work there is a change of attitude that seems necessary to broaden academic knowledge, which is why we talk about that attitude and its qualities or virtues.


Lomnitz, Claudio (1999). Las salidas del laberinto. Cultura e ideología en el espacio nacional mexicano. México: Planeta.

— (1999). Modernidad indiana. Nueve ensayos sobre nación y mediación en México. México: Planeta.

— (2002). El antisemitismo y la ideología de la Revolución mexicana. México: fce.

— (2006). Idea de la muerte en México. México: fce.

— y Friedrich Katz (2011). El porfiriato y la Revolución en la historia de México. Una conversación. México: Era.

— Alberto Lomnitz y Leonardo Soqui (2018). La gran familia (1ª ed.). México: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana.

— y José Ramón Cossío (2022). El jurista y el antropólogo. Conversaciones desde la curiosidad. México: Debate.

Reguillo, Rossana (2021). Necromáquina. Cuando morir no es suficiente. México: ned/iteso.

Paz, Octavio (2021). El laberinto de la soledad. México: fce.

Renée de la Torre Castellanos holds a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from the ciesas and the University of Guadalajara. Member of the sni level iiiand the National Academy of Science. She is a professor-researcher at the ciesas Occidente, in Guadalajara, Mexico. She is co-founder of the Network of Researchers of the Religious Phenomenon in Mexico (rifrem). During his research career he has dedicated himself to the study of religious diversity in Mexico; to the study of new religious movements; to the emergence of alternative spiritualities such as the new age and neo-Mexicanity and, more recently, has researched on the dynamics of transnationalization of Aztec ritual dances and popular religiosity. He has presented more than a dozen exhibitions of ethnographic photography. Among his most recent publications is the book Latin American variations of the new age. Mexico: ciesas, 2013 (translated into English New Age in Latin America. Popular Variations and Ethnicity Appropriations., Brill, 2016). She is author of "Ultra-baroque Catholicism: Multiplied Images and Decentered Religious Symbols", S.ocial Compass (2016); and co-author of the following articles, "Routes et sens postcoloniaux de la transnationalisation religieuse", Tiers Monde (2016); "Religious Studies in Latin America, Annual Review of Sociology (2016); "The temazcal: a pre-Hispanic ritual transculturalized by alternative spiritual networks", Social Sciences and Religion (2016) and "Religion and Rescaling: How Santo Toribio Put Santa Ana on the Global Religious Map." Current Sociology (2016) (orcid:

Claudio Lomnitz works on the anthropology of national societies, experimenting with various genres of writing, from sociological essays to drama, from historical narrative to journalism. Author of more than a dozen books. He has taught at universities in Mexico and the United States, and has been a visiting professor at European and Latin American universities. He has served as director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Chicago, the Center for Historical Studies at the New School for Social Research in New York, as well as the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University, where he founded and directs the Center for Mexican Studies. He is a tenured Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University.


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