An Ethnography of Brand Piracy in Guatemala

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An Ethnography of Brand Piracy in Guatemala

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Title: An Ethnography of Brand Piracy in Guatemala
Author: Thomas, Kedron
Citation: Thomas, Kedron. 2011. An Ethnography of Brand Piracy in Guatemala. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: An important dimension of contemporary capitalism is the global spread of intellectual property rights law, drawing new attention by governments and media to the unauthorized copying of fashion brands. In this dissertation, I draw on sixteen months of ethnographic research with small-scale, indigenous Maya garment manufacturers to examine the cultural and moral context of brand piracy in Guatemala. I analyze what practices of copying and imitation, some of which qualify as piracy under national and international law, among Maya manufacturers reveal about two aspects of the social field: first, changing economic and cultural conditions following waves of neoliberal economic and legal reform, and, second, the nonlinear reproduction of forms of moral and legal reckoning at the margins of the global economy and amidst mounting insecurities that include rising violent crime rates and legal impunity for violent crime. I examine how practices of copying and imitation among manufacturers and competitive behavior more generally are evaluated locally in light of kin relations that promote the sharing of knowledge and resources within a somewhat loose property regime and given ideologies of race and nation that encourage class-based solidarity among Maya people. I find that the normative models and business practices evident among these manufacturers parochialize official portraits of progress, business ethics, and development promoted in neoliberal policy agendas and international law. In addition, I analyze significant gaps between what fashion and branding mean in Guatemalan Maya communities and how they are understood in international projects of legal harmonization that are also about re-branding and re-imagining the Guatemalan nation. Neoliberal statecraft following a long internal armed conflict in Guatemala involves policy approaches that amplify the presence of global brands while compounding conditions of social and economic inequality that limit Maya men and women’s access to authorized goods. Meanwhile, Maya people are invited to participate in a modernist vision of citizenship and social progress that encourages a privatized model of indigenous identity mediated by branded commodities and formal market transactions. The brand emerges as a powerful medium through which claims to legitimacy and authority and senses of belonging are negotiated at national and local levels.
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