Dr. Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein is an anthropologist who received her doctorate through UCLA.
In 2013, Barchas-Lichtenstein submitted the paper "When the dead are resurrected, how are we going to speak to them?": Jehovah's Witnesses and the Use of Indigenous Languages in the Globalizing Textual Community as a partial submission for her doctoral dissertation.
Dr. Barchas-Lichtenstein’s dissertation is a comprehensive look, from an anthropological view, at the role of the Watch Tower Society in Language Revitalization in rural Mexico.
a description of the article on her Linked-in page:
This article explores Jehovah's Witnesses' use of Oaxaca Chontal, an endangered language spoken in Mexico. The Witness religion is highly centralized and standardized: Witnesses obeyed instructions to use Chontal because these instructions bore the authority of the Watch Tower Society institution. This article proposes the concept of the globalizing textual community, which synthesizes understandings of community from throughout social science literature, in order to explain how religious identity can supersede national, ethnic, and linguistic identities. A central mechanism of this community is the discourse of the “pure language,” which renders language choice irrelevant even as it provides a warrant for extensive translation.
*all quotes that follow are from the article
Some of her research methods:
This project was based on approximately eight months of fieldwork in Santa María Zapotitlán, Oaxaca, Mexico, including short trips with my hosts to stay with family members in nearby Salina Cruz and attend large Jehovah's Witness events there. Additional data come from several visits to a Chontal-language congregation in Oaxaca City over a six month period, as well as short visits to Jehovah's Witness headquarters both for Mexico and worldwide. The Mexico Branch Office is located in Texcoco, just outside Mexico City. The worldwide offices, meanwhile, are located in three cities in New York State: Brooklyn, Patterson, and Wallkill; I was only able to visit the Brooklyn offices.
The paper is almost 400 pages in length and is a valuable resource for anyone interested in the history of the JWs in Mexico and/or the study of language and text and cultural studies as well as religious studies. The research she has done in support of this is a valuable contribution to the existing body of knowledge about the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Watch Tower Society, as well as to global indigenous communities who are actively involved in language preservation and revitalization as a vital part of cultural identity politics.
Although Jehovah's Witnesses have been publishing tracts and magazines in multiple languages for some time, the extension to indigenous languages without a long tradition of literacy is a recent initiative and thus has not yet been widely studied
(Mubimba 1987; Pharao Hansen 2010).
The community - with a population of just over 1,000 - that Dr. Barchas-Lichtenstein visited was unique in that the majority of this small, rural community were Jehovah’s Witnesses:
The town population is divided along religious lines. The 2011 agente municipal estimates that between 50 and 60 percent of the population are Jehovah's Witnesses, with the remainder divided between Pentecostals and Catholics. Other individuals have estimated 45 percent Witnesses, 30 percent Pentecostals, and 25 percent Catholics. While the numbers vary, most people seem to agree that Witnesses have a plurality if not a majority, while the numbers of Pentecostals and Catholics are fairly similar.
Dr. Barchas-Lichtenstein’s paper includes much detail of the history of the Watch Tower Society and she includes well known sources (giving much respect to Penton for his academic research and acknowledging that most other contributions come from ‘apostate' sources) including this information about Mexico:
By the end of the 19th century, Jehovah's Witnesses were active in parts of Mexico, and
the Watch Tower magazine became available in Spanish by the end of World War I, while the
Mexico Branch Office opened in 1929 (Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania
1993a: 414, 436). The 1995 Yearbook (Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania
1995) presents the history of Jehovah's Witnesses in Mexico as one of persecution, citing laws
that did not allow Witnesses to go door-to-door or sing in public meetings. However, this and
other Witness texts do not point out that the organization chose to accept these restrictions. At
the time of their legal incorporation in Mexico, laws prevented religious organizations from
holding property, and the Witnesses chose to become a "cultural" organization to circumvent this
restriction, although doing so curtailed the full expression of religious activities (Penton 1997:
And, from a footnote:
130 After the U.S. (1,115,786) and Brazil (706,699). Mexico also has a relatively high percentage of Witnesses, with
one publisher for every 153 people. This is a particularly impressive feat when you realize that only two of the
countries with a higher percentage of Witnesses have populations significantly larger than 1 million (compared to
Mexico's 108 million) and in fact, most are island nations. (The countries/territories with a higher percentage of
Jehovah's Witnesses are: Aruba, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, Bonaire, Cook Islands, Cuba, Curacao, Guadalupe,
French Guyana, Hawai'i, Martinique, Niue, New Caledonia, Puerto Rico, Saba, San Marino, St. Martin, Santa Elena,
Tahiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos, the British Virgin Islands, and Zambia.)
I have selected the following bits from Dr. Barchas-Lichtenstein’s paper, but, to get full context of what the author means or her intentions, it would be best to read all of her paper.
She poses critical questions:
I began, then, with a seemingly simple question: what implications does Jehovah's Witnesses' use of a contracting language – that is, a language that is being used in fewer domains than previously, or one whose speakers are aging – have for the continued maintenance of that language? To carry out their religious mission worldwide, the Witnesses translate their materials into 595 languages,8 although not all publications are available in all languages. Furthermore, this number may not include languages that are used in services but have no written publications.
The Witnesses constantly add new languages to their repertoire as they see new opportunities for proselytizing, yet many of these languages have few, if any, monolingual speakers. Why, then, do they make the effort to introduce new languages that are otherwise contracting (cf. Pharao Hansen 2010: 130), particularly in communities where the Witnesses have long been active in the dominant language (here Spanish)? Scholars have seen the Witnesses' encouragement as unambiguously positive in terms of language maintenance (Mubimba 1987; Pharao Hansen 2010). However, I would suggest that the Watch Tower Society,9 the institutional arm of Jehovah's Witnesses, is not primarily concerned with the fate of the languages it uses to spread its message; its orientation to these languages is chiefly instrumental.
And she offers answers, identifying the Jehovah's Witness community as a textual community:
I argue that the Jehovah's Witnesses produce their moral authority through their use of language, particularly through a globalizing textual community (see Chapter Two) that defines not only legitimate sources of knowledge and ways of understanding that knowledge, but also legitimate speakers. What role does translation play in their textual economy? I argue that translation is deliberately differentiated from authorship to avoid any challenge to the Watch Tower Society's top-down authority.
She identifies the role of the publishing industry in the link between text and authority/power:
Textual economies are more limited than linguistic ones in one important dimension: everyone produces some form of language, but not everyone who consumes texts produces them. This creates an asymmetry in which readers' relationships to texts have more everyday importance than writers'. The process of creating a text-artifact such as a printed book authorizes (Bucholtz and Hall 2004) its content. Relatively few people have access to a printing press, and the multiple authenticating steps in between drafting the content and seeing it in print allow us to ascribe authority to the written word even with relatively little knowledge of its author. Print as a 53 form is not inherently authoritative; rather, this authority emerged over time and has more to do with the publishing industry and its controls than with the physical properties of books (Eisenstein 1979; Johns 1998; Adam Shapiro, p.c., 3/8/2012). If editors and publishers are willing to put their reputation at stake to authenticate this text, readers assume it contains something of worth.74
She describes the transference of authority within the Witness textual community:
In the Watchtower magazine study, a male congregation member in good standing reads aloud from the magazine, while another man (almost always an elder) reads the questions given in the text and mediates the discussion, calling on congregation members to comment, typically with contributions they have prepared ahead of time. In this type of literacy event, participant roles display a hierarchy: congregation members can only participate as commenters who may talk about the text – and quote from it – but cannot give voice to it, while a select few baptized men can animate the text in full. The even more select group of congregational elders, meanwhile, can participate as mediators who make sure that commenters' remarks appropriately reflect the text and attempt to
ensure that the community has a shared understanding. The author of the text is the Watch Tower Society as an institution; individual writers never receive credit. Finally, the agent of these texts is also the Watch Tower Society (in etic perspective). For Jehovah's Witnesses, however, the Watch Tower Society is God's instrument on this earth, and so the agent of The Watchtower magazine is Jehovah himself,79in emic perspective.
The Witness textual community, then, creates an economy of participant roles, which in
turn creates a class of legitimated speakers who are not legitimate authors. Such a breakdown of roles allows Witnesses to feel they are part of the authority structure yet simultaneously maintains a top-down hierarchy:80.
Not only does Barchas-Lichenstein take a critical, honest evaluation of the Watch Tower Society and how the organization is structured, operates, and the impact of language on the system of power it represents, she also offers the same approach to her personal interactions with the JW hosts she stayed with – ‘embedded’ somewhat in a Mexican JW family for several months. Her comments are sensitive, honest, and respectful of the people she visited, offering us a intimate view inside a community that is usually closed to ‘the world’.