This ethnographic study connects the ecology of Kekchi households with the wider socioeconomic system in which they are embedded. Richard Wilk articulates these micro and macro levels of analysis within a single dialectic, in which people continually recreate their culture and social relations in the course of meeting their material needs. Rejecting the evolutionary framework of a “traditional society in the throes of modernization” (p. xix), through which he first viewed the field in 1978, Wilk shows how the decisions people make are shaped by the households to which they belong; the decisions, in turn, influence the future structure of the households and consequently the variety of ways they participate in the local economy. Thus, “the transformation of the rural economy and of Maya culture proceeds through the conjunction of global and local processes” (p. xx).

The detailed study of agriculture, hunting and gathering, livestock rearing, and participation in trade and wage labor shows how households’ social organization varies in response to local economic and ecological challenges and factors such as access to markets and the availability of land. Social and economic inequalities within and between households cause and are caused by changes in their systems of production, including the organization of labor. Households that engage in large-scale cash-crop production, for example, use different means of motivating and organizing labor than those that primarily engage in subsistence farming.

Wilk’s argument that the household is both a microcosm and a vehicle for structural transformation is well supported by his evidence. He carefully uses the scarce historical sources on the Kekchi, who came to Belize in the 1880s, and describes long-term continuities in external pressures—from missionaries, colonial officials, plantation owners, and recently the U.S. Agency for International Development—as well as similarities in their responses, such as migration and ethnic mobilization, and their willingness to try new ways of wresting a living from their environment.

Wilk’s field work was chiefly among the men who undertake most agricultural labor, so we learn less about women’s activities, such as food preparation and child rearing, or about relations between women or between women and men. The perspective of individuals is rarely expressed in their own words. Wilk makes many laborious calculations, but he neglects the voices of his informants, which could have brought his statistics to life. When his point is that Kekchi farmers actively shape the system in which they live, it is a pity that he names and quotes so few of them.

These shortcomings aside, this well-written and clearly organized book is a major step toward explaining how people participate in those processes of social and economic change that have been so dramatically shaping their world for almost five centuries.