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Volume 63 / Social Sciences

SOCIOLOGY: GENERAL


BENIGNO E. AGUIRRE-LÓPEZ, Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, University of Delaware

SOCIOLOGICAL SCHOLARSHIP ON THE INSTITUTIONS of Latin American society continues to mature and flourish. Almost all recent works can be understood as extended commentaries and reflections on the persistent poverty, unemployment, and underemployment that have buffeted the region for decades now. The following comments, while making no claims for inclusiveness, attempt to underscore the variety of important intellectual contributions that are being made.

An important scholarly contribution is Clark's monograph (item #bi2005004494#) on the Orisha religious traditions and Santería, an important faith tradition in Cuba. It includes a very straightforward and accessible account of the cosmology and theology of Santería and its deities, the faith's unique belief in parallel monotheisms, and its conception of rebirth and divination. A practicing priestess and professional anthropologist, Clark explains the gender-related aspects of Santería and argues for the controversial view that it is a female-centered system of religious beliefs and practices.

Chant and Craske's textbook on the subject of gender in Latin America (item #bi2005005342#) is arguably the most complete, encyclopedic contemporary review and synthesis of the situation of women in the region. Unsurprisingly given the scope of the monograph, it is possible to disagree with some of the finer details of its tables and interpretations even as it reminds us of the multiple challenges and achievements experienced by women, particularly during the economic crisis of the last three decades. A work of grand synthesis, it includes chapters on a) women, politics, and legislation; b) poverty and social movements; c) population, including fertility; d) health; e) sexuality; f) families and households; g) employment and migration; as well as an assessment of the likely situation of women in the future. Their emphasis on the need to recreate a feminist agenda that recognizes the importance of men, of differences, of emotion and psychological well being, and of working with global movements and institutions is sound.

In Adolfo Benito Narváez Tijerina's collection of articles (item #bi2005005318#) on architecture and sustainable development, his account of the context, origins, and history of the Condominium Constitución project created in the hope of reinvigorating an important part of the downtown area of the City of Monterrey, Mexico is enlightening. One of his messages is that architectural projects must be based on a solid social science understanding of the lives of the people who will be the users of these architectural forms. In the absence of this knowledge he documents how the importation of European architectural solutions, however well intended, eventuated in the social disorganizational features plaguing this urban complex. The chapter by Amarilis Echemendia Morffi and Oscar Prieto Herrera discusses the history of the city of Camagüey, Cuba, the influence of the Catholic Church, and religious festivities in its patterns of urban growth, as well as the significant architectural styles of the historical buildings of the city. The chapter also includes a too-brief account of the important efforts made in the last three decades or so to maintain, repair, and enhance what is without doubt one of the most beautiful cities in the region. The work would have benefited from a discussion of how the city manages to balance the often competing values of historical preservation and tourism.

According to the World Bank, Latin America and the Caribbean suffer one of the highest levels of social inequality in the world. Many of the works reviewed here blame neoliberalism, the approach to economic development currently in vogue. It is unsurprising then, that popular resistance to neoliberal reform has blossomed. This is the subject of the chapter by Richard L. Harris (item #bi2005004330#) in Globalization and Development in Latin America. He identifies and describes the legal and extra legal forms of popular resistance, as well as the tactical and strategic responses of the states in the region.

Osvaldo León, Sally Burch, and Eduardo Tamayo's study (item #bi2005005311#) of the use of the Internet and the Web by social movement organizations in Latin America breaks new ground on this important topic of investigation. It is an innovative attempt at combining a historical account of the emergence and growth of these protest organizations with a detailed examination of the problems they face and the tentative solutions associated with the adoption of these new technologies. Their discussion of how the material and technical conditions of these groups impact the appropriation of electronic technology offers key insights. The new electronic technologies constitute important transformations in the ways people coordinate their activities and collectively act to influence political processes. This study is one of the first to show how it is being done in Latin America.

Viviane Brachet de Márquez's collection of papers on social change and informal labor in Latin America (item #bi2005005293#) a) points out that sociological theorizing about social change is undeveloped; b) demonstrates quite convincingly that "ninguno de los esquemas teóricos que habían guiado el análisis del cambio en América Latina fueron válidos por la historia" (p. 15); c) identifies four meanings of democracy; and d) comments on the bankruptcy of modernization theory as a means of understanding social change in the region. Her review of the literature on political transition is an important contribution. The indeterminate and multidimensional features of political transitions and their multiple types show the absence of a coherent theoretical scheme that could be used to understand and predict these events. Furthermore, participatory democracy, which she seems to favor, must also include an equal respect and institutional protections for minority perspectives and rights. Also in this volume is a chapter by Manuel Antonio Garretón Merino on democratization. He opines that democratic regimes in Latin America in general are weak, and advances a three-fold approach to understanding the search for democracy in Latin America: a) the foundations in Central America, where a process of democratization has started for the first time; b) the transition from military regimes to democracy, as in the case of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay; and c) the reform of semi-authoritarian regimes, as in Mexico and Colombia (and, I would add, Cuba, possibly in the not too distant future). He also mentions the difficult problems these governments face when dealing with previous acts of mass murder, and the brutal and inhuman treatment of political opponents.

Two recently published books explore these matters at length: Bruce B. Campbell and Arthur D. Brenner's edited collection on death squads (item #bi2005005340#) and Priscilla B. Hayner's monograph on national truth commissions (item #bi2005005322#). In separate chapters, Michael J. Schroeder, Cynthia J. Arnson, and Martha K. Huggins examine death squads in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Brazil respectively, each providing an extraordinary amount of information on three notorious cases in the region. Schroeder describes the activities of violent groups in Las Segovias, a mountainous region in Nicaragua during the Contra War of the late 1970s and 80s as well as during the civil war of the late 1920s and the Sandino Rebellion, tracing their connection to national and international causes and support groups. Arnson identifies death squad activities among conservative political actors, and places more emphasis on the national guard, army, and air force, intelligence services, national police, Arena (political party), and similar organizations. She criticizes the US government's indifference to the protection of the civil and human rights of the victims and its support of the military. Huggins' by now well-known functionalist thesis is one of symbiosis among death squads and the changing functions of state bureaucracies: death squads are created and perform in situations in which traditional legal functions of the internal state security and police are no longer effective. In this vacuum, a process of devolution takes place in which death squads proliferate. She sees them as a) integral parts of changes in the centralization and specialization of formal bureaucracies of the state which bring about competition among police agencies; b) as adjustments to international pressure on the state against state violence; c) as ways to repress violent activities; d) as integral elements of state illegal activities; and e) as a "free market monetized commodity where 'policing' is subcontracted out to interest bidders" (p. 204). The aftermath of these periods of organized state-directed violence is increasingly examined by truth commissions, the topic of Hayner's monograph. It offers a global and comprehensive assessment of truth commissions worldwide, including the cases of Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Uruguay, Honduras, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Haiti.

As with Huggins, policing is the subject matter of a recent contribution by Anthony Harriott in the edited volume, Crime and Criminal Justice in the Caribbean (item #bi2005005901#). He also emphasizes how the ongoing crisis of legitimacy of the Jamaican state impacts its relationship with the police and weakens it. His view is that the resulting police crisis is reflected in high rates of violent crime, murder, and the widespread violation of law; the presence of entire communities "living beyond the state" in garrison communities, as well as socially marginalized communities with their own indigenous systems of social repression and "courts"; ineffectiveness of the police in controlling crime; widespread and intense fear of crime; decline in public confidence in the police; unwillingness of people to help the police; inter-party political competition to gain control of the police; lawless law enforcement; and the creation of alternative police forces. He points to three policy alternatives to resolve this stalemate: anarchism, repression, or renewal. As Harriott points out, one problem with repression is that the state may not have the resources to carry it out successfully. The real option is democratic transformation of the state and reform of the police. Harriott then presents the results of a very valuable empirical investigation of policing in Jamaica, including police corruption and preferences for different types of reform, including vigilantism and paramilitary repression.

Kruijt examines the very serious consequences of social exclusion brought about by the economic crisis and the enfeeblement of the state in Peru (item #bi2005002394#). He provides an in-depth study of the changes that have taken place, the increasing proportions of people in poverty—without work and underemployed—the growth of the informal economy and the informal life and the increasing social and legal marginalization of young people. Perhaps the most insightful statement he makes is that side-by-side with these structural changes, cultural, emotional, and sociopsychological changes are also taking place as increasing numbers of people develop very different conceptions of what is legal and illegal, proper and improper, in what he terms the increasing importance of "informalidad" as a way of life synonymous with social disorganization, violence, and distrust of social institutions and "los ricos." He points out that violence, or micro wars, is now diffuse in many urban and rural areas and involves gangs, ex-military members, ex-police, drug cartels, and criminals. In the absence of the state, multiple arenas of political, social, and economic power are created by multiple actors competing for control of segments of the national territory, often parts of a city or a province. This competition is typified by the "violencia privada," in which gangs of young people in the drug trade play important roles. Parenthetically, the wave of recent armed attacks against the Mexican army and Mexican police by the drug cartels shows the extent to which this marginalized segment of society has become self-assured and willing to challenge the most recognized and feared symbols of authority in the country.


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