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Volume 63 / Social Sciences


MARĶA ESPERANZA CASULLO, Doctoral Candidate, Department of Political Science, Georgetown University

THE SOCIOLOGICAL WORKS produced in the last few years in Argentina, Uruguay, and throughout the Southern Cone are characterized by the overwhelming preponderance of two subjects: a warning about the effects of the so-called neoliberal structural reforms implemented during the 1990s (mainly, privatizations, liberalization of the labor market, and reform of social policies), and a description of the catastrophic social and economic crisis that signaled the end of the neoliberal era. Much of the literature of the period attempts to reconstruct the causes, depth, and gravity of the economic implosion that devastated Argentina (and to a lesser extent Uruguay and Bolivia) between 2000 and 2002.

Most explanations of the crisis share a focus on several key dimensions: the rising poverty, unemployment, exclusion, and violence that accompanied structural reform attempts (see items #bi2005005791# and #bi2005005883#); the relative ineffectiveness of the social policies designed to counteract social ills (items #bi2005005779# and #bi2005005874#); and the changes in social structures caused by immigration, the integration of women into the labor market, and similar transformations (items #bi2005005876# and #bi2005005763#). Excellent works seek to understand these processes and map out the impact of dramatic social transformations on already impoverished populations.

By reading the works that explore the causes and configurations of these socioeconomic crises, one can gain a comprehensive picture of what was, in the Argentine case, certainly the worst economic period of the century. The most striking feature of the works that seek to give an account of the crisis as it was developing is the sense of optimism that they exude. Sociologists, ethnographers, and political scientists give testimony to the creativity, the solidarity, and the resilience of civil society in Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay. When faced with the corrosiveness of economic and social disintegration, society itself took up the task of repairing its damaged tissue.

The years of the crisis were at the same time years of feverish communal activism and social and political creativity. Among the works reviewed here, many are dedicated to exploring the responses that Argentine, Uruguayan, Paraguayan, and Bolivian civil societies came up with to counteract the deleterious effects of economic and social disintegration.

Responses to the crises include new forms of sociability structured around religion, leisure and community organization (item #bi2005005783#); workers putting abandoned factories back into production; urban garbage recuperators or cartoneros (item #bi2005005789#); the piquetero (unemployed workers) movement (items #bi2005005889# and #bi2005005797#); and new forms of community organizations (item #bi2005005886#), youth groups, NGOs, and popular assemblies. These experiences demonstrate the remarkable resilience and resourcefulness of the peoples of these countries. The works reviewed here explore the potential for resistance and change that exists in South America.

Many of the works detailing these experiences have an enthusiastic, almost celebratory tone. This is perhaps to be expected. Written in the middle of the crisis, many works are strictly descriptive, almost journalistic, accounts of remarkable examples of solidarity and spirit. Many of the authors saw in the new experiences the promise of radical social and political transformations: from regime change to radical democratization. A few years later, however, the picture seems less clear: some of these social projects continue to thrive, some have been transformed or only exist as vestiges, and some, like the asambleas, have disappeared altogether. The expected wide transformations failed to take hold. Future research undoubtedly will have to explore subtler questions in a more dispassionate manner. Among the topics to be explored are the advantages and drawbacks of social organizations, and the types of organizations that appear most conducive to the creation of democracy and social solidarity versus those which were strictly defensive responses, adequate only for coping with an acute crisis.

Some additional areas call for further study. Only a few works are dedicated to labor organizations (item #bi2005005750#); comparative inter-country or inter-regional studies are scarce; and all the ethnographical accounts focus heavily on sometimes romanticized descriptions of subordinate groups with comparatively little written on dominant groups. Groundbreaking works about land property, interest groups, and power relations, about the life of the upper middle classes, bankers and financiers, politicians, and the powerful in general await the attention of future writers.

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