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Volume 63 / Social Sciences


HANNAH WITTMAN, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Simon Fraser University

RECENT RESEARCH ON THE POST-WAR SOCIOLOGY of Central America has transitioned from the dominant influence of political sociology towards a diverse literature with many new globalization-influenced themes and methodological perspectives. Postwar investigation into new cultural forms of peace and everyday violence have dominated the literature in El Salvador and Guatemala, the most well-represented among publications in Central American sociology during this period, while examinations of intraregional migration, political identity, and demographic change characterize the ongoing production from Costa Rica. The linked themes of globalization, labor, and grassroots activism also are emerging as topics of focus across the region, with a tendency towards the use of social network analysis, ethnography, and case studies rather than macrosociological perspectives.

More than a decade after the signing of the last Peace Accords in Central America, studies of violence and terror have turned away from the formal examination of war and conflict towards the consideration of the violence of everyday life in many Central American countries. The largest subset of new literature in Central American sociology deals with the increasing phenomenon of urban youth violence throughout the region, a topic of research that has only come under scholarly attention since the mid-1990s. These studies emerge from a range of theoretical and methodological perspectives that include government-sponsored demographic portraits of youth gangs in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala; closely nuanced ethnographies of street gang members and their families; and participatory studies of youth culture, exploitation, and violence sponsored by NGOs and community research institutions. Important reviews of the existing research on youth gangs in Central America (maras and pandillas) argue that these new social groups are a consequence of neoliberal globalization that destroys traditional forms of economic subsistence and social organization, resulting in the formation of youth gangs as form of cultural survival (items #bi2005004803# and #bi2006002976#). Several studies also explore the nuanced differences among gang characteristics across the region as a function of varying levels of state repression and the influence of transnational gang networks, particularly from the US (items #bi2006002993#, #bi2004000912#, and #bi2006002992#).

Beyond gang violence, an increasing attention to the many social problems faced by underserved youth in the region has resulted in general treatments of social citizenship and urban violence that call for further research (see especially item #bi2004002342#); several NGOs and social organizations have sponsored valuable pilot studies on sexual exploitation of youths, particularly in Costa Rica and Panama (items #bi2006002982# and #bi2006002551#) that will surely be the basis for additional analysis and study. In Guatemala and El Salvador, in particular, research has emerged focusing on the social psychology of postwar political violence, and conversely, on the newly surfacing movements to instill a culture of peace. These studies provide a historical perspective on the culture of terror and impunity developed over centuries, and provide nuanced analyses of potential paths towards a political and social cultural turn towards peace (see especially items #bi2006002989#, #bi2006002994#, and #bi2006002996# for Guatemala and item #bi2006002995# for El Salvador). Finally, while there has been a significant drop in themes related to rural sociology in the last few years, several studies continue to analyze rural violence and ongoing conflicts over land and power, in Guatemala in particular (items #bi2006002983# and #bi2006002981#).

The cultural turn in Central American sociology has continued with a wide range of works examining culture, ethnicity, and identity primarily from a political-historical perspective. Especially outstanding contributions include a closely researched ethnography exploring the nexus of cultural tradition and modernity in Nicaraguan festival (item #bi2006000519#), a section of an edited volume analyzing culture and identity in contemporary El Salvador (item #bi2005000866#), and an outstanding new key reference in the field examining the contours of political culture and identity in Central America since the 1920s (item #bi2006002971#). These volumes variously attend to the ways in which political and economic globalization has influenced the development of new forms of local cultural discourse and sense of belonging, as well as examining new strategies of interaction between political and economic elites and other social categories (indigenous peoples, migrants, women, and the laboring and middle classes). The historically strong tradition of several leading research organizations in Central America producing solid research that fosters social change is evident in both the compelling series of works on investigating a culture of peace (mentioned above) and the continuing analysis of themes of racism and social inequality (for an action-oriented analysis of the potential for overcoming racism in Guatemala, see in particular item #bi2006002967#).

The expansion of literature on Central American migration to the US has continued at a steady pace, covering both the social implications of multiculturalism and labor-related issues in North America and the disappearance of men and young people from communities and villages in rural regions of Central America. A newly growing concern with the political and cultural effects of intraregional migration has recently fostered numerous studies engaged in ethnographic and text/media-oriented analysis of changing perceptions of national culture and identity within Central American host countries and their increasingly complex relationships with incoming migrants from neighboring zones. In this regard, research in Costa Rica has fostered a copious literature analyzing the impacts of Nicaraguan and (to a lesser extent) Salvadoran migration on the sense of national identity in that country. Notable are the treatments of racism, discourse, and representation of regional migrants, through the useful employment of multi-method approaches including feminist and language theory, discourse analysis, and demography; also represented in this literature are treatments of a wide range of other issues related to migration within, rather than from, Central America including remittances, distribution of labor, gender, and education (see especially items #bi2006002991#, #bi2005001893#, and #bi2007004013#).

Although the number of works engaging with traditional themes within the sociology of religion in Latin America (e.g., the rising social influence of evangelical Protestantism and the secularization hypothesis) has fallen dramatically, several notable contributions address the role of religious institutions and social networks in shaping the structure of transnational migrant communities (see especially items #bi2007002032# and #bi2007002031#) and in influencing models of postwar reconciliation and community organization. An outstanding contribution to the literature on religion and globalization in the Americas challenges previous arguments regarding secularization and presents valuable evidence instead for the social importance of an increasingly heterogeneous religious experience in a globalized and deterritorialized context (item #bi2007002030#).

While the quantity and scope of traditional forms of gender analysis have diminished within Central American sociology, several interesting new works address the intersections of gender, labor, and globalization. One notable example addresses the gendered politics of production in Guatemala sugar plantations (item #bi2005003041#), while several works address transnational links in women's labor organization in the maquila sector. An outstanding contribution in this area based on several years of interviews and participant observation traces the complexities of transnational political organizing while maintaining grassroots autonomy, and explores the tensions between reformist and transformative globalization "from below" within the labor movement (item #bi2005004545#). An important review of the gendered links between economic and political participation in Guatemala in the 20th century is also notable (item #bi2003003621#).

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