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Volume 65 / Social Sciences


HANNAH WITTMAN, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Simon Fraser University

CONTEMPORARY RESEARCH IN CENTRAL AMERICAN SOCIOLOGY continues to evolve methodologically, deepening a commitment to ethnography, extended qualitative interviewing, critical case-study research, and cultural/historical analysis. Mirroring an international trend, mixed-method approaches that integrate quantitative and survey data with qualitative case studies are appearing more frequently in the literature.

Topically, following the recent trend, the largest volume of new works continues to analyze youth and gang violence in Central America. Studies in this area have moved from quantifying and identifying the geographic spread of violence, mainly to inform containment strategies, towards a more qualitative and historical understanding of the root and structural causes of youth violence. This approach has involved the investigation of student rivalries and adolescent identity construction in schools (e.g., item #bi2008003932#) as well as demonstrating the socioeconomic characteristics that indicate conditions of vulnerability and social exclusion for youth (items #bi2007003064# and #bi2007003066#) caused by the removal of socioeconomic supports and stability precipitated by the imposition of neoliberalism in the 1980s and 1990s (item #bi2007005150#). Several studies reflect on the systematic presence of violence and fear in political, institutional, academic, and media discourses on gangs that dehumanize gang members and obscure institutional violence (cf. item #bi2008001454#), while others reflect on the internationalization of gang violence and the transition from youth gangs to adult crime networks. A comprehensive comparative study of civil society responses to gang violence across Central America provides useful insight into the role of social participation and civil rights in youth transformation (item #bi2008003949#).

Ongoing interest in subject and identity formation in postwar Central America also continues to be at the forefront of current research. This topic is represented by several notable studies which examine the complex navigation of indigenous and ladino identities in Guatemala, including a presentation of the concept of "neoliberal multiculturalism," which arguably has opened important spaces for indigenous empowerment while simultaneously reproducing Guatemala's racial hierarchy (item #bi2008003951#). In the same vein, other in-depth longitudinal studies investigate the dynamics of community building and identity formation among returned exiles in Ixcán and Petén (item #bi2009001227#) and other, less commonly researched diasporic communities in Central America, including Chinese immigrants in Panama (item #bi2008003950#) and Russian and other former Soviet immigrants in Costa Rica (item #bi2006002330#). Issues of identity, labor, and gender intersect in several notable works that look at processes of subject formation as shaped by participation in export production and consumption in contexts of structural and symbolic violence (items #bi2008002474# and #bi2008002196#).

In fact, almost a quarter of the items reviewed for this section revive and deepen recent forays into multifaceted aspects of gender and gendered social change in Central America, also in methodologically and substantively diverse ways. An outstanding study on gender and the media in Guatemala, for example, uses in-depth interviews and focus groups with women reporters and columnists from Guatemala's six major periodicals to analyze women's role in the media—as workers as well as subjects (item #bi2008003946#). Complementary studies on gender and revolution in Nicaragua and El Salvador analyze how and why women participated in revolutionary armies (item #bi2008002356#), or conversely, became positioned as Contra supporters (item #bi2008002786#). Both of these studies highlight revolution and counterrevolution as arenas of cultural struggle in which women must negotiate both gender and political identities. In the same vein, a comprehensive study on the women's movement in Guatemala from 1986–2003 demonstrates how movements and activists negotiated global restructuring, noting the institutionalization and NGO-ization of the women's movement as it moved from protest to policy (item #bi2006000503#). Notable for its careful acknowledgement of issues of ethnicity, class, and geographical location in transformation of gender identities, this study also delves into the fruitful areas of the redefinition of gendered citizenships. Overall, this growing research area highlights the various ways in which women's participation in political struggles has facilitated their repositioning within their communities in the postwar period, wherein they have developed new forms of political action that both utilize and transform gender roles. On a more applied note, a large group of quantitative surveys supported by case studies or targeted interviews inform demographic and public health programs in gender, health, and family planning policy, while a second group of studies analyzes issues of gender, incarceration and domestic violence in Guatemala as a basis for recommending specific reforms of the penal and judicial systems.

Several retrospective analyses of post-peace accord political reforms provide useful insights into perceptions of justice and processes of memory by examining the impact of truth commissions. For example, one rigorous comparative study of implementation processes and outcomes of peace negotiations in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Colombia (item #bi2008003948#), concludes that despite the distinct trajectories of each peace process, successful peace accord negotiations produced common effects including the reduction of violence and the facilitation of more open political systems. Several other studies counter this conclusion, however, arguing that peace negotiations have in fact facilitated the imposition of neoliberal policies that failed to fundamentally restructure government and economic systems in favor of the poor. This policy failure is then linked to current levels of interpersonal and community or gang violence that may be even more pervasive than during the periods of war.

The subfield of environmental sociology, in Central America and beyond, has expanded exponentially since the late 1990s in response to growing concern about global environmental degradation, the relationship between livelihoods and conservation, and development- and conservation-induced displacement of rural and indigenous populations. Often in collaboration with local NGOs, development agencies, and long term ethnographic relationships with rural communities in Central America, many new sociological works examine issues including the discourse and practice of environmental sustainability and the social costs and benefits of the growing imposition of international conservation models to rural areas. Several of these studies are particularly important for the way in which they integrate qualitative and ethnographic data with quantitative land-use and satellite data to explore how nature shapes human relations and vice versa (cf. items #bi2009001222# and #bi2009001228#). Notable are identifications of the role of cultural values and beliefs in the social construction of distinct "environmentalisms" that emerge as a result of complex interactions between global environmental values and local historical, political, and environmental factors (cf. item #bi2009000729#).

While sociology of religion has mostly disappeared from the Central American research agenda, studies of migration (both to the US and within the region) is a continued solid area of focus, with particular attention paid not only to socioeconomic impacts, but also to the comparative cultural and political implications of demographic change. Persistent interest in transnational social movement organization has fostered several fruitful studies on the transformation of peace and antiwar activism characteristic of the last decades of the 20th century to contemporary antiglobalization and trade-oriented struggles. In this area, several notable contributions analyze power dynamics between activists in the global North and South to assess the creation and growth of transnational movements (items #bi2008003952# and #bi2008002409#), while another analyzes civil society networks that are opposed to the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in El Salvador, identifying two kinds of opposition coalitions: "critic negotiators" and "transgressive resisters" (item #bi2008003048#).

I would like to thank Rachel Elfenbein for assistance with the annotated bibliography.

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