Whether on dissertation committees, scholarly panels, or when conducting peer review, we have all been confronted by what to make of cases that do not happen in the United States. Are they generalizable? Exceptional? And what do we call these cases if they’re not in Western Europe: “third world”, “peripheral,” “developing”? A vocable has come to be preferred: “Global South.”
This letter addresses this nominal issue, and cautions us against the facile and automatic use of a concept that has become devoid of the critical and relational character it was born with. As used in common sociological parlance, it is mobilized to make immediate sense of phenomena happening in non-US and non-Western European contexts, and transformed – to paraphrase Brazilian sociologist Gianpaolo Baiocchi – into a kind of orientalism in the name of diversity. The metaphor, when well used, refers not to an actual place but rather to a relational quality with respect to the metropole, which actually illuminates the same postcolonial and peripheral dynamics within, for instance, the US itself. (Something currently advanced by scholars of race, many of them part of the DuBoisian Scholars Network.)
We dedicate this year’s ASA Theory section panels to dissect this, to examine how knowledge of the US has been constituted and to how much recent calls to globalize theory end up, to a certain extent, reproducing some of the ethnocentric binaries behind the powerful formulation of the US as the de facto unit of analysis for producing generalizable knowledge. The latter is particularly poignant when thinking of how theories of/from Latin America are disseminated in our current sociological conversations. I’ll use most of this letter to discuss this point, anticipating what will be a far more elaborate conversation, thanks to a series of short newsletter articles that will be published in the Spring 2021 issue of Perspectives about how certain key discussions on terms like state, development, and environmental justice, among others, are operationalized in Latin America. The contributors are all Latin American sociologists working in the US and in countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Bolivia.
I do not mean to isolate the region as something separate from the rest of the world, but rather to recognize how the facile use of literatures from other regions – thanks to how much English has become an academic lingua franca – have occluded the visibility of similar dynamics in knowledge production coming in Spanish from Latin America, as well as our understanding of the historical dynamics and specificity of a region. While this might also be true for other regions, having done research on cosmopolitan practices in Argentina and Brazil, I'll draw my examples from the place and scholarly traditions I know best.
One recent strategy for illuminating how the US is and is not like other historical experiences has been built after exploring what the global scale is. Be it Commodity Chains, Empires, Transnational Networks, the global from below, the Global City, or world-systems theory, among many others, these theories have competed in sociology for the right to call a parcel of the world only by the name they have coined. More recently sociology has embraced a turn to use the term “Global South” to refer to countries that had been historically called “peripheral,” “underdeveloped,” or “Third world.” There are many valid reasons to do so, including the racialized character of the non-metropolitan countries, the legacies of the colonial pasts, the extra-activist character of the economic relationship between center and periphery, the possibilities for an alternative epistemology to the disciplinary legacies that have ignored the gender and racial biases of the canon, and the possibility of comparing what look like a priori divergent historical trajectories, but with a relatively common matrix.
And yet, as recently signaled by Latin Americanist Pablo Palomino (2019), theories of the Global North and the Global South hide a remarkable heterogeneity of historical experiences. Moreover, the over reliance in US sociology of scholarship in English has, paradoxically, resulted in the erasure of Latin America, captured by the moniker “Global South,” without observing the variation in ideological, racial, sociological, and institutional features with respect to the regions that engendered most of the “Global South” conversation. The postcolonial liberation movement in India and in Southeast Asia, and to a lesser extent Africa, has been a powerful frame with which to rethink our discipline and how we think of what exists “out there,” but when it comes to the divergent relationship to colonialism, nationhood and knowledge production, being apart of the “Global South” has turned Latin America into something invisible, without historical specificity, which ends up somehow paradoxically reproducing the ethnocentric gaze in which “everything that is far from us looks the same.”
It has also – again not in the work of scholars who have engaged with this tradition in detail, but in its automatic deployment – made itself blind to the “Global South” dynamics of the US itself. We end up reproducing concepts for comparison, without establishing what kind of comparison we are vying for, or actually comparing them. As problematic as the Global South label is when used without much reflection, let me argue that it’s particularly problematic in the case of Latin America.
Though this global and comparative impetus – which existed already in writings from the Dependency school theorists, as I thematize later in the letter – is a necessary step to see what these non-center countries share beyond the specific contexts, it eludes the questions about the historical specificity, the temporality of the entrance to modernity, the multiple ways in which colonial and non-colonial relationships have evolved in the longue durée, as well as how much its study help us to see a decentered relationship to the metropolis. Latin America contains dramatically diverse experiences. It has combined “developed” and “underdeveloped” regions, it contains nation states that have been independent for, in some cases, almost two centuries; more recently, Argentina, Uruguay and Mexico State expanded abortion rights, as several US states began to roll them back.
The binary “global south-global north” when lightly used – and I’m discussing here how the latter has become a quick stand in for any country other than the US, UK, Germany and France in US sociology – risks (on this, see the excellent book by Monika Krause, 2021, Model Cases on Canonical Research Objects and Sites, Chicago: University of Chicago Press), then, the reification rather than the illumination of their mutual intertwining and the multiple experiences of modernity. Of course, there are many scholars who have worked on this with much more detail, seriousness, and depth, but my fear as a Latin American scholar in the US is that the quick use of the moniker “Global South” has, in its easy use, done the opposite of what those scholars wanted: to illuminate the historical specificities of countries in the peripheries as well as at the center.
This has powerful consequences for the internationalization of social sciences. There is an impetus to extend themes and theories of the US into new contexts, without reading much local scholarship, or when done, using them as “input” in what is not an intellectual dialogue but rather viewed as stepping stones to build away from (on this see the work of Fernanda Beigel). There is also the related tendency to discard all theories by peripheral scholars that don’t conform to the established geographical division of labor, or to always expect the pairing of what happens in Latin America with issues of inequality. To quote council member Monika Krause (2021: 112): “Some of these scholars may see their work rejected by some prestigious Western journals as not enough of “general interest” and then see their work rejected by other prestigious Western journals “as not critical enough.”
This letter is of course not an invitation to stop using categories that posit the situated historical character of knowledge and power. Rather, it seeks to reflect even further about them, and their historicity. Relatedly, ASA Distinguished Book Award winner Hector Carrillo (2017) has invited us to discuss how globalization is a patterned and unequal process, but that it does not happen unidirectionally. One could paraphrase current theory council member Julian Go (2015: 94) – one of the central scholars in advocating for the incorporation of postcolonial theories into the sociological canon both in his scholarship and in the work he does as the editor of the journal Political Power and Social Theory (From this journal, for instance, these articles are great attempts to transpose postcolonial theories to a Latin American context. Bohr, Marcelo, 2021. “Race and the Diplomatic Bureaucracy: State-Building in Nineteenth-Century Bolivia as a Response to Transnational Racialization Threats;” as well as Jose Bortolucci and Robert Jansen. 2013. Toward a Postcolonial Sociology: The View from Latin America. ) – and push further into his formulation that “post-colonial theories involved the transposition of narratives, concepts or theories derived from the standpoint of one location to the rest of the world,” and ask what would entail to apply the same “provincializing” toolkit to the theories of the Global South when applied to Latin America. The push of the section panels for ASA 2022 is to start thinking about how the current set of perspectives constitute themselves, a yet incomplete exercise that does not fully capture the divergent attempts to conceptualize the globalized character of the Latin American experience(s).
As I mentioned, the next issue of the newsletter will invite Latin American scholars working in Latin America and in the US to discuss what are the main issues in their agenda, and how they make sense of them. In the meantime, I’ll mention some key authors that have historical significance, and who make valiant attempts to promote a better understanding of the interrelationship between phenomena in/of Latin America and our current toolkit for making sense of them, thereby turning the issue back onto the question of why knowledge generated in the US is the one always being transposed. We could posit that some of the best traits of the Global South frame existed in nuce, already there. Of course, like every list, it reflects collective and personal preferences; it is incomplete, polemical and, much like this letter, the starting point of a conversation, not a point of arrival.
Theories of populism – which became of central importance to the study of US politics after Trump – have existed since the 1970s, with vigorous debates between Emilio De Ipola and Ernesto Laclau, among others, trying to make sense of foundational populist experiences in Perú, México, Brazil and Argentina. Theories of dependency (by scholars Celso Furtado, Enzo Faletto, Fernando Cardoso and Andre Gunder-Frank, all nucleated at the CEPAL) have underscored from the 1960s already the relational, inequal, extractivist, and neo-colonial character of the exchange terms between Latin America and Europe and the US. More recently, Maristella Svampa and Verónica Gago have emphasized the ethnic and gendered character of this. Studies of urban informality – which became important in American Urban Sociology in the 2000s once the urban, Fordist matrix of the US welfare state disintegrated to a great degree – flourished in the study of precarious urban settlements in the 1970s and on, with scholarship by Janice Perlman, Gino Germani, José Nun, or Elizabeth Jelin. Scholars such as Rodolfo Stavenhagen in Mexico, or Florestan Fernandes in Brazil have produced avant-la-lettre yet failed explanations of the intertwined character of capitalist exploitation and the fate of indigenous and afro populations. Relatedly, the study of gender and care work has fabulous antecedents – partially because domestic work is far more extended in this context – in the scholarship of Brazilian sociologist Heleieth Saffioti, and was further developed in the 1970s by Cuban-based activists and theorists Isabel Larguía and John Dumoulin. (On this consult the recent work by Latin American pioneer Elizabeth Jelin. 2021. “Género, etnicidad/raza y ciudadanía en las sociedades de clases.” Nueva Sociedad 293.)
For people like me, educated until their PhD below the tropic of Cancer, issues of hybridity come from Brazilian theories of antropofagia (coined in the later 1920s by Oswald de Andrade), or the inspired prose of Argen-Mex García Canclini in the late 1980s and the debate that it fostered about the incomplete character of the relationship between center and periphery, the futility to search for “pure and authentic” cultural forms, and the political relationship between elite, popular and mass culture. Scholars advocating for more empathetic and collaborative methods to qualitatively study subaltern population would be well served in checking the work of Colombian urbanist Osvaldo Fals Borda, who in the 1970s and on established, with numerous colleagues, a program for what he called “participatory action research.”
It’s not capriciously that I end this short piece here, with García Canclini and Fals Borda who engage the work of Antonio Gramsci – central to thought on “the Southern question” at the core of the “Global South” framework, and with Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator who has become a beacon in advocating for more horizontal and collaborative linkages in the production of knowledge. Let’s be inspired by them, and hope our next ASA is a great opportunity to keep building theory together.