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WILLIAM L. CANAK, Associate Professor of Sociology, Middle Tennessee State University
Colombian and Venezuelan sociologists face difficult times in the late 1990s. Their world is defined by a weak economy and labor market, low real wages, job loss due to public sector austerity, and inadequate external funding for research and institutional support.
Since the inception of professional sociology in Colombia, a legacy of commitment to progressive and active research has marked the discipline as a target for conservatives. Today, some sociologists who work with popular reformist organizations in rural or urban contexts face death threats from leftist guerrillas, from right wing paramilitaries, and from narcotics Mafia. Many are taking low profiles and others have emigrated since the May 1999 assassination of Hernan Henao Delgado, Director of the Instituto de Estudios Regionales. The Univ. Nacional (Bogotá) remains at the epicenter of conflict, while private institutes such as the Caja de la Mujer and CINEP continue with funding from public and private sources in Europe (principally the Netherlands and Germany).
Colombia's sociological community has gone through a crisis marked by threats, violence, repression, organizational changes, and shifts in dominant research trends. Academic sociology proliferated in 1960s with the Alliance for Progress, Peace Corps, development of extension systems supporting rural development, and an increased role for sociology in designing policy and advising program implementation. International luminaries such as Albert Hirschman (economics) and Gene Havens (sociology) worked actively in Colombia. Analysis of peasant movements and the "agrarian question" dominated Colombian sociology. In the 1980s and 1990s Colombian sociology began shifting its focus toward such topics as urbanization, the informal economy and drug economy, and violence. In the 1990s, Colombian sociology's stress on political economy continues, but the context of social and political violence has driven many sociologists to adapt lower profiles while they struggle to continue a tradition of "action research" and commitment to social justice.
Venezuelan sociologists have seen the deterioration of public and private organizational infrastructures. Professional associations lack resources, but active memberships sustain their activities supporting a wide range of sociological specialties. Nevertheless, while sociologists may struggle with bureaucratic restrictions, the community of researchers is growing and they continue to work without facing repression. Venezuelans commonly regard sociologists as open-minded social critics, and thus as a threat to policymakers and political leaders. While sociological research in Venezuela mirrors core themes in North American sociology, emphasizing family, social psychology, crime and deviance, demography, and race and gender, recent years have shown evidence of a deepening caution. Given the turbulent economic and political environment, the sociological community has polarized into very leftist and very conservative factions. In 1990 the Venezuelan government began the Programa de Proción al Investigador establishing a nationally sponsored research capacity. Unfortunately, this effort has suffered from modest funding and serious delays in payments to researchers.