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Volume 57 / Social Sciences

SOCIOLOGY: CENTRAL AMERICA


TIMOTHY P. WICKHAM-CROWLEY, Associate Professor of Sociology, Georgetown University


THE RECENT LITERATURE in Central American sociology continues to blossom and diversify, even as some areas remain largely ignored. The decline of organized, civil war/revolutionary violence by the mid-1990s has unsurprisingly turned some scholars away from analyses of violence and toward examinations of “returns to normalcy.” Each of these avenues toward more peaceful societies reveals its own complex costs and trade-offs, despite the welcomes given to peace processes. Sociological research that continues to concentrate on eras of violence is informed more by fine-grained, local research and is rooted less in a dependency perspective than in political economy and/or political sociology in general. Class and ethnic inequalities, social movements, and State-oriented demands in particular have emerged as significant topics of study. These works help us to understand revolutionary processes and conflicts (before and after the transfer of power), as well as the dynamics of other social movements. Detailed work on upper-class family networks continues, following in the footsteps of Samuel Stone’s Heritage of the conquistadors. Barrington Moore’s classic study of Eurasian politics, Social origins of dictatorship and democracy, is still being employed critically, yet fruitfully, in several works; key here is the long-awaited study by Jeffery Paige on coffee and power during the 20th century (item bi 97005633).

All such macrosociological perspectives, dependency theory included, now find intellectual competition in a growing literature that is clearly sociological or historical-sociological in viewpoint, yet grows out of a text-oriented, cultural studies perspective. Various national political cultures are regarded as negotiated social creations, “contested terrains,” where various subordinate or marginal groups create or are urged to create, alternatives to the mainstream national culture; exemplars include David Whisnant’s groundbreaking book on Nicaragua (item bi 97003327) and several works on Costa Rican national culture.

With regard to migration studies in this “postwar” period, increasing attention is being paid to the difficulties of returned migrants and also to migrants who may not return home even after the forces that prompted their departure have gone away. In these cases, their experiences in and impact upon their host-society-turned-new-home become central, with, of course, a focus on inter-ethnic tensions. Those studies are complemented by good research on internal migration and on migrants’ lives in cities, which in turn is complemented by Portes and Lungo’s new collection on urban dynamics.

Continuing previous patterns in research (and in activist writings), the dynamics and dangers of war, neoliberal policies at home, and changing experiences of a shifting global economy are routinely analyzed from the perspective of the society as a whole and across class and ethnic structures, in urban or agrarian settings. Many other studies examine how those processes differentially (and often for the worse) affect women’s lives in particular. More and better studies thus focus on women’s access to (maquila) jobs, to equal wages, to land, to incomes via the informal economy, and so forth. More generally, the literature on women’s experiences continues to expand apace, to intersect with virtually all other topics of scholarly interest, and to move into new terrain, like a careful study of midwifery in El Salvador (item bi 97003279). Bibliographical guides and country-specific collections appear intermittently to help scholars sort through the growing mass of studies on women, even as newer and/or deeper studies focus on issues like male violence against women, especially in households (e.g., item bi 96001237). In the twin contexts of home and school, children are emerging as a new topic of research in works on their socialization, their varied experiences (including those of paid work or of war), and their own perceptions of society itself have all been the topics of recent books. Yet the classic, focal triad of mother/father/child and their social interrelations are mostly ignored in recent writing. Perhaps this lacuna reflects some mix of the historical weakness of family sociology in Latin American studies, also the specifically feminist turn in much household research, and finally the sheer empirics of widespread father-absent households. Despite one good recent study of juvenile delinquency in Honduras (item bi 96020700) and Wiegand’s work on the Belizean black market (item bi 95006623), the study of deviance, crime and criminology, so widely and deeply developed in North American sociology, still has very little counterpart literature within Central America. One might include in this category the ample literature on terror and corruption, however, these studies tend to have a governmental, rather than “street-crime” focus.

Core values and beliefs of the ordinary people of Central America still loom large. The literature on the increasingly competitive “religious economy” (to use North American sociologist Rodney Stark’s term) of Central America continues to move away from simplistic views of the spread of evangelical Protestants and Protestantism as both conservative and imperialistic for the good reason that careful evaluation suggests that their growing popularity owes quite little to such impulses. Research-based data and information, both qualitative and quantitative, enrich studies of evangelical belief and the evangelicals themselves. Importantly, much new work on the Catholic Church also seems to have been generated by the new religious dynamic of the region, and many studies, especially the statistical ones, systematically juxtapose profiles and responses of Catholics and evangelicals, including subgroups of each. Rarely do we find very large differences on core issues. The recent focus on giving voice to the evangelicals themselves, rather than imputing to them certain motives and attitudes, had its earlier yet still growing counterpart in many studies which recount the lives, words, and autobiographies of non-famous people. The selections that follow thus include, for example, letters from migrants in the United States to loved ones back home, the life-story of a Guatemalan Indian, and the voices of many and varied women.


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