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Volume 65 / Social Sciences

SOCIOLOGY: ARGENTINA, CHILE, AND URUGUAY


MARÍA ESPERANZA CASULLO, Associate Professor, Universidad NAcional de Río Negro, Argentina

THE SOCIOLOGICAL PRODUCTION OF THE 2002–2005 period in Argentina was marked by an overarching theme: the causes and effects of the social and economic crisis that ravaged Argentina in 2001–2002.

In 2001 the deterioration of the country's financial situation triggered a widespread economic crisis that caused the progressive deterioration of its social and economic indicators. Unemployment rose to over 40 percent, poverty climbed to almost 50 percent, and political unrest grew accordingly. The Argentine government decided to freeze all bank assets and to compulsively confiscate savings accounts. In December of 2001, the then-president Fernando de la Rua was forced to resign in the midst of widespread protests, food riots, and police repression. In the two months that followed, Argentina changed five presidents, its currency devaluated over 300 percent, and there was a climate of unrest and uncertainty.

Understandably, in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, the social sciences focused on the responses that the Argentine civil society deployed to counterbalance the rising poverty, hunger and unemployment: neighbors who spontaneously opened soup kitchens, workers who put to work the factories that had been closed down by their owners, unemployed workers who organized politically. The Argentine civil society showed remarkable creativity and resilience in its fight to survive.

Five years later, the situation is markedly different. Argentina's economy bounced back in 2003, when it begun to grow at rates of over 8 percent a year. Néstor Kirchner, the serendipitous president who won the elections in 2003, applied a battery of measures that moved the country to a more center-left trajectory (relatively similar to the agendas pursued by Lula Da Silva's government in Brazil and Ricardo Lagos' government in Chile, for instance) and completed his four-year term in (relative) calm, at least for Argentine standards. Néstor Kirchner stepped down at the end of his term, and he was succeeded by his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who won the elections in 2007.

To a certain extent, the normalization of the Argentine political and economic life caused a change in the topics reflected in the sociological production. There is an obvious reduction in the number of studies on the piqueteros movement, recuperated factories, and other emergent phenomena.

As a matter of fact, the contemporary period of sociological production could be characterized as "the return of normal sociology." We encounter a surge in studies on such classic topics as demographic sociology, economic sociology, gender and family studies, and the like. There is a renewed interest in labor market dynamics, social stratification and other relatively more mainstream topics.

However, we still find some newer topics, or at least some new angles from which to look the social landscape. The first new issue has to do with the effects of the social crisis of 2001 and 2002 on the Argentine social structure. Five years ago, sociology seemed to have a more optimistic tone, enamored as it was with the then-surging expressions of social resistance and creativity. But the current body of work seems more pessimistic, since it is faced with what can be labeled the "permanent" social crisis. New studies find that, even after seven years of sustained economic growth, Argentina is a changed country, and not for the better. The polarization of the social structure, the rise in inequality, the degradation of the labor market have all come to stay; and it is no longer possible to maintain the illusion that these problems will be solved by economic growth per se.

Argentina always took pride in being a country with relatively low poverty, medium inequality, and a labor market characterized by high levels of unionization and upward social mobility. Unemployment and poverty were very low (at least for Latin American standards) until the end of the 1980s decade. But now, even after almost a decade of breakneck economic growth, 30 percent of the population is poor and unemployment is 10 percent. This is the new social structure that scholars need to make sense of.

Another area in which original production is being done is what might be characterized as "rich people" studies. For one cannot forget this paradoxical finding: the Argentina of the post-crisis is at the same time a much poorer country and a much richer one. The sudden change in the structures of wealth distribution caused the impoverishment of vast sectors of the middle and lower-middle classes, but it also caused a sudden influx of wealth to a sliver of the upper middle class, especially to those groups connected to the financial services industries and the exportable agricultural businesses (these two economic sectors are intimately connected, on the other hand.)

There are fascinating books that explore this new wealthy upper middle class, as well as their lifestyle, which is not identical either to the lifestyles of the older landed elites or of the older middle classes. For one, they are not urban, unlike "old" wealthy and middle class families. (These new upper middle classes have fled the urban centers, and have caused the explosive growth of the so-called countries (closed neighborhoods) in the outskirts of the city of Buenos Aires, an area that was much poorer.) This creates a new reality, in which wealthy closed neighborhoods coexists side by side with poor neighborhoods and even shantytowns. For another thing, they are delinked from the state, while "older" middle classes tended to be employed by the state. These new middle classes reject the old political parties, view all social relations through the prism of the market metaphor, and tend to vote for political entrepreneurs with a business background and no political expertise to represent them.

There is one topic, however, that is almost absent from this more recent body of sociological production, and it has to do with the violations to human rights committed by the last dictatorial regime (1976–83). There are some studies on the topic, but it does not have the importance that it had in previous years. Interestingly, though, this one topic is central in the Chilean sociological production. Quite evidently, the scholarly debate on the causes and effects of Pinochet's dictatorship (1973–90) in Chile has begun more recently there, and it should continue for some years.

The other topic that resonates throughout Chilean sociology is the structural inequality of the Chilean society, a fact that has persisted even after years of diminishing poverty rates. There are studies on the relation between inequality and education, housing and even the prison system.

To sum up, in both countries the sociological production of these last five years has less to do with the causes and effects of a sudden economic crisis and more to do with the structural challenges and limitations of Latin American social structures.


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