This volume is yet another spin-off from the monumental Cambridge History of Latin America (CHLA), directed by Leslie Bethell, which has already earned rave scholarly reviews throughout the 1990s. Economy and Society since 1930 is an integrated collection of seven survey articles, some abridged, that were previously published in the two-part volume 6 of the CHLA. The present book deals with Latin America’s most contemporary, and in some ways most momentous historical chapter, from the Great Depression of the 1930s (a hopeful new beginning for much of the region) to the not-so-great depression of the 1980s (generally seen as a disenchanting denouement of the earlier period, a “lost decade” rather than a new direction). These seven essays are unabashedly economic and sociological in orientation, though the kind of economics and sociology practiced here, in contrast to our North American garden varieties, are decidedly more historical and socially rooted, given that they have been influenced by British political economy and development sociology as well as by the Latin American structuralist tradition. These essays were repackaged here, replete with their helpful bibliographic [End Page 551] essays, presumably for mass consumption in college Latin America survey courses.
So much has been said about the Cambridge History of Latin America. What might be added about this selection, from the vantage point of the late-late 1990s, is the impressive sense of collective scholarly purpose one feels poring through this product, written by the first truly professional class of global “Latin Americanists.” The generation of the 1960s and 1970s represented here came together—despite their vigorous debates—on the terms of their empirical research project and around the terms of interdisciplinary discourse. This is an achievement, however, that may get lost on the generation of the 1980s and 1990s, who, less drawn to political economy or social theory, may find these essays rather dry and descriptive, and certainly remote from today’s less focused (or less “essentializable”) cultural turns. College history students, on the other hand, may find these narratives not too grand but rather too detailed for their tastes. This book will likely find its audience in courses on the contemporary sociology, development, or economies of Latin America, or as a reference for scholars in search of recent overarching trends.
The volume is divided into four parts, beginning with a population survey by Thomas W. Merrick. Here, along with a few neo-Malthusian controversies, one learns of the shape of Latin America’s last half-century of burgeoning humanity (from some 110 to 450 million people) and of its changing fertility, family, and migratory patterns. The second part, on economy, comprises three chapters—by Victor Bulmer-Thomas, Rosemary Thorp, and Ricardo French-Davis and Gabriel Palma—and forms the heart of this book. Here we get sophisticated reviews of the germination and flowering of industrialism under external constraints—in macroeconomic terms, Latin America grew and diversified dramatically in the period from 1935 to 1980—with each essay fertilized by the long scholarly concerns of each economic historian (the impacts of the commodity lottery, multinational corporations, urban price biases, and external capital flows). All these essays do a good job of combining general or global movements with national variations and comparisons, though it seems hard to fully assess the still-smoldering 1980s crises of import substitution and state activism. The third section, with contributions by Orlandina de Oliviera and Bryan Roberts, and by Norman Long and Bryan Roberts, focuses on the social consequences of these economic and demographic transformations, in illuminating surveys of the historic shifts in urban and rural social “structures”—in short, the huge move from traditionally unequal agrarian societies to today’s maze of urban power inequalities. Given its focus, the volume just might have included the separate CHLA essay on modern labor. Finally, in part four, Lawrence Whitehead serves up a lone chapter on the state in contemporary Latin America, of equally notable expansion, and with a keen stress on state organization.
In sum, this CHLA “sampler” offers historians and students alike a chance to view the latest chapters in Latin American history, from perspectives that will hopefully still [End Page 552] prove viable as Latin America turns the corner on a new century—and perhaps to new and renewed possibilities ahead.