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  • Civilizing Argentina: Science, Medicine and the Modern State
  • Mariano Ben Plotkin
Civilizing Argentina: Science, Medicine and the Modern State. By Julia Rodriguez. Chapel Hill: University Press of North Carolina, 2006. Pp. xii, 306. Illustrations. Maps. Notes. Bibliographic Essay. Index. $59.95 cloth; $24.95 paper.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Argentina was considered a rising star among the former European colonies. With rates of literacy that compared favorably to those of many European countries, one of the fastest growing GDPs in the world, and over forty years of continuous democracy, it attracted masses of European immigrants. However, as Julia Rodriguez aptly shows in this well researched volume, there was a dark side to this material progress. Modernization revealed unexpected and undesired social and political consequences that required new forms of state intervention and social control: modern prisons, repressive legislation and other forms of control were set up by the state, with the complicity of a scientific elite. "[T]he golden era itself was tarnished. . . . Liberalism did not bring progress, let alone freedom and equality, for all, and it was, in practice, ridden with paradoxes of control and repression, for both men and women" (p. 3).

The book is divided in four parts: "Symptoms," "Diagnosis," "Prescriptions," and "Hygiene." The first part focuses on the reception and formulation of ideas of progress and the formation of a scientific elite closely tied to the state. The second part shows how the ideas of degeneration and abnormality legitimized forms of social control. "Prescriptions" introduces gender as a crucial category for the argument. Particularly successful is Chapter 5, where Rodriguez shows that women, [End Page 675] confined to the private sphere, were not a concern for the state until much later. The disciplining of women was left to private hands or to the Church. Finally, "Hygiene" is concerned with preventive measures taken by the elite to select and integrate immigrants into Argentine society.

Civilizing Argentina can be conceived of as part of a historiographic tradition that emerged in Argentina in the late 1970s, focusing on the mechanisms of social control put together by the elite to control immigrants (or society at large). Yet, the emphasis on social control generally fails to reveal the specificity of the particular case under study. It is easy to show, for instance, as Rodriguez intelligently does, that Argentine authorities were worried about the entrance of sick and politically and socially dangerous immigrants into the country. Yet the author fails to demonstrate what is specifically "Argentine" in the definition of what constituted a "dangerous immigrant." Arguably, such specificity was the fact that, in spite of all anti-immigration discourse, Argentine authorities and elites were very much aware that they needed immigrants for their program of modernization; the state never established quotas or other restrictive measures, as in the United States and elsewhere.

In other words, Argentines talked a lot about the need to control immigrants but did very little about it. Actually, as the author makes clear, only in very few cases were immigrants deemed dangerous sent back (except for political reasons, after the Ley de Residencia was passed in 1902). Moreover, the kind of repressive measures taken by the Argentine elite (or "oligarchy" as Rodriguez sometimes characterizes it) were relatively mild compared to those applied in Europe or the United States. Part of the reason for this "lack of social control" was the relative weakness of the Argentine state, a dimension not discussed in the book. Rodriguez's emphasis on social control also leads her to formulate broad generalizations and unsupported simplifications, such as in the concluding chapter where she claims a continuity between the policies discussed throughout the book and the "disappearance" of political opponents carried out by the military dictatorship in the 1970s. This kind of conclusion shows how difficult it can be, even for such a skilled historian as Rodriguez, to capture the nuances of historical processes. An unusual number of factual inaccuracies are also to be found throughout the book. For instance, President Carlos Menem was not inaugurated for his first term in office in 1992 but in 1989; Eduardo Wilde was never president of Argentina (as we read at least four...


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