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Comparative Technology Transfer and Society 1.2 (2003) 198-200

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Notes from the Field

Josiah McC. Heyman
Sociology and Anthropology Department, University of Texas at El Paso

Edward Beatty provides an exemplary instance of studying technology transfer in an open-ended fashion, without falling into narrow assumptions about determinism and progress. My goal in this comment is to underscore this break with our everyday assumptions about the directions and causes of "modernization," including the notion that industrial technology comes as a package with Western economic, political, and cultural values, and that certain (usually wealthy and powerful) sectors of society are the natural leaders of change. From the 1960s on, scholars questioned such assumptions, and like the present article, emphasized local complexities and inflections. Some went so far as to deny any modernization at all, and stressed how change was imposed from the outside, a view that Beatty capably explores and criticizes. But, justifying much of the present social order, modernization has many lives, returning in the 1980s and 1990s in the form of nebulous linkages of advanced technologies with openness to the West and political and financial liberalization. Just as Beatty notes the striking parallels between the Mexico of 1876 to 1911 and the 1990s and 2000s, so too do observations that make more complex the 19th-century story of modernization also challenge our understanding of it in the present.

The Mexican story leads us to ask, who are the carriers of technological modernization? Beatty outlines a useful distinction between kinds of technologies that diffused to only one or a few hands, modernizing the country but also making or reinforcing monopolies of wealth and power, and technologies that spread widely among small- and medium-scale businesses and consumers. Both are "modernization," but they come from and create very different social structures. Because conventional histories of Mexico in this era describe, with much justification, large-scale enterprises and monopolies of power, it is enlightening to see modernization happening from the bottom up, among the consumers of Singer sewing machines and builders of small boilers. We note also the innovative role of immigrants, people who stood outside Mexico's existing social hierarchy but were committed to living in the country, and thus unlike both domestic elites and transnational investors. [End Page 198]

Sophisticated modernization theories do account for unusual innovators, but commonplace modernization discourse assumes that the progressive role is played by major economic elites, obviously justifying their role in society. Beatty's study of Mexico shows that the record of such elites was actually quite mixed. It is thus worth offering readers a bit more background on this country. As a heritage of Spanish conquest, forced labor, and the handing out of large estates, one tendency of the Mexican upper class was to seek rents (collecting income from trapped economic assets rather than through undertaking risk). Another was to invest money made in other enterprises in land and imported fineries. From 1821 to 1876, Mexico suffered a complicated series of civil wars between modernizing and anti-modern elites. Even in the 1876 to 1911 period, many upper-class Mexicans harkened back to an era in which land-holding was the greatest value, urban and commercial wealth was accepted only if it could be converted back to land, renter income was favored, the Catholic church dominated the life of the mind, and aristocratic hierarchy was taken for granted. In the course of the 20th century, such tendencies of many (but not all) in the Mexican upper class continued, although the rent-seeking behavior shifted toward industries and finance protected by an authoritarian, planned-developmentalist government (1920 to 1982). Most recently (1982 to present), this behavior shows itself through insider deals in the privatization of state enterprises and outrageous financial speculation and capital flight. Ironically, the Mexican elite acts quite eager to Westernize culturally, taking as its models first Britain and France, and more recently the United States. A roughly similar story can be told for most Latin American countries.

Nineteenth-century Mexico might be usefully compared with Japan, which more strongly seized...


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