- Indelible Inequalities in Latin America: Insights from History, Politics, and Culture ed. by Paul Gootenberg, Luis Reygadas
Income inequality in Latin America has ranked as the highest in the world in the second half of the twentieth century.1 The high level and persistence of inequality throughout has attracted the attention of scholars to explore how globalization, imperialism, and elite privileges have resulted in a structural violence against large parts of the population. And yet, in more recent years a more competitive political environment, the emergence of new popular movements, and the installment of leftist governments throughout the region have brought new awareness on the importance of agency and historical change in the study of poverty and living standards. In fact, the trends in concentration of income have started to reverse, following improvements in educational attainment and fiscal transfers to low-income sectors.2 [End Page 916]
Indelible Inequalities is an original and timely edited volume on the role of politics, culture, and historical legacies in the formation of inequality. Cultural studies assume inequality but often ignore the connections between distributional struggles over resources and the struggles over recognition. Economic studies often ignore the political and cultural mechanisms that reduce the transaction costs of hiring employees and help reproduce inequality over time, and they are unconcerned with the subjectivities of the economic agents. The result is a body of scholarship that obfuscates the view without focusing attention to the things that matter (pp. 194–195). Instead, this book puts forward a coherent framework for understanding the reproduction of inequality and poverty that is attentive both to historical processes and to the agency of historical actors.
In the first part, the editors lay out the conceptual foundations of the volume. Paul Gootenberg provides a solid overview to the study of inequality in the context of the social science and humanities scholarship, highlighting the need for increasing collaboration across the disciplines. The theoretical underpinning of the book is Charles Tilly’s theory of relational inequality. In contrast to views that propose that inequality is the result of the maldistribution of individual qualities, Tilly proposed that socially construed categories (white, black; citizen, noncitizen; man, woman; etc.) informed the allocation of resources at any single point in time, creating structural conditions of inequality that are reproduced through social relations.3 Gootenberg not only provides a roadmap to Tilly’s theory but also flags the major areas of improvements that the volume intends to cover—namely the need for a more historical and cultural understanding of inequality. Luis Reygadas’s chapter argues that inequality is not the outcome of a single mechanism but instead the result of the layering of multiple historical processes of racial and class distinctions, social barriers, and elite privileges. This is one of the chapters with a more historical and economic overview, and it includes an excellent discussion of what makes inequality in Latin America different from other regions of the world. [End Page 917]
The second part comprises three chapters dedicated to national or regional studies in Peru and Brazil. In the most detailed historical study of the collection, Christina Ewig fully realizes the potential of Tilly’s approach to the case of Peru’s health care system in the twentieth century. Health care expansion relied on distinctions of race, class, and gender that created opportunities for improvement for some, while it marginalized others to substandard services or made them dependent on intermediaries. Jeanine Anderson’s chapter is a sophisticated exploration of the dreams of transcendence among the poor in the shanty-towns of Lima. It prompts moving the study of poverty beyond measurement and questioning the gaze and the voice in the study of the subaltern. The author proposes that the poor’s own view of their lives is critical to understanding their strategies, and that dreams of transcending poverty are critical to such views. Lucio Renno provides a counterpoint to the other chapters in the collection by relying on statistical...