The Challenge of Feminist Political Geography to State-Centrism in Latin American Geography
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The Challenge of Feminist Political Geography to State-Centrism in Latin American Geography


In 2003, Juanita Sundberg provocatively claimed that masculinist epistemologies “predominate” in Latin Americanist geography (Sundberg 2003: 180). Sundberg argued that this masculinism has found expression in some scholars’ claims to disembodied objectivity in the research process, and in a widespread unwillingness to acknowledge social positions that facilitate our production of knowledge about Latin America. Here, we are interested in a collateral tendency of such masculinist scholarship: state-centrism. Ince and Barrera de la Torre (2016) clarify that tendencies towards state-centrism are not specific only to geographical research in/of Latin America. We suggest that the moment is ripe for reflecting specifically upon the stakes of a more robust feminist turn in the political geography of Latin America, a turn that would examine the state as an effect of everyday life and processes of social reproduction. Specifically, we argue that a feminist orientation towards ethnographies of the state is important for challenging masculinist tendencies towards state-centrism that naturalize the “view from nowhere” (Haraway 1988: 582) and thereby lend “the state” its power. Looking beyond the illusion of state space as a neutral backdrop for political life (Coleman and Stuesse 2016: 528) allows us to recognize how people who identify or may dis-identify with “the state” produce situations of governability or, conversely, elicit radical social change through practices of social reproduction that state-centric scholarship on political life may not immediately identify as its object of study.

While we observe decades of important feminist contributions to geographical research on the region (e.g. Radcliffe and Westwood 1996; Cravey 1998; Sundberg 2003; Mollett 2010; Swanson 2010; Radel 2012), we also note an enduring state-centrism in commonsense geographical imaginaries of Latin America, for which feminist political geography could serve as a corrective. The proponents of state-centric geographical imaginaries are rarely explicit about their assumptions. Indeed, more prevalent is what Ince and Barrera de la Torre (2016: 13) call a “silent statism,” or a failure to recognize the contingency of the state form as a mode of organizing society. In the remaining pages, we reflect upon and assess the implications of a feminist turn away from silent statism in [End Page 185] geographical scholarship in/about Latin America – a turn that resonates with the work of feminist political geographers in other research communities.

Feminist political geographical literature on the state has, since the 1990s, challenged statist theories of the political that reproduce a myth of the state’s autonomous power to determine the coordinates of political life. Its adherents have subjected state power to critical scrutiny through an ethnographic approach that reveals how everyday practices of social reproduction may construct spaces for the exercise of state authority. In what follows, we first define what it means to think about the political “beyond the state,” with an eye to social reproduction. We briefly summarize feminist political geographers’ contributions to the relevant transdisciplinary scholarship, and we clarify how this feminist shift in orientation matters for geographical scholarship in/about Latin America. In the second section, we present brief examples from our efforts to look “beyond the state” in our own research. We show how Bolivians and Mexicans participate in constructing an actionable state/non-state distinction, and producing governable “state space.” We conclude by arguing that a feminist turn in political geographies of the state in Latin America would train our attention to the vital role of struggles over social reproduction in recent political developments in the region, while promising to denaturalize a social-spatial ordering of everyday life that sustains injustice. In short, as the editorial team of the Journal of Latin American Geography (Gaffney et al. 2016: 1) has reaffirmed a commitment to “socially engaged” research that confronts injustice in the region, we believe feminist political geography has a vital role to play.

The Political “Beyond the State”

Scholars in a variety of disciplines have worked in different ways to denaturalize a common-sense boundary between “the state” and “its outside” (e.g., Abrams 1988; Rose and Miller 1992; Mountz 2003; Asad 2004; Painter 2006; Jones 2012). By showing that...