Social Science that Matters: Pérez Sáinz on Latin America’s Inequalities

By Eric Hershberg

Image courtesy of FLACSO-Costa Rica

Latin America has made important advances dealing with income inequality over the past decade, but sustaining this modest progress requires a deeper grasp of its underlying causes.  Since Princeton sociologists Miguel Centeno and Kelly Hoffman in 2003 published their provocative article “The Lopsided Continent” probing Latin America’s infelicitous distinction as the region with the most unequal income distribution, the GINI coefficients – indicators of the gap between rich and poor – have declined in a number of Latin American countries.  Most of the advances, which admittedly appear tenuous and were slowed by the Great Recession of 2008-2009, can be traced to the expansion of secondary education and, particularly in countries governed by the left, unprecedented investments in social programs that have benefited the most disadvantaged sectors of the population.  Even now, however, income distribution in the region remains as unequal as anywhere on the planet – sapping productivity by depriving populations of opportunities to upgrade skills that could be deployed in knowledge-intensive economic activities.  Inequality also provokes social dislocations that undermine the welfare of the poor and non-poor alike, place burdens on over-extended state institutions and generate pathologies, such as crime, that undermine economic performance.  Moreover, the task of sustaining democratic political regimes is rendered much more difficult.

A new book by Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz, a sociologist at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) in Costa Rica, takes a fresh look at the dynamics of unequal power that influence how the fruits of economic activity become concentrated in some individuals and social groups – and remain beyond the reach of large swathes of a country’s inhabitants.  MERCADOS Y BÁRBAROS: La persistencia de las desigualdades de excedente en América Latina is in my view a landmark contribution to the sociological literature, and it identifies four intertwined processes that account for the disempowerment of important segments of the population, often characterized by subordinate status associated with gender, race, ethnicity or region.

  • The prevalence of precarious employment in labor markets, as a result of which people are condemned to toil endlessly but never enjoy the benefits of having a stable job.
  • The impossibility for most small-landholders or petty entrepreneurs to accumulate capital that might enable them to invest in the future of themselves, their families and their communities.
  • The weakness or absence of state institutions that might contribute to forging social citizenship encompassing all of a country’s inhabitants, the result of which is that vulnerable individuals and communities are left to fend entirely for themselves.
  • The overwhelming weight in Latin America of social categorizations – motivated by pervasive sexism, racism, ethnocentrism and xenophobia – that define excluded populations as less deserving of rights and opportunities than others.

If societies are to be expected to invest in social science, then it is reasonable to expect that social scientists strive to illuminate the underlying roots of their greatest challenges, such as the yawning inequalities in Latin America, and the sources of their persistence over time.  Through his historically informed and empirically rich analysis, drawing on theoretical insights from Marxian traditions and from the work of sociologists such as the late Charles Tilly, Pérez Sáinz has made an invaluable contribution to intellectual debates about inequality which should inform efforts to consolidate the modest gains we have seen in Latin America and thus help the region outgrow its enduring legacy of debilitating inequality.

December 4, 2014

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3 Comments

  1. Ana Maria Bejarano

     /  December 4, 2014

    Right on the sore spot: not only is inequality the biggest challenge facing our societies and democracies; we also need to advocate for, as you put it, a “social science that matters”. Good job!

    Reply
  2. Sounds fascinating. I look forward to reading this timely book.

    Reply
  3. Alec Dawson

     /  December 4, 2014

    nice piece Eric, a book I clearly need to read. One thing though, 3 and 4 seem like they are so deeply intertwined that we lose something in treating them as discrete.

    Alec Dawson

    Reply

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