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An Argentine Puzzle: Scientific Thought and Social Polices

By Carrie Sherman, The College Letter, liberal arts newsletter
January 31, 2007

Civilizing Argentina

Every discipline has its puzzler. For those who study Argentina, one puzzle persists: Why did Argentina’s promise at the end the nineteenth century turn to crisis and instability by the mid-twentieth? Julia Rodriguez’s new book, “Civilizing Argentina: Science, Medicine, and the Modern State,” tracks the country’s development of scientific thought and social policies from 1880 to 1920.

During this era, the Argentine elite adopted a political culture based on a medical model that defined social problems such as poverty, vagrancy, crime, and street violence as illnesses to be treated through social hygiene programs. These ideas were also popular in the U.S. and Europe. As waves of immigrants entered Argentina, these theories increasingly informed Argentine social policies.

Rodriguez’s book, structured like the medical model, proceeds in sections entitled “Symptoms,” “Diagnosis,” “Prescriptions,” and “Hygiene.” She builds her argument using facts gleaned from primary sources found at well-known archives and other lesser-known repositories. These include records from the “Lunatic Observation Service,” which at one time was a division of the Buenos Aires police department.

She found that criminals were convicted and examined physically, e.g., “the shape of his hand exhibited traits that ‘some authors have described in professional thieves.’” A policy of fingerprinting immigrants was instituted. Wives who disobeyed their husbands were placed in “houses of deposit.” By the mid-twentieth century women were disenfranchised. Social programs excluded or dispelled people deemed undesirable.

Such policies, Rodriguez concludes, show strong continuities between this era of social reform and the antidemocratic, authoritarian governments that followed.

Puzzle solved.

“I’m interested in the interaction between science and society, and that includes the way that politicians selectively incorporate scientific ideas into legislation and state practices,” says Rodriguez, associate professor of history and women’s studies.

Her next book will be about the journey to citizenship in several Latin American countries. And, with a five-year National Science Foundation grant, she is creating a digital database of primary sources on the history of science in Latin America.

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