An Argentine Puzzle: Scientific Thought and Social Polices
By Carrie Sherman, The College Letter, liberal arts newsletter
January 31, 2007
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
“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