The Role of Science in the Ideology of Five Models of Latin American Modernity

Conference Paper to be presented by Hebe Vessuri

Hebe Vessuri is an anthropologist and currently research collaborator at the Research Center of Environmental Geography (CIGA), Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). Her research focuses on science in world peripheries, the current internationalization of the social sciences and the interface between higher education, scientific research and other forms of knowledge.

To understand the role of science as a relevant component of the ideology of modernity in Latin America, we must recognize that, until the last quarter of the twentieth century, with different chronologies and nuances acording to the countries, the predominant form of social organization was the “state-national-popular matrix”. This matrix was based on the model of endogenous development, the “compromise state” (which corresponded to a pattern of unstable arrangements between the middle classes, organized working classes and dominant classes formed by the bourgeoisie and the oligarchy), social movements politically oriented toward the state and social integration, and the exclusion of peasants and the urban poor.

The populist formula implied the massification of public services and allowed a certain initial basic social democratization, in the form of access to specified goods or services. Crucial among them were the universalistic and expansive character of social policies: public education first, then public universities and the institutionalization of scientific-technical research were part of the process. The development crisis led to structural adjustments since the 1980s, which implied a problematic transition to another development model in which economic policies were aligned with the “Washington Consensus” and were later made viable by international organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank. In all cases, poverty and inequalities increased while the hithero existing relationship between the state and the social actors disarticulated, weakening their organizational and ideological capacity.

In recent years, several models linked to the reconstruction of relationships between state and society were proposed as responses to globalization. Scientific activity entered into the strategies of these models in different forms, as part of more or less exclusionist technocratic ideologies or of elitist programs, as an integral component of the identity struggles and for giving a sense of ownership to the modernization and transformation processes (cultural diversity) or as a general critique of the relationships between state and society. This paper briefly reviews five such models in which science and higher education play specific roles. The responses have fluctuated between equality and its need of a locus (society), and equity, which is an absolute principle that does not require a locus (such as a specific society). And they have occurred in the context of new inequalities, of globalization and of ascriptions as valued sources for social diversity and differentiation.


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