Is there such a thing as a Norwegian social science perspective on Latin America?

Last week a joint effort to reflect on the following questions resulted in a book by CLACSO in Buenos Aires: What motivates researchers based in Norway to study Latin America? To what extent are we a product of the political priorities and economic interests of our mother country and to what extent can we pride ourselves as being independent intellectuals striving for new scientific insight?

The reason why we started this was a request by the same CLACSO (the Latin American council for social science) to edit such a book as a part of their series of Anthologies on Social Thinking in Latin America and the Caribbean. The first reaction from my colleague, NorLARnet coordinator Erik Berge, was: “Who on earth is ever going to want to read such a book?” Who is interested in “Norwegian perspectives on Latin America”?  But as we started to discuss the idea with invited contributors among Norway-based scholars, the idea soon appeared as both interesting and problematic. After decades of critique against western scholarship for being a part of a project colonizing the production of knowledge in Latin America, reproducing power structures and stereotypes, it was time for reflection over what role Norwegian scholars, coming from a small, peripheral country may play in this.

Between the geopolitics of the weak and intellectual autonomy

Some conclusions became clear already at the kick-off workshop for this quite rapidly evolving project (we started in April and the book is already out!). First, there is little doubt that Norwegian scholarship on Latin America started mainly as a part of a “counterhegemonic” project. The interest for Latin America was to begin with closely related to the popularity of radical dependency theory and the fascination with revolutionary movements, particularly after the Cuban revolution in 1959. However, over time, perspectives have become more diverse. While the Norwegian politics of attempting to engage actively in pursuing goals such as peace, poverty reduction, reduction of climate emissions, human rights and gender equality as a part of its core interests in global politics (engasjementspolitikken or what some have called "the geopolitics of the weak" ) has been important also for setting the agenda for researchers, many are more inspired by trends in international research or by maintaining close cooperation with Latin American scholars. Second, as we discussed, we soon concluded that Latin American ideas and academic perspectives have been much more important for Norwegian research than the other way around.  Examples include not only the influence of radical dependency theory, but also structuralism, liberation theology, and perspectives on transitional justice and reconciliation after dictatorships and war. At times, it is the amalgam of theories emerging in different contexts or their dynamic interaction that has shown to be most fruitful and influential.

After initial discussions, the twelve scholars we had joined together set off to interpret their tasks in different ways. Historian Steinar Sæther has written about Norwegian scholarly writings on Latin America from before social sciences were really established in Norway that is from before the 1960s. His accounts on Norwegian ethnographers and adventurers is both amusing, revealing and unflattering as he shows how their fascination for Latin American prehistory and nature was accompanied by a similar dislike for its modernity.

Vegard Bye has written the second chapter in the book on Norwegian scholarship on the leftist regimes in Latin America. Himself being an important part of the history of Norwegian engagement in Latin America, the chapter has become a critical account on how Norway has engaged with Latin American leftist regimes from the Cuban revolution to Chavismo. With an eye for historical detail – by no means all flattering to Norway – he shows the conflicting interests often lying behind the Norwegian engagement, but also how scholars have attempted to push official policies towards the left.

When we started to discuss Roy Krøvel’s contribution on Norwegian peace research on Latin America and how it related to the role in different peace processes, he started out by questioning the image of Norway as a “nation of peace” that has been attempted purveyed by the Norwegian government, and finding only partial support for the approach to dialogue and reconciliation promoted by Norwegian officials abroad in our own history. He then moved on to providing a fascinating account of how Norwegian scholars have contributed to the creation of the imagery of Norway as a peace nation in Latin America.

The Norwegian Peace Research Institute (PRIO) plays a relatively modest role in Krøvel’s chapter but a much more important one in my own on development research. It was PRIO that became the first home to Latin America researchers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, while the also relatively recently established Norwegian Institute of Foreign Affairs (NUPI) was heavily focused on the relationship to the United States, Europe, the Soviet Union, and later on with Africa. The most surpsiing discoveries I did in the research for this chapter was the following: First, that there had been a close connection between economists associated with the Norwegian “steering sciences” that had designed Norway’s policies for developing its own peripheries, and the structuralists of CEPAL, led by Raúl Prebish. As I recently have been involved in cooperation between CEPAL and Norwegian economists on inequality, this affinity in thinking is not surprising, but the influence of Latin American structuralism on the earliest development research programs in Norway was New to me. A second fact that struck me was the long “impasse” in Latin America research in Norway from the end of the popularity of radical dependency theory in the 1980s to the new Latin America initiative by the red-green government in 2006. There was indeed not a single article on Latin America in the main journal of development research in Norway - Forum for Development Studies - between 1989 and 2007 (and the one that appeared in 2007 was my own…). However, the main story of the chapter is not the dearth of Norwegian development research nor is it Norwegian perspectives on Latin America; it is rather how Latin American development thinking has influenced Norwegian research.

Mariel Aguilar-Støen and Kristi-Anne Stølen are among those that did the most thorough job of reviewing Norwegian literature in their field since the late 1960s. The starting point is scholarly research a movement that most of us have forgotten about by now: the ligas agrarias – the associations of poor peasants and family farmers that emerged in South America from the 1960s, considered at its time as an example of the proletariat standing up against capitalist forces.  As Marxism lost influence (at least formally) in Norwegian academic circles, the interest in rural studies in Latin America shifted towards “social movements” more broadly and particularly on socio-environmental conflicts over land, water and other natural resources. Yet, in spite of the fact that Norway does not count  on particular programs for rural or peasant studies, the rural economy of social life has continued to be a main topic.

Elin Skaar and Jemima García-Godos have done an equally thorough job in reviewing literature from Norwegian scholars on justice and human rights. The starting point is not primarily the Norwegian policies towards the region, but rather a general scholarly interest for the innovative processes in Latin America on justice and reconciliation as well as strong scholarly Latin American environment.

The two last chapters have their own quite particular take on the issues. Markus Buck, Einar Berntzen and Leiv Marsteintredet have taken the ideas Stein Rokkan – the most influential Norwegian in the field of comparative politics – on a trip to the Andes. With his familiar ideas on crosscutting social and political dividing lines and his term “critical junctures” (which is currently in quite widespread use in Latin America studies) they reinterpret reasons for political stability and instability in the current Andes region.

Stener Ekern has chosen to write a quite personal story on how and why he has spent the last decades studying governance structures among Maya groups in Totonicapan in Guatemala, focusing on the tension between the desire to be true to empirical findings and the demands by funding agencies to frame processes in terms of “human rights”.

Is there a Norwegian perspective?

The big question in the end is still: is there such a thing as a Norwegian social science approach to Latin America?  In the final chapter I try to tease out an answer. While diversity is more prevalent than uniformity in the perspectives applied, and while Norwegian researchers more often have been critics of Norwegian politics and economic endeavors in Latin America, there are some points in common. Since the explorations of Anton Mohr in the late 1940s, Latin America has been approached as a divided region, and much Norwegian research has focused on the reasons and nature of those divisions – between indigenous and non-indigenous, between women and men, between rural and urban, between the oppressed and the oppressors, between victim and perpetrator and between the rich and poor – and how they are or can be bridged. In this, we can distinguish a tendency to sympathize with the poor and marginalized and a tendency to want to “improve” Latin America – to make it more peaceful, democratic, just, and sustainable. This has resulted in a search for a state to channel democratic voices, mediate between interests and distribute goods, or what Stener Ekern calls an “obsession with the State”. However, if we compare to research on other “distant regions” such as Africa, research on Latin America has also been characterized by a focus on actors and agency. Latin America has never been portrayed as a region that should be “helped”. Rather, it has been considered a conflict-ridden but dynamic arena of social movements, political parties, communities, insurgencies and other actors that should be supported or counteracted, both of which require a foundation of knowledge.

Also, Norwegian perspectives on Latin America have not been static. There is an evolution in the way in which Latin America has been approached in Norwegian research. First, it passed from appearing as an exotic backwater in the years before the 1960s, to a source of counter-hegemonic thinking and object of solidarity in the 1970s and 1980s. Starting in the 1990s, I would argue that the counter-hegemonic became hegemonic at least within the main circles involved in conducting and funding Latin America research in Norway. Staying relatively marginal, the topics that had been radical in the 1970s such as gender equality, indigenous rights, environmental issues, human rights, and later inequality and economic redistribution – became central in the focus of cooperation agencies that also set part of the agenda for the research community. This also meant that other topics, which did not fit so well into this discourse, were given very scant attention.

The future of Norwegian Latin America research

The big question that remains is of course what the future brings. Latin America is gradually pushed off the Norwegian political as well as the research agenda, with a cut back in funding as well as new initiatives. As this book shows, some focus on Latin America has remained through history in spite of lack of funding and research support. Probably that will continue in the future. In the future, however, the one way relationship between scholars working in the “west” doing “fieldwork” in Latin America and then interpreting results in the context of their home institution will be ever more obsolete. Rather future research must be based on critical debate and dialogue domestically and abroad about the kind of democracy, welfare, inclusion, humanitarianism, etc. that we seek to achieve – in Norway, in Europe and elsewhere in the world. In such an endeavor, Norwegian social science research should not aim to “aid” Latin America, to “export” Norwegian values, or to contribute to a falsely conceived of neutral body of knowledge guided by western standards. Rather, as researchers we should engage in dialogue on standards, values, empistemological principles and political implications of our research in our home countries and abroad. A first step for researchers in such a strategy would be to be open about the political context out of which a certain inclination to research something emerges. This book is an attempted step in that direction.

Published Oct. 26, 2015 1:48 PM - Last modified Nov. 4, 2015 12:59 PM
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