Assessing the State from the Peripheries: The Construction of Governance in 19th-Century Latin America

AHA Session 250
Conference on Latin American History 52
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Columbia 10 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Carlos Dimas, Albright College
Casey M. Lurtz, Johns Hopkins University
Robert H Holden, Old Dominion University

Session Abstract

Scholars have spent considerable time addressing the state as a category of analysis within Latin American history. Broadly generalized, historians have found that Latin American states were weak in the decades following independence from Spain, increased in strength during the mid- to late-nineteenth century, and diverged in durability across the twentieth. This panel examines the middle period, that of consolidation. Rather than exploring the solidification of governance from the perspective of the capital, panelists address this process from a number of regions that had thus far evaded or avoided incorporation. We look at the quotidian interactions and experiences of regional actors that led to seemingly strong state control by the turn of the century.

It is difficult to deny the consolidation of strong Latin American states by the early years of the twentieth century. Governments across the region built coherent bureaucracies and narratives of nationhood, collected comprehensive information about their citizens, solidified their borders, and underwrote reliable, pervasive judicial and commercial institutions. Recent endeavors in studying the state, however, have begun to decenter the politicians and bureaucrats in national capitals who have long served as the protagonists of this consolidation. Instead, scholars have begun to look at the state in alternative contexts, focusing on mundane spaces, the edges of the nation-state, and everyday technologies of production and consumption as important sites of state building. This panel brings together scholars studying these aspects of experiencing and building the state in Peru, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil. In various forms, these presentations all ask: what happens to state power in the very edges of the state’s purview? When does the relationship between state and periphery become a negotiated space? Alternately, in peripheral areas, what comprises governance and who constitutes it?

By addressing state making through the lived experiences of local actors, panelists argue against the top-down narratives of national consolidation that have long dominated the literature. Whether through the application of various means of measurement in Brazil, the implementation of health care during a crisis in Argentina, the writing of alternate national narratives in Peru, or the interpretation of legal codes in a Mexican export economy, we demonstrate that the state became pervasive because it became useful to those outside the centers of state power. The variety of state activities and institutions under examination provides a means of understanding why and how different types of actors sought out the state in this moment. Building from the ground up, we invite comparisons across regional and methodological grounds as we seek to understand how central states gained power and coherence by the end of the nineteenth century.

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