Socio-Economics in a Changing World: Interview with Mariana Heredia
Professor Heredia is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Buenos Aires. She received her PhD in Sociology from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS-Paris). In addition to teaching at the University of Buenos Aires, Professor Heredia is a Researcher of the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET) and teaches at the Instituto de Altos Estudios Sociales (IDAES/UNSAM), where she currently heads the Masters in Economic Sociology.
We asked Professor Heredia to reflect on the how Argentina has developed a distinctive approach to socio-economics, the historical roots of regional trends, and what she expects Latin American scholars will contribute to socio-economics in the coming years.
What are the most prominent issues in socio-economics in Argentina today?
Mariana Heredia: Social science is a constant dialogue between new phenomena and theoretical knowledge. Argentina’s persistent instability, radical economic change, and social creativity have made it into an extraordinary social laboratory for socio-economics. For instance, it is one of the few countries that has failed to generate a stable currency and it has suffered from high inflation or hyperinflation for the past 50 years. This means that it experimented with all kinds of monetary institutions, from hard pegs to currency controls. It has experienced large and periodic devaluations. Within the current economic memory of its citizens, deposits have been confiscated and there have been bank runs, bank freezes, and debt defaults. The country has toyed with all types of institutional arrangements, from privatization of social security to extreme import controls, with approaches ranging from laissez-faire to heavy-handed interventionism. It has seen experiments in barter clubs, multiple exchange rate regimes, production subsidies, and digital banks.
These experiences foreground pressing issues in socio-economics, which can be approached using a similarly rich range of theories. Argentina has its share of U.S.-trained economists with PhDs from top universities and officials who have worked in IFIs, but it has also developed its own brand of “heterodox economists” with alternative explanations and theories of inflation, growth, and state deficits, and with different prescriptions for business-state relations and specific economic sectors. To this mix we can also add a rich interdisciplinary tradition of work across anthropology, history, and sociology on all areas of economic sociology.
What has made the study of socio-economics in Argentina distinctive?
Heredia: The advantage of a peripheral position is that it offers scholars more room for eclecticism. Social science students in Argentina are familiar with European classics: you cannot become a sociologist without reading Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. But beyond this classic foundation, the rest of the curriculum is very open and diverse. You can find Raymond Boudon, Pierre Bourdieu, and Bruno Latour referenced in an Argentinian paper. This would be a sacrilege in a Parisian monograph. Scholars can place themselves at the intersection of different fields (e.g., Sociology of Development, Sociology of Markets, and Studies of Science and Technology)—fields that are often separate, with little interaction in the U.S.
In Argentina, French sociology also has an important influence. There are more scholars with PhDs from French universities in our field than from British or American ones, and the translation of French authors is much more frequent than that of Americans. This link explains why general theories of action are more common in local work than middle range theories. Rational choice perspectives are also less common in sociological analyses than in the Anglo-Saxon field.
The choice of substantive area of research also takes a different path than in the U.S. and Europe. Even though there are similar trends, including a new focus on issues such as gender and the environment, the main driver for scholars in Argentina is still the public problems: inflation, deficits, elites, the popular economy, and rising poverty. There are, of course, creative new research topics and areas. Even though Argentina is very receptive to new theoretical trends from abroad—from Piketty to financialization—there is less emphasis locally on theory building and theoretical dialogue.
How would you describe the approach to interdisciplinary research?
Heredia: The particularities of the Latin American academic sphere are more salient to scholars in Argentina than issues of interdisciplinary lines. The borders between academia, think tanks, policy research centers, and government officials are often blurred, with constant movement between them. The siren song of government action often seduces scholars and shifts their research agendas and publishing objectives. Both economic and symbolic rewards can be substantially higher in these other areas.
Are there specific obstacles confronting the advancement of socio-economics in Argentina today?
Heredia: There is often a missing link between global categories and interpretations, on the one hand, and descriptive research and findings, on the other. Instead of analyzing how global problems are presented or redefined in the Argentinian case, there is a simplified juxtaposition of imported theory and local data. This juxtaposition takes two forms. One is selective data-collection to support foreign theories. Certain hypotheses regarding the existence of fields or the search for distinction in upper classes (proposed by Bourdieu) or the possibilities of high tax reforms (proposed by Piketty) have been imported and reproduced with little criticism and attention to local realities. The second is to present local findings as simple deviations from conventional knowledge. The idea of “low quality” democracies, “underdeveloped” fields, or “weak” institutions prevents many researchers from discovering the specificities of their objects. These simplified analyses stop at what something is not, instead of looking to advance more affirmative characterizations of local objects.
In my view, overcoming this simplified juxtaposition is one of the most pressing challenges of Latin American socio-economics and social sciences in general. Yes, there are a lot of cases of “weak” or “failed” institutions, but why stop there? The interesting question is what we can learn about banking systems from a system that almost collapsed yet kept going. How is confidence rebuilt? Or how can we understand sustained market exchanges in a context of persistent price-instability? Which kind of markets develop in different sectors in unstable and hierarchical capitalism? Beyond the description of the formal and informal sector, what are the gateways between them? What does it mean to be rich in a middle-income country with a volatile economy and politics?
How has the study of socio-economics changed in Argentina in the last twenty years?
Heredia: There has been a slow but constant professionalization of academic disciplines since Argentina’s return to democracy in 1983. A history of the Argentine academic field would take too long for this short piece. Suffice it to say that there have been more resources and more scholarships and positions in all fields. In this period, charismatic professors were gradually replaced by more professionalized PhD-scholars in several academic circles. Essays were progressively replaced by papers or books as the main products of social science research. Undergraduates have different career models to follow. Institutions are more open, and success doesn’t depend as much on personal networks. Finally, there is a new generation of scholars that earns their living as researchers and professors with a relative freedom of speech and production together with some economic stability.
In this academic transformation, socio-economics became more empirically based and shifted from being the alter-ego of mainstream economics (and even a synonym of heterodoxy or Marxism) to a more complex and autonomous subfield with its own agenda and with enriching exchanges between economists, sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists. Nevertheless, a deep segmentation persists.
Where do you see opportunities to enrich the study of socio-economics through more cross-regional discussion and collaboration?
The SASE Annual Meeting has become the most enriching opportunity for cross-regional discussion and collaboration. There are also small networks of exchange, but they do not cover such a range of topics and perspectives. Unfortunately, regional spaces for exchange (e.g., CEPAL, CLACSO, ALAS) have not achieved the academic demands and recognition of consolidated central forums. Latin Americans continue to depend on U.S. or European institutions to meet and exchange ideas about their region. For several years, I have participated in a blog (https://estudiosdelaeconomia.com/) that encourages such exchange and there is a group of Latinx-American scholars interested in socio-economics working in connection with each other. Our Masters in Economic Sociology encourages the visit of foreign scholars, but nothing can replace the existence of exciting forums and common projects, as there were once in Río or Santiago in the 1960s.
Interview conducted by Laura Adler