“The Social Science Research Council forged a space for scholars at risk.”

This is a story about how the Social Science Research Council helped to create a network of Latin American scholars in dark times. While despots in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile purged intellectuals from university ranks, the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) forged a space for scholars at risk. In so doing, the SSRC supported efforts to question some basic assumptions about the relationship between democracy and capitalism in Latin America. When the democratic transitions began in the 1980s, these same scholars would assume intellectual and political leadership in the remapping of regional social science. As we wonder how brokers, funders, and intellectuals can collaborate to support critical social science in an age desperate for rethinking, we might look back to a precedent like this one.

First in Brazil in 1964, and then in Argentina in 1966, a wave of coups d’état heightened the anxiety to explain not just problems of development, but of democracy as well. What is more, the change in political regimes had a seismic effect on the organizational base of intellectual life. Universities became the object of censorship and repression. Chile saw its universities swing from heady reform and expansion in 1967–68 to become sites of brutal repression in September 1973, which was one reason, at least in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that Santiago (along with Mexico City, despite the student massacre in the fall of 1968) was an epicenter of critical social science. The Pinochet coup, however, cut that short.

While social scientists lost their jobs in Latin America, there was a fortuitous, if short-lived, realignment of financial support for new social science. Researchers turned away from governments and instead to a receptive audience in the form of foreign foundations for support. In 1966, the Ford Foundation intensified its involvement in the Third World and moved beyond its focus on applied and technocratic research.1 Foundation staff based in the region played a key role in the development of alternative research centers, or think tanks, like the Centro Brasileiro de Planejamento Econômico (CEBRAP) in São Paulo, the Centro de Estudios de Estado y Sociedad (CEDES) in Buenos Aires, and in 1975, the Corporación de Estudios para Latinoamérica (CIEPLAN) in Santiago.

The SSRC played a unique role in helping stitch these start-ups into a network and eventually a partnership in remapping the social sciences in the region, in fact helping create a regional style in the social sciences. Where a structuralist consensus once prevailed—which explained the region’s plight in terms of deep, intractable legacies of the past—a younger breed of sociologists, economists, and political scientists turned their attention to negotiations, pacts, elasticity of institutions, and contingent arrangements. It was ironic: just when fatalistic accounts would have been most tempting, the SSRC space fostered the search for options, choices, and pathways from the darkness.

“At least for a moment, there was an integrated notion of a social science.”

The SSRC did so by enlisting the collaboration of some fugitive scholars who played a role in creating these academic start-ups. Of course, we are dealing with some unique scholars who were already making their mark by going after some of the Marxist and structuralist orthodoxies in Latin America. Among the fugitives were Fernando Henrique Cardoso (the eventual president of Brazil) and Guillermo O’Donnell (one of the most influential political scientists in Argentina). And there was also Albert O. Hirschman, whose stature helped parlay resources into a fledgling program. He wielded his skeptical, inquiring style to support the interrogation of basic assumptions.

The effect was to sire a triangular affective and intellectual relationship between Cardoso (a sociologist), O’Donnell (a political scientist), and Hirschman (an economist), a partnership that would remap the social sciences, which was especially significant because none of them cared much about disciplinary boundaries or methodological purities that were taking hold in North American social science. At least for a moment, there was an integrated notion of a social science.

But these were pieces without any glue to hold them in place. To turn the new moral language and interlocking incentive structure into a common purpose required a more formalized network and some brokers that functioned across the institutional lines beyond the common Ford Foundation funds. This is where the SSRC and its Joint Committee for Latin American Studies (JCLAS) entered the scene.


Critical were the ties between the Ford Foundation and the SSRC. Building on Kalman Silvert’s brokerage at Ford and the intrepid work behind the scenes of Bryce Wood at the SSRC (Wood staffed the JCLAS), Ford agreed to allocate $1.5 million (a hefty sum in those days) to support social science field research in the region. And, for the first time, it allowed the SSRC to funnel resources to non-US scholars. These important shifts in financing meant that not only was Ford supporting research centers in situ, but that through the SSRC there were incentives to create pioneering research networks. Finally, there was a shift in leadership. Bryce Wood had brought Hirschman onto the JCLAS in 1971, and on September 1, 1973, Hirschman replaced Joseph Grunwald as chair of the committee.2 Ten days later, the Chilean military began to shower bombs on the presidential palace in Santiago.

Given the change in funding and the urgency of the situation, several principles were agreed upon. Faced with a deluge of requests from Uruguay and Chile in particular, the first was that funds should be dispersed to support scholars directly, especially those in peril—a tough decision given that Ford was withdrawing from the Foreign Areas Fellowship Program, an SSRC mainstay for doctoral field research. Cardoso, Hirschman, and the Chilean economist Osvaldo Sunkel were especially passionate about this. There was, accordingly, a spike in research fellowships to seventy-three in 1974–75 (the number would then decline to forty by 1980 and eventually vanish).

“It allowed Latin American scholarship to inform North American social science on the region.”

There was also an agreement that the committee should support collaborative, thematically driven projects conducted in Latin America itself, an idea Grunwald had floated a few months earlier; the change in circumstances made it more pressing. The committee should not simply sponsor individual research conducted by gazing from the outside in; nor should it function as a “mini-foundation” passively supporting social science. It should shape the emerging agenda. This, it is worth noting, distinguished the JCLAS from other US-based area studies, for it integrated Latin American scholars into its decision-making and agenda-forging process. At least for a time, it allowed Latin American scholarship to inform North American social science on the region, and it reinforced the regionalization of the dialogues across national borders.

The Chilean coup forced the issue of what was going wrong with Latin American governance onto the table. Hirschman enlisted a young Columbia political scientist, Douglas Chalmers, who regarded O’Donnell’s work on authoritarianism as a model for thinking more broadly, to pull something together. Chalmers penned a memorandum to the committee recommending a complex proposal to study “the State,” one that would bridge the gap between American and Latin American styles of social science. “It is just possible that the time is right for promoting an approach around the conception of the state which will utilize the best in the two traditions.” Cardoso quickly chimed in response: “To grasp realities in a fluid process with a ‘Western minded’ theoretical armory is a real feat. And of course we have no other tradition than the Western from which to build a science.” The “tragic recent events in Chile” only highlighted “the necessity to create new and more precise tools…” Here lay a frame for collaboration.

Leadership and brokerage mattered. So did the incentives and resources. But someone had to carry the intellectual water and get all the eminences to the table and focused on the task. That challenge fell to David Collier, an assistant professor from the University of Indiana. Collier teamed up with Julio Cotler (then based at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México [UNAM] in Mexico) to focus the collaborative on the nature of authoritarianism in the heavily industrialized countries of Latin America. Their goal: to explore the ties between changes in the economic structure and political systems.

Before the SSRC network came into being, the ties between economic forces and political institutions belonged in the Marxist or structuralist wheelhouse. Most social scientists tended to argue that democratic or authoritarian regimes were “determined” by stages or crises of capitalism. In fact, the initial wave of coups d’état was ascribed, true to a structuralist style of social science in Latin America, to a general impasse in development or exhaustion of industrialization. A popular vein of explanation concluded that democracy was impossible in peripheral capitalist societies that were doomed to persistent crises. This fatalism could fork two ways. One direction argued that the only way out was a despotic regime to push through capitalist transformations. This was a frequent justification for the coups. The alternative was to advocate a socialist revolution to create a true democratic outcome.

“Leadership and brokerage mattered. So did the incentives and resources.”

This was the backdrop to the quest for new analytical keys, to take a new look at what caused states to slide from inclusion to repression. O’Donnell had famously argued that the choking of industrialism in South America had provoked a crisis of populist regimes. As the SSRC network got moving, even O’Donnell was looking for a less deterministic account, one that gave more autonomy to politics, to look at the “state in action.” The team shared the urge to imagine and pursue futures that did not collapse into fatalistic arguments about the missing but necessary preconditions for growth or civilian rule. As Hirschman noted, echoing the moral tone that helped bond a group of diverse social scientists together, “the more thoroughly and multifariously we can account for the establishment of authoritarian regimes in Latin America, the sooner we can be done with them.”

What came from this convergence was a landmark collection that would move the foundations of Latin American political-economic analysis: The New Authoritarianism in Latin America, edited by David Collier.3 At first blush, the anthology tackled O’Donnell’s bureaucratic-authoritarian model; in fact, the essays were meditations on the many causes of and possible pathways out of dictatorship. Some even flipped the deterministic conventions and pointed to the possibility that the nature of political regimes framed possibilities of development. The most important net effect was to remove the heavy hand of structuralism, and replace it with a more open cognitive style and an appreciation for variables like civil society, political alliances, and the possibility that conjunctures and contingencies were as important to consider as underlying structures.

“It was up to intellectuals committed to democracy to seize the opportunity and press for opening.”

The evolution of the SSRC project contained within it some personal transformations. One was Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s. Cardoso had always felt that intellectuals had a task that went beyond denunciation of tyranny. The essence of politics, he argued, was conflict, and that was to be found within the regime itself. This was confirmed in the elections of 1974, in which Cardoso and a CEBRAP team collaborated with the opposition, Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (MDB). Cardoso called these elections “a point of no return.” Though the situation in Chile was going the opposite direction, the suffrage in Brazil showed “that behind the veneer of regime-controlled bipartisan life, there existed a serious dynamism that escapes all imposed labels.” It was up to intellectuals committed to democracy to seize the opportunity and press for opening.

The SSRC group and the elections of 1974 marked a watershed in Cardoso’s understanding of the authoritarian state, and it would affect that of the group. Besides different ideological positions within the military, the authoritarian state had developed a mechanism for brokering private interests and administering conflicts within the bureaucratic apparatus. The collision of ideologies and interests within the state opened up the possibility of bringing the end of authoritarian regimes; this, in turn, presented opportunities for intellectuals, like the formulation of the MDB’s political platform. It also paved the way for an important, if now forgotten, intervention in the way social scientists should think about authoritarianism by locating the question of democracy at its heart and ceasing to obsess about the congenital weakness of civilian rule or the natural predisposition of Latin Americans to dictatorship.

Posted on December 6, 2016