January 05, 2008
By Elisabeth Grant
Following the award presentation at last night’s General Meeting (see previous blog post), Barbara Weinstein gave her presidential address, titled “Developing Inequality.” Here is an excerpt from that address:
For historians of Latin America, as well as for those who study Asia and Africa (a.k.a., the "developing countries"), the historical trajectory of "development" and "underdevelopment" and its implications for poverty and inequality had been, until recently, a theme that animated much of the research on the region. However, the very notion of development has fallen on hard times among historians as postmodern and poststructuralist critiques have made scholars across the disciplines skeptical of discourses that rely on linear notions of progress and on contrasts between the "modernity" of the West and the "backwardness" of the rest. Yet historical and geographical patterns of inequality have become, if anything, more dramatic over the past century, and particularly so in recent decades. Moreover, both those who have become richer and those who have become poorer mobilize explicitly historical explanations either to justify their greater prosperity or underscore the injustice of their poverty. Thus, even as many historians retreat from engagement with these issues, historical narratives continue to inform the way different groups explain the persistent inequalities both within and between regions. In this address, I will consider, first of all, the way in which the earlier focus on economic growth and development, even from a critical perspective, tended to reproduce discourses of modernity and backwardness that positioned North America/Western Europe as the models for modern societies. I will then explore, with particular reference to Brazil and its dramatic regional inequalities, how we might reconsider the causes and consequences of uneven development in light of recent turns in the historical profession and in ways that reposition these questions as central to historical scholarship without reviving discredited discourses of modernization and progress.