Latin America's Middle Class: Unsettled Debates and New Histories

David S. Parker (Editor) Louise E. Walker (Editor)
& 1 more


As middle classes in developing countries grow in size and political power, do they foster stable democracies and prosperous, innovative economies? Or do they encourage crass materialism, bureaucratic corruption, unrealistic social demands, and ideological polarization? These questions have taken on a new urgency in recent years but they are not new, having first appeared in the mid twentieth century in debates about Latin America. At a moment when exploding middle classes in the global South increasingly capture the world's attention, these Latin American classics are ripe for revisiting. Part One of the book introduces key debates from the 1950s and 1960s, when Cold War era scholars questioned whether or not the middle class would be a force for democracy and development, to safeguard Latin America against the perceived challenge of Revolutionary Cuba. While historian John J. Johnson placed tentative faith in the positive transformative power of the "middle sectors," others were skeptical. The striking disagreements that emerge from these texts lend themselves to discussion about the definition, character, and complexity of the middle classes, and about the assumptions that underpinned twentieth-century modernization theory. Part Two brings together more recent case studies from Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, and Argentina, written by scholars influenced by contemporary trends in social and cultural history. These authors highlight issues of language, identity, gender, and the multiple faces and forms of power. Their studies bring flesh-and-blood Latin Americans to the forefront, reconstructing the daily lives of underpaid office workers, harried housewives and striving professionals, in order to revisit questions that the authors in Part One tended to approach abstractly. They also pay attention to changing cultural understandings and political constructions of who "the middle class" is and what it means to be middle class. Designed with the classroom and non-specialist reader in mind, the book has a comprehensive critical introduction, and each selection is preceded by a short description setting the context and introducing key themes.

Product Details

Lexington Books
Publish Date
December 21, 2012
6.1 X 9.1 X 0.9 inches | 0.01 pounds

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About the Author

David S. Parker is associate professor of history and former Chair of the History Department at Queen's University, Canada. He is author of The Idea of the Middle Class: White-Collar Workers and Peruvian Society, 1900-1950 (1998), and articles or book chapters on topics ranging from public health reform to images of social climbers in Chilean fiction to dueling among journalists and politicians in Uruguay. Louise E. Walker is assistant professor of history at Northeastern University in Boston. She is the author of Waking from the Dream: Mexico's Middle Classes after 1968 (2012). She is currently coediting a special dossier on Mexico's recently declassified secret police archive for the Journal of Iberian and Latin American Research (2013, with Tanalรญs Padilla). Her research projects also include the history of conspiracy theories.


This book brings together foundational essays and cutting-edge pieces to map out ways to understand the role of middle classes across Latin America. It is an excellent collection and will surely inform our efforts to understand the social history of the region in the twentieth century. Long forgotten by Latin American historians, the middle classes will no longer be an afterthought.--Jeremy I. Adelman, Walter Samuel Carpenter III Professor of Spanish Civilization and Culture, Princeton University
This important, provocative volume powerfully illuminates how the middle class in Latin America emerged and advanced its own class project. This volume offers valuable readings from now classic theorists and contemporary historians on an important but poorly understood social group and category: the middle class in Latin America. Informed by social class theories, the mid-20th century works in the first half of the volume address whether the middle class constituted a unified class, complete with 'class consciousness' and aims. They variously predict the middle class could be a force for progressive political economic change in solidarity with the working class or a dependent appendage of the upper class. New cultural historians featured in the second half of the volume shrug off the theoretical frame of the earlier generation, engaging instead in a close investigation of practices and discourses of self-definition among emerging middle classes. The result is fascinating, compelling material on how middle class Latin Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries carved out a distinct social, economic and political position. Readers will learn how moral reformists in Mexico demarcated social and spatial boundaries separating a self-assigned respectable middle class from a vice-ridden working class; how white collar, salaried workers in Colombia represented their class and gender as if essentially different in quality and character from manual laborers; and how salaried workers in Peru and Chile successfully obtained employment privileges in part through claims that higher incomes, accompanying consumption and job stability were basic necessities required for middle classes (but not manual workers). Readers will find the middle class taking divergent political stances: retiring to the domestic sphere in mid-20th century Brazil, and protesting in the streets and taking legal action against government mismanagement of the economy in 21st century Argentina. Collectively, the works also reveal that middle class claims to the social hierarchy are importantly based on assertions of superior education and 'culture'--with or without occupational or material supports. The work provides an invaluable resource for social scientists and an excellent model and stimulus for future research into middle classes in Latin America and globally.--Maureen O'Dougherty, University of Minnesota