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Latin American History Workshop: Labor, State, Capital: Historical Materialism, Metanarratives, and the Revival of Explanatory Frameworks, Cornell University, 2-5 May 2019

For a generation now, the historiography of Latin America in the North American academy has been defined by the decline of synthetic metanarratives. As historians who work on Latin America engage in scholarly conversation beyond the region and the discipline of history, common reference points become residuals left over from the era of big-picture debates in the historiography of Latin America. Is Latin America merely a container for disparate historical studies? What unites Latin America in a historical explanatory sense? What is the historiography of Latin America?
In line with other recent scholarly attempts to return to the big picture in Latin American history, this workshop takes the position that despite recent trends Latin America and the historical method can still offer broad understandings. The point is not to return to some long-lost orthodoxy or opaque developmentalist debates of decades past. Rather, it is to acknowledge that despite the challenge to structural historical frameworks of the past, those frameworks nevertheless continue to hold latent power in the historiography of Latin America. Therefore, while recognizing that metanarratives are problematic in many ways, we should not disregard their explanatory power nor ignore the political power of explanatory frameworks.
In order to operate with a broad historical frame of reference, we structure this workshop around two basic and persistent problems: capitalist development and state formation. To be specific, we look to re-evaluate three objective analytical categories: capital, state, and labor. By returning to these foundational categories and charging them with new perspectives, we hope to advance the work of redeveloping the terms upon which a common conversation among historians of Latin America can take place.
While we are open to different approaches, we consider a few areas of focus to be particularly pertinent in advancing this discussion. Firstly, spatial and geographical approaches have become central to recent historical work on Latin America, such as transnational and borderlands histories. However, the prevalence of small-scale spatial historical methods, such as tracking transnational movements, makes large-scale analysis difficult. How can we use the spatialization of labor, capital, and the state to square micro-scale methods with big-picture histories? Secondly, topics related to materiality – such as histories of technology, environment, and material culture – have become increasingly prominent in recent years. While such topics have opened avenues for new historical inquiry, on their own they can tend toward further subfield specialization without necessarily contributing to broad, explanatory frameworks. How do we further incorporate environment and technology into understandings of the historical development of state, capital, and labor? Thirdly, questions of identity and social categorization now stand at the center of the historiography. How might we employ the historical material dynamics of capital and labor to the service of understanding identity and social categorization without diminishing their importance?
We invite young historians, particularly PhD candidates who are finishing their dissertations and recently graduated PhDs, to participate in this workshop. Participants will submit and read pre-circulated papers (8,000–10,000 words) and engage in intellectual discussion over the course of a long weekend (Thursday, May 2 to Sunday, May 5). To help facilitate discussion, we will be joined by Raymond Craib and Ernesto Bassi (Cornell University), as well as Vera Candiani (Princeton University) and Lara Putnam (University of Pittsburgh). Meals provided and opportunities for further funding to be announced shortly.
We ask that applicants submit a proposal of no more than 500 words, situating the applicant’s own research in the context of the workshop’s goals. Additionally, applicants should submit a 1-page C.V. Deadline for applications is 9 November 2018. Email applications and any questions to