I’ve been in São Paulo for only about a week, but it’s been enough time to get a feel for a Brazilian city that is much more like New York or Los Angeles than it is to anything I’ve experienced until now. Until this research trip—in which I am not only delineating my thesis but also researching various archives at the Universidade de São Paulo (USP) and across the city—my entire perspective of Brazil was that of the nordeste and the Amazon, indeed the poorest regions of the country. Now I’m in the land of skyscrapers, more intense social segregation, and chic hamburger joints like one in which everything on the menu is named after a Tarantino character or movie.
My project, which deals with the foundational period of the social sciences in Brazil (roughly 1930-1960) lies at a critical moment for understanding the tensions between nationalism and internationalism that colored the ways in which elite Brazilians—and Paulistas in particular—imagined themselves and the broader national polity. French, and not Portuguese or English, was a lingua franca of this elite, and the CLACS Tinker Grant is allowing me to find invaluable correspondence between social scientists in Brazil during this period, often in dialogue with and almost always referring to their French colleagues. For such a critical moment in Brazilian national formation in which the populist Vargas regime embarked upon a kind of Import Substitution of culture, disciplines such as history, anthropology, geography, and sociology needed to borrow selectively from the abroad to prove their modern, scientific nature. The Paulistas decided that French models were most accommodating to their own historical imagination and ideas about population management and resource extraction, and with this in mind, they invited professors such as Pierre Monbeig, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Fernand Braudel, and Roger Bastide.
São Paulo has always defined itself against other regions of Brazil—a land of hard work instead of slavery, of European immigration rather than internal displacement, and of “European” standards of civilization. Even though they had a hard time competing with the magnificence of Rio’s architecture, Paulistas sought to distinguish themselves from other “backward” parts of Brazil, and the creation of the University in the 1930s was a means by which they sought to become intellectual and technical leaders at a national level. In so doing, they would become the bandeirantes or trailblazers of the Brazilian social sciences, largely determining their course even to this day. For now, I’m rather uncritically following along that course much like another bandeirante. But of course, that does not mean that, when the time comes for me to write my narrative, I will follow the steps of Alcântara Machado and his school that sought to place São Paulo at the core of national life. In fact, I hope to do the very opposite.
Posted by Ian Merkel– PhD Student in History and French Studies at NYU