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US Foundations, Cultural Imperialism and Transnational Misunderstandings: The Case of the Marginality Project


This article analyses the failure of the Proyecto Marginalidad (Marginality Project), which the Ford Foundation financed in the 1960s, and the political and academic conflicts that it provoked. It takes into consideration the viewpoints of the principal actors involved (the director of the project, the Ford Foundation, and its critics). The original aim of the Marginality Project was to study the conditions of marginality of urban and rural populations in various Latin American countries, but it generated few results. The article shows that this outcome resulted from a series of ‘structural misunderstandings’, due to the fact that the different actors did not share what, in the words of Marc Angenot, might be called ‘social discourse’. In other words, their assumptions about what was thinkable and sayable in the Latin American context in the late 1960s and early 1970s diverged significantly, giving rise to a series of conflicts about the objectives and conduct of the project.

Spanish abstract

Este artículo analiza el fracaso del Proyecto Marginalidad, financiado por la Fundación Ford en los años 1960s, y los conflictos políticos y académicos que provocó. Toma en consideración los puntos de vista de los actores principales involucrados (el director del proyecto, la Fundación Ford y sus críticos). El objetivo original del Proyecto Marginalidad fue estudiar las condiciones de marginalidad de las poblaciones urbanas y rurales en varios países latinoamericanos, lo que generó escasos resultados. El artículo muestra que tales resultados fueron consecuencia de una serie de ‘malentendidos estructurales’, dado que los diferentes actores no compartieron lo que, en palabras de Marc Angenot, se puede llamar un mismo ‘discurso social’. En otras palabras, sus concepciones de lo que era pensable y decible en el contexto latinoamericano de fines de los años 60 y comienzos de los 70 divergieron significativamente, dando origen a una serie de conflictos acerca de los objetivos y la conducción del proyecto.

Portuguese abstract

Este artigo analisa o fracasso do Proyecto Marginalidad (Projeto Marginalidade), financiado pela Fundação Ford na década de 1960, e os conflitos políticos e acadêmicos provocados por ele. O artigo leva em consideração os pontos de vista dos principais atores envolvidos (o diretor do projeto, a Fundação Ford, e seus críticos). O objetivo inicial do Projeto Marginalidade era estudar as condições de marginalidade de populações urbanas e rurais em diversos países latino-americanos, porém o projeto gerou poucos resultados. O artigo demonstra que este desempenho foi gerado por de uma série de ‘mal-entendidos estruturais’, devido ao fato de que os diferentes atores não compartilhavam o que nas palavras de Marc Angenot seria chamado ‘discurso social’. Em outras palavras, as premissas sobre o que se podia pensar e dizer no contexto latino-americano no final da década de 1960 e início da década de 1970 variavam significantemente, levando a uma série de conflitos acerca dos objetivos e conduta do projeto.

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1 Nita R. Manitzas to Peter D. Bell, ‘Terminal Evaluation. Torcuato Di Tella Institute. Research on Marginal Population (PA 68–143)’, 4 April 1973, Ford Foundation Archive, Rockefeller Archive Center, Sleepy Hollow, New York (hereafter FFA).

2 See, for example, Iriye, Akira and Saunier, Pierre Yves (eds.), Palgrave Dictionary of Transnational History (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), or the books in the same publisher's Transnational History series. For a discussion of ‘the transnational’ as an analytical methodology and a property of the subject of study, see also AHR Conversation: On Transnational History’, American Historical Review, 111: 5 (2006), pp. 1441–64.

3 ‘The fact that texts circulate without their context, that they do not import with them the field of production … and that the recipients, who are themselves inserted in a different field of production, reinterpret them according to the structure of the field of reception, generates formidable misunderstandings’: Bourdieu, Pierre, ‘Las condiciones sociales de la circulación de ideas’, in Bourdieu, , Intelectuales, política y poder (Buenos Aires: EUDEBA, 1999), p. 161, my translation.

4 See, for instance, Iriye and Saunier, Palgrave Dictionary. Yves Dezalay and Bryant Garth emphasise the differences that exist in the reception of certain forms of knowledge and practices in several Latin American countries, but claim that these processes of reception reproduce in the region struggles for the appropriation of symbolic capital (‘palace wars’) that take place in the ‘central’ countries. This generates homogeneity in the process of reception. See Dezalay, Yves and Garth, Bryant, The Internationalization of Palace Wars: Lawyers, Economists and the Contest to Transform Latin American States (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

5 Bourdieu, ‘Las condiciones’, p. 161.

6 Angenot, Marc, El discurso social: los límites históricos de lo pensable y lo decible (Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 2012), pp. 38–9.

7 The Marginality Project has usually been interpreted as a case of cultural imperialism, even by otherwise sophisticated pieces of scholarship on Latin American cultural history in the 1960s. See, for instance, Gilman, Claudia, Entre la pluma y el fusil: debates y dilemas del escritor revolucionario en América Latina (Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 2003). Recently, Adriana Petra published an excellent paper on the Marginality Project, focusing on its local dimension: see her ‘El Proyecto Marginalidad: los intelectuales latinoamericanos y el imperialismo cultural’, Políticas de la memoria, 8/9 (2009), pp. 249–60. Gastón Gil analyses the role of the Ford Foundation in Argentina in a more general way, and devotes one chapter of his recent book to the Marginality Project, also concentrating on the local dimension of the ‘affair’: Gil, Gastón, Las sombras del Camelot: las ciencias sociales y la Fundación Ford en la Argentina de los 60 (Mar del Plata: EUDEM, 2011); see also Belvedere, Carlos, ‘El inconcluso Proyecto Marginalidad de América Latina: una lectura extemporánea a casi treinta años’, Apuntes de Investigación, 1 (1997), pp. 97115.

8 An exception is the case of Brazil, where the social sciences became institutionalised as a result of the creation of local universities during the 1930s. It could be said that Brazilian universities, which were created much later than universities elsewhere in Latin America, were ‘born modern’ and quickly inserted into a dense transnational network: see Miceli, Sergio (ed.), Historia das ciências sociais no Brasil (São Paulo: Vertice, 1989).

9 Altamirano, Carlos, Bajo el signo de las masas (1943–1973) (Buenos Aires: Ariel, 2001). For a comparative study of developmentalism, see Sikkink, Kathryn, Ideas and Institutions: Developmentalism in Brazil and Argentina (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991).

10 Blanco, Alejandro, Razón y modernidad: Gino Germani y la sociología argentina (Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 2006).

11 In 1959 the Ford Foundation created its Latin American and Caribbean Program. It established offices in Buenos Aires and Bogotá in 1962, in Santiago in 1963, and in Lima in 1965: see Miceli, Sergio (ed.), A Fundação Ford no Brasil (São Paulo: Editora Sumaré, 1993), and Brooke, Nigel and Witoshynsky, Mary (eds.), Os 40 anos da Fundação Ford no Brasil: uma parcería para a mudança social (São Paulo: EDUNSP, 2002). The US foundations, particularly the Rockefeller Foundation, had a long history of operations in Latin America, focused especially on medical issues: on the Rockefeller Foundation in Latin America, see Cueto, Marcos, Missionaries of Science: The Rockefeller Foundation and Latin America (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994). See also Arnove, Robert (ed.), Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism: The Foundations at Home and Abroad (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1980); Fisher, Donald, Fundamental Development of the Social Sciences: Rockefeller Philanthropy and the United States Social Science Research Council (Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan University Press, 1993); and Permar, Inderjeet, Foundations of the American Century: The Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations in the Rise of American Power (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

12 The Ford Foundation funded almost two-thirds of all the projects abroad financed by the 200 most important US-based foundations between 1971 and 1975. It awarded grants totalling US$ 50 million for social science projects in Latin America between 1959 and 1980: see Arnove, Robert, ‘Foundations’, in Arnove, (ed.), Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism, p. 307.

13 The Ford Foundation, in particular, provided funds to the Congress for Cultural Freedom, renamed the International Association for Cultural Freedom after it became public knowledge that it had received large amounts of money from the CIA. This was a transnational network of progressive anti-communist intellectuals formed in 1950 with the supposed aim of defending freedom of thought and expression: see Calandra, Benedetta, ‘La Ford Foundation y la “Guerra Fría cultural” en América Latina’, Americanía, 1 (2011), pp. 825.

14 Ibid., p. 17.

15 There are numerous examples of high-ranking officers of foundations with strong links to the US government and to US business. John McCloy was successively assistant secretary of defence, chairman of the board of Chase Manhattan Bank, president of the World Bank and a member of the board of trustees of the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. Robert McNamara was president of Ford Motor Company, president of the World Bank, secretary of defence and a member of the board of trustees of the Ford Foundation, of which McGeorge Bundy (national security adviser to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson) was president between 1966 and 1979.

16 Ford Foundation, International Training and Research Papers, Board of Overseas Training and Research Meeting, 15 Sep. 1953, quoted in Berman, Edward H., ‘The Foundations' Role in American Foreign Policy: The Case of Africa post 1945’, in Arnove, (ed.), Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism, p. 208.

17 Horowitz, Louis, ‘Vida e morte do Projeto Camelot’, Revista Civilização Brasileira, 1: 8 (1966), pp. 2548; Horowitz, Louis (ed.), The Rise and Fall of Project Camelot: Studies in the Relationship between Social Sciences and Practical Politics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1967); Herman, Ellen, ‘Project Camelot and the Career of Postwar Psychology’, in Simpson, Christopher (ed.), Universities and Empires: Money and Politics in the Social Sciences during the Cold War (New York: New Press, 1998); Nisbet, R. A., ‘Project Camelot: An Autopsy’, in Rieff, Philip (ed.), On Intellectuals: Theoretical Studies, Case Studies (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969). For a more recent analysis that focuses on the consequences of Camelot in the United States, see Solovey, Marl, ‘Project Camelot and the 1960s Epistemological Revolution: Rethinking the Politics-Patronage-Social Sciences Nexus’, Social Studies of Science, 31: 2 (2001), pp. 171206. For the impact of Camelot in Chile, see Navarro, Juan José, ‘Cold War in Latin America: The Camelot Project (1964–1965) and the Political and Academic Reactions of the Chilean Left’, Comparative Sociology, 10: 5 (2011), pp. 807–25.

18 See Chiaramonte, Claudio González, ‘Expandiendo paradigmas, rediseñando fronteras: la diplomacia cultural norteamericana y la búsqueda de una comunidad interamericana de académicos’, Revista Esboços, 20 (2008), pp. 223–43.

19 Calandra, ‘The Ford Foundation’.

20 Petra, ‘El Proyecto Marginalidad’.

21 On Vekemans' ideas on marginality, see Vekemans, Roger, Marginalidad en América Latina: un ensayo de diagnóstico (Barcelona: DESAL/Herder, 1967).

22 Apparently, when Ford Foundation officials asked Vekemans about his relationship with the CIA, he strongly denied the existence of any association. However, Vekemans later acknowledged the existence of a German foundation through which the CIA had channelled funds to DESAL, although he claimed this was an isolated case that would not be repeated: Kalman Silvert to William D. Carmichael, ‘Marginal Populations in Latin America – Torcuato Di Tella Institute (PA68–143)’, Inter-Office Memorandum, 26 June 1973, FFA.

23 Manitzas to Bell, ‘Terminal Evaluation’.

24 After the creation of CEPAL and the establishment of other international organisations such as the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, FLACSO), Santiago had become a magnet for Latin American social scientists, especially as other countries in the region fell under military rule in the 1960s. On the role of Raúl Prebisch as an ‘intellectual caudillo’, see Hodara, Joseph, Prebisch y la CEPAL: sustancia, trayectoria y contexto institucional (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 1987).

25 When the Ford Foundation got in contact with him, Nun was a visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

26 Quoted by González Chiaramonte, ‘Expandiendo paradigmas’, p. 239.

27 See Barkin, David and Manitzas, Nita (eds.), Cuba: camino abierto (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1973).

28 Interview with José Nun by Mariano Plotkin and Federico Neiburg, Buenos Aires, 11 Nov. 2001.

29 Other researchers involved in the project also had a trajectory of political activism: they included Ernesto Laclau, director of La Lucha Obrera, a journal published by the Socialist Party of the National Left; Beba Balvé, a militant of the Argentine Socialist Vanguard Party; and Marcelo Nowerstein, a leader of the Student Revolutionary Socialist Tendency and militant of a Trotskyist party, Política Obrera. On the Instituto Di Tella, see Neiburg, Federico and Plotkin, Mariano, ‘Los economistas: el Instituto Di Tella y las nuevas elites estatales en los años sesenta’, in Neiburg, and Plotkin, (eds.), Intelectuales y expertos: la construcción del conocimiento social en la Argentina (Buenos Aires: Paidós, 2004).

30 Quoted from a letter from Silvert dated Aug. 1967, in Manitzas to Bell, ‘Terminal Evaluation’, emphasis in original. Manitzas does not provide any additional comment. Kalman Silvert was a prestigious political scientist with a brilliant academic career. He was the first president of the Latin American Studies Association in the United States and a consultant to the Ford Foundation for Latin American issues.

31 Petra, ‘El Proyecto Marginalidad’.

32 According to Manitzas to Bell, ‘Terminal Evaluation’, Nun also managed to have his salary paid tax-free and in the United States. This apparently contradicted the Foundation's standard policies.

33 Peter Bell to William D. Carmichael, Inter-Office Memorandum, 9 April 1973, FFA.

34 See Terán, Oscar, Nuestros años sesenta: la formación de la nueva izquierda intelectual en la Argentina (1956–1966) (Buenos Aires: Puntosur, 1991); and Sigal, Silvia, Intelectuales y poder en la década del sesenta (Buenos Aires: Puntosur, 1991). See also Plotkin, Mariano, ‘La cultura’, in Plotkin, (ed.), Argentina: la búsqueda de la democracia (Madrid: Fundación MAPFRE, 2012).

35 Florestan Fernandes, for example, declared himself an heir of Euclydes da Cunha and Gilberto Freyre: see Fernandes, Florestan, A sociología no Brasil: contribução para o estudo de sua formação e desenvolvimento (Petrópolis: Vozes, 1977), passim.

36 On Germani, see Blanco, Alejandro (ed.), Gino Germani: la renovación intelectual de la sociología (Bernal: Universidad Nacional de Quilmes, 2006); and Blanco, Razón y modernidad. See also Neiburg, Federico, Los intelectuales y la construcción del peronismo (Buenos Aires: Alianza, 1998).

37 Angel Rama, ‘El amo y el servidor’, Marcha, 20 May 1966, p. 31, quoted in Petra, ‘El Proyecto Marginalidad’.

38 On the idea of cientificismo, see Sarlo, Beatriz, La batalla de las ideas (1943–1973) (Buenos Aires: Ariel, 2001); see also Gil, Las sombras del Camelot.

39 Quoted in ibid., p. 89.

40 Ibid., p. 90.

41 See Bourdieu, ‘El campo científico’, in Bourdieu, Intelectuales, pp. 75–110.

42 Daniel Hopen and Carlos Bastianes, ‘Réplica a la carta abierta de Nun’, April 1969. This is a 40-page document that includes an appendix reproducing the survey used by the Marginality Project in the Chaco. The document was not formally published but had a wide circulation. The copy used for this research is held in the ‘Dossier Marginalidad’ at the archive of the Centro de Documentación e Investigación sobre la Cultura de Izquierda (Centre for the Documentation and Investigation of the Culture of the Left, CEDINCI) in Buenos Aires.

43 Altamirano, Carlos, Peronismo y cultura de izquierda (2nd edition, Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 2011).

44 Sigal, Intelectuales y poder, p. 106.

45 Marsal, Juan, Sobre la investigación social institucional en las actuales circunstancias de América Latina (Santiago: CLACSO, 1969), quoted in Gil, Las sombras del Camelot, p. 112.

46 Hopen was also a leader of the Frente de Trabajadores Antiimperialista de la Cultura (Anti-Imperialist Cultural Workers' Front, FATRAC).

47 Hopen and Bastianes, ‘Réplica’.

50 Daniel Goldstein, ‘Sociólogos argentinos aceitan el engranaje’, Marcha, 10 Jan. 1969.

51 FNR, ‘Espionaje yanqui’, undated, Dossier Marginalidad, CEDINCI archive.

52 Gonzalo Cárdenas, ‘La penetración imperialista en las ciencias sociales’, unpubl. document, undated, Dossier Marginalidad, CEDINCI archive. Extracts from this document can be found at

53 FNR, ‘Espionaje yanqui’.

54 Nun, , ‘Carta abierta’. The debates between Nun and Cardoso can be found in Nun, Marginalidad y exclusión social (Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2001).

55 It is worth noting that when the project passed to the Instituto Di Tella, Enrique Oteiza, its director, appeared to use, in his letter of intent to the Ford Foundation, a conceptual framework that was closer to the functional developmentalism that the Ford Foundation officially promoted. For him, marginality referred mainly to ‘those urban and rural sectors for which the traditional communities are losing their meaning, but which do not yet belong to the modern society’: Enrique Oteiza to John Nagel, 30 Nov. 1967, FFA.

56 Nun, ‘Carta abierta’.

58 ‘La polémica sobre el Proyecto Marginalidad’, Marcha, 28 Feb. 1969, pp. 18–22.

59 Nun, ‘Carta abierta’.

60 Bourdieu, Pierre, ‘Le champ intellectuel, un monde à part’, in Bourdieu, , Choses dites (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1987), pp. 167–77.

61 José Nun to Jorge García Bouzas, 14 Dec. 1967, FFA.

62 Nita R. Manitzas to Eric Hobsbawm, 18 Oct. 1968, FFA. Even in 1970 Reynold Carlson concluded, after an interview with Nun, that ‘unless some modest assistance can be made covering the first six months of 1971, much of the ground work that has been accomplished in data collection and preliminary analysis may never be published and so its impact on the concept of marginality in Latin America may never be realized’: Reynold Carlson to Nita R. Manitzas, 1 Dec. 1970, FFA. This was apparently the reason for offering Nun the ‘discreet and informal’ funding.

63 According to Manitzas, the final product of the project consisted of a short report written by Nun in July 1971; a series of articles in a special issue of Revista Latinoamericana de Sociología, published by the Instituto Di Tella, in July 1969; plus a few other articles that appeared as Instituto di Tella working papers: see Manitzas to Bell, ‘Terminal Evaluation’.

64 In a tribute to Kalman Silvert, Richard Morse recalled: ‘I've heard him [Silvert] address a Latin American academic audience where instead of diplomatically swallowing a turgid rehash of Marx, Gramsci and Althusser that was on the day's menu, he insisted that he too had a national and cultural base, that he too was tribal, and that perhaps Marx had learned a thing or two, even his best things from Locke’: Morse, Richard, ‘Kalman H. Silvert (1921–1976): A Reminiscence’, Hispanic American Historical Review, 57: 3 (1977), p. 508.

65 See Nun, Marginalidad y exclusión social.

66 See Fernando Henrique Cardoso, ‘Comentarios sobre los conceptos de superpoblación relativa y marginalidad’, reproduced in Nun, Marginalidad y exclusión social.

67 Manitzas to Bell, ‘Terminal Evaluation’.

68 Silvert was a consultant to the US Advisory Commission on International and Cultural Affairs, to the government of Puerto Rico, and to the Organisation of American States. He also served as professor in several prestigious universities and was adviser to the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations.

69 Silvert to Carmichael, ‘Marginal Populations’.

71 Petra, ‘El Proyecto Marginalidad’.

* Thanks are due to Lydia Sue Stevens for an excellent translation of this paper. I would also like to acknowledge the suggestions and comments made by the four anonymous reviewers and the editors.

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