Collective Assembly - cultural & artistic pacific protest. "Open Popular Comedor".

A Perspective from Latin America in the 21st Century

What is specific about la otra economía in Latin America in the 21st Century? Is an anthropological perspective helping to make it visible? In so doing, what issues have been put to debate? Have these debates influenced changes in public policy?

Collective Assembly - cultural & artistic pacific protest. "Open Popular Comedor".

Collective Assembly – cultural & artistic pacific protest. “Open Popular Comedor”.
Photo courtesy Collective photo archive.

There are a wide variety of terms used to refer to la otra economía & sociedad in Latin America today. Several can be traced in a quick review of the literature: social solidarity economy; popular economies; diverse economies; alternative society and economies; workers´ economy; auto-gestión (untranslatable term yet close to self-management); autonomous collectives; community-based economies, and bottom up economy.

This conceptual array may be thought of simply as a question of choice of words. However, identifying this variety has helped uncover an important underlying debate in the field: whether this set of practices and situated meanings conform a different system altogether, or whether they are —paradoxically— helping sustain a hegemonic, capitalist and exploitative system at play (Laferriere, 2007). Following this line of thought, anthropologist Riquelme has documented that in Latin America the term most used is social and solidarity based economy. Yet, he argues, using this term may be misleading since it puts into the same box ideologies and practices that are crucially different (e.g., market oriented and exploiting practices under the umbrella of social enterprise responsibility). Such an umbrella definition may leave untouched what is core when considering these practices as really otras.

What is then la otra economía?

An anthropological gaze helps put to debate that the economy is but a piece of a wider web of cultural practice and meaning. That is: economy is a social practice. The otra economía is a practice with specific characteristics.

As a result of ethnographic analyses three specific characteristics have been identified as otra economía, otra sociedad underlying orientation:

1) Critical and collective decision making power and processes. See De Pueblos y Fronteras, Vol. 8 Nº 16 for an analysis of such processes in Latin America.

2) Egalitarian and emancipatory social, political and economic relations based on direct participatory strategies. For anthropological analysis situated in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, mostly, see Reunión de Antropología Mercosur “Situate, enact and imagine South Cone Anthropologies. Work Group 74: Collective political practices.”

3) An awareness of the need to take care, fairly share and distribute natural resources. See La Vía Campesina for their latest international declaration, and see also the work of Domínguez in Argentina and in Chaco specifically.

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Implicitly sometimes, explicitly some other times, these analyses are supporting organizations and social movements in Latin America. Recent events such as the Segundo Foro Mundial de la ESS (2013) or the Mesa de Trabajo of the Argentinean Foro HACIA OTRA ECONOMÍA & SOCIEDAD (2010-and ongoing) are showing that both collective practice, and its documentation and analysis, have had an impact on Latin American political processes.

Based on this perspective, several researchers have argued that the field needs to take one step forward: it is not only documenting, analyzing and getting to understand every day practices and their meaning. It is important to participate and push for establishing the conditions by which la otra economía is an orientation entire Nations or populations may choose to live by if they so wish and can democratically agree to it (Azzellini has been documenting the process by which collective workers´initiatives question the government at municipal, state and nation-wide levels).

Thus, the anthropological gaze is also allowing other important questions to be raised when it looks at what is specific about otra economía. For example, what counts as democracy in our Region today, or who may be considered “the people”, and how may their perspective be acknowledged.

For example “Producir para vivir”, the compilation of works carried out by De Sousa Santos, portrays several different experiences in Brazil which have pushed the limits of public policy (at the municipal or state level).

In “Miradas globales para otra economía” Guerra documented how several experiences in Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador and Honduras have started to frame a different scenario for our Region.

Rodríguez has documented changes in Colombia, and has presented supporting evidence to argument for the possibility of la otra economía to go large scale.

Apart from the IX Reunión de Antropología del Mercosur (July 2013), also the VI JEC (August 2013)  and the VI Jornadas de Investigación en Antropología Social have been addressing these issues as well, showing that otra sociedad is starting to translate its demands into large scale public policy.

Some of the works presented at these recent conferences are also pointing to the need to re think the impact of collaboration across anthropologists and participants (e.g. Fernández Álvarez 2011 & 2013; Heras & Burin, 2013; Miano, 2013).

Following the anthropological tradition in its recursive knowledge generation process, I pose new questions that emerge from this opinion column to be addressed in forthcoming pieces:

-       Why do people insist on creating these types of organizations, where justice, solidarity, cooperation and freedom to critically explore every day practices prevail, even when they continue to be under attack?

-       How is the work being done in the Latin American Region informing other parts of the world?

-       How are other parts of the world listening to what Latin America has to say?

-       What are the mutual benefits for anthropology-trained professionals to establish collaborative work with those who practice la otra economía?

-       What shape does collaboration take when it is the initiative of those who practice la otra economía to cooperate with researchers?

Dancing Collectively the chacarera at the Foro Hacia Otra Economía 2013.

Dancing Collectively the chacarera at the Foro Hacia Otra Economía 2013. Photo courtesy Collective photo archive

In forthcoming columns thus I will address these questions from the point of view of Otra Economía & Anthropology, portraying, each month, a specific area such as Collective Knowledge Generation Processes; Public Policies and the Law; Self Management, Housing & Homeless; Education and Schools; Culture and Arts; Producing for a living (urban and rural work from la otra economía perspective), amongst the most important topics.








Ana Inés Heras earned her MA and PhD in Education (1995) with a Fulbright Scholarship at UCSB. She also studied History and Physical Education at the undergraduate level in Argentina. She currently studies participants’ collective learning processes at autonomous, self-managed organizations in contemporary Argentina, focusing on how diversity is understood in such processes. 

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One Comment

  1. regev
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    Gracias for sharing these triggers on both local-specific currents in Latin America and on the wider (global) scale of mutual influences. I was particularly thinking of events in Ukraine these days, and also in Egypt, Turkey, Spain, India and elsewhere. The anthropological view-from-within is a much needed perspective in current debates (as well as the conditions of possibility to view from within). Looking forward to reading the forthcoming columns!

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