Brazilian Intellectuals and the French Social Sciences: Ian Merkel on Writing Anti-Diffusionist Intellectual History

In this conversation with RevDem editor Ferenc Laczó, Ian Merkel – author of Terms of Exchange: Brazilian Intellectuals and the French Social Sciences – discusses why Brazil in the 1930s offered such a precious opportunity to innovate in the social sciences; shows the ways in which Brazilians were crucial interlocutors for French social scientists; explores how the terms of exchange between French and Brazilian scholars evolved over time; and reflects on the broader implications of these fascinating encounters for the writing of global intellectual history.

Ian Merkel is an intellectual historian and currently a post-doc at the Friedrich-Meinecke Institut of the Freie Universität Berlin. Terms of Exchange: Brazilian Intellectuals and the French Social Sciences is his first monograph and has just been published by the University of Chicago Press.

Ferenc Laczó: The main protagonists of your book are four rather famous social scientists from France with strong links to Brazil. Could you briefly introduce them and tell a bit about their biographies and the character of their institutional connections to Brazil in the 1930s?

Ian Merkel: The four major protagonists of the book are the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the historian Fernand Braudel, the geographer Pierre Montbeig and the sociologist Roger Bastide. These for social scientists were all born in the first decade of the 20th century, came to age intellectually during the 1930s in a time of economic and political crisis, and began their university careers in Brazil at the newly founded University of São Paulo (USP).

While they possessed the necessary credentials to teach at the university in France, there simply were no professorships in France at a time of economic recession. Brazil, on the other hand, was in the midst of founding its first universities and there their training in the social sciences was in demand.

The reasons behind each of these scholars coming to Brazil as well as the kind of relationships that they forged with the country were, of course, different, but they shared a common experience. They overlapped at the University of São Paulo in the period between 1935 and 1939 – those early years of what would become Brazil’s most prestigious university. They also left behind high school teaching jobs in France, so this is a shift not only in their geographical but also in their professional orientation.

Except for sociology or geography, which sometimes had two professors, they were also the only representatives of their disciplines at the USP. Meaning that they had considerable leeway to determine the curriculum, institutionalize their scientific practices, and define the contours of the humanistic social sciences writ large in Brazil. Claude Lévi-Strauss was obviously one of the most famous anthropologists of the 20th century, but he arrived in Brazil with a philosophical background where he was tasked with teaching sociology. His wife, Dina had trained at the Institute of Ethnology in Paris with Marcel Mauss and Paul Rivet but Claude himself would complete this training in the field with Dina, first in the state of São Paulo and ultimately much farther afield, notably among the Nambicuara and Kadiweu peoples. While in Brazil, he and Dina were active participants in the Association for Brazilian Geographers based at the university and also at São Paulo’s municipal society for ethnography and folklore run by Mário de Andrade, a modernist writer and pioneer of what would be later be called ethnomusicology. This engagement preceded the Lévi-Strauss couple’s expedition to central Brazil and the Amazon, the Serra do Norte expedition made famous by Claude’s book Tristes tropiques. Lévi-Strauss is probably best known for his ideas concerning structures which would be taken up in the structuralist heyday of the 1960s.

The name of Fernand Braudel is practically synonymous with the Annales School and the longue durée in history – the idea that history should consider deeper structures and long periods of time rather than great men or political events. He arrived in Brazil from Algeria, which was still an integral part of France at the time. Different from the other three that make up this book, he had a doctoral dissertation on the way, what would become his The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II.

Braudel, too, took part in the interdisciplinary work of the Association for Brazilian Geographers. He had excellent students and colleagues at the University, notably people like Euripides Simões de Paula, who would later become Dean of the Faculty, and scholars such as Caio Prado Júnior and Giberto Freyre. After three years teaching in Brazil, Braudel earned his first teaching position in Paris for which his knowledge of the Iberian world and of the Iberian expansion in the Americas was emphasized.

In intellectual terms I show how the young Braudel’s exchanges with and readings of Brazilian scholars influenced his conception of the Mediterranean in a couple of ways. First of all, it encouraged Braudel to consider the Atlantic as the geographical extension of the inner Mediterranean Sea. In temporal terms this emphasis on the Americas allowed him to understand its decline over time.

Pierre Monbeig was a human geographer by training. He had already begun to conduct his doctoral work on Spain before moving to Brazil. In the 1930s, Spain was in the midst of its own revolution and civil war, and Monbeig’s research was upended by this and later by the consolidation of Franco’s regime. Due to this, he shifted his work entirely to Brazil. He stayed there from 1935 into the postwar period. And Monbeig was a crucial component for the humanistic social sciences in São Paulo during this entire period – much as Roger Bastide would be. He was a collaborator of many, a committed teacher and scholar. His interests included things like agrarian colonization and settlement, the geography of commodities, especially coffee, and also the broader political economy of Brazil. His major publications include Pionniers et planteurs de São Paulo – in English, we might say pioneers and farmers or perhaps landowners. He also wrote on the city of São Paulo.

In postwar France, Monbeig would be crucial to the emergence of Latin American studies, as we know them today, first through the CNRS, the French National Center for Scientific Research, and later the Institute des Hautes Études de l’Amérique Latine, the Institute for Advanced Study on Latin America.

As for Roger Bastide, a sociologist, he came to São Paulo to replace Claude Lévi-Strauss, who was actually let go from his teaching position for spending too much time in the field and not have enough time in the classroom. Bastide would become a pioneer in Afro Brazilian studies, with an emphasis on religion, such as Candomblé. In this sense, we might think of him as a kind of French equivalent of Melville Herskovits. But his contributions were much more wide-ranging: they touched on literature, the arts, and many other fields.

Like Monbeig, he stayed in Brazil for over a decade and had a profound impact on his students and colleagues. The Brazilian Gilberto Freyre would call him “um francês abrasileirado” or a Brazilianized Frenchman. He shared in the work of São Paulo’s Society for Ethnography and Folklore, but he also had colleagues at the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro and in Brazil’s northeast which laid the basis for his books on the candomblé of Bahia and his more synthetic work The African Religions of Brazil. Toward a Sociology of the Interpenetration of Civilizations.

To bring these four back together, I should emphasize that Bastide, Lévi-Strauss, Braudel and Monbeig all worked together at the University of São Paulo in the 1930s. It was there that they taught, that they defined their disciplines and that they came into dialogue with Brazilian intellectuals, conducting fieldwork that will influence their scholarship for many decades to come. This is, of course, whether they became Brazilianists or not, specialist of Brazil or not – Monbeig and Bastide did, Braudel and Lévi-Strauss did not.

Your book is clearly interested in the political economy of knowledge production and how the development of theory depends on larger collectives. You make a case that Brazil in the 1930s offered an opportunity to innovate in the social sciences and that Brazilians were crucial interlocutors for French social scientists. What made Brazil and São Paulo, more specifically, such a conducive environment? How would you describe the relationship between incoming French academics and Brazilian nationals around this time? What roles did the latter play in these relationships – whether as intellectuals, as intermediaries, or as both?

These are questions, Ferenc that get to the core of the book’s argument. At the end of the day, even if the book is structured around these four French social scientists, it’s very much a contextual and social history of intellectual life, one in which Brazil and São Paulo serve as important locales.

In the first few decades of the 20th century, the state of São Paulo had transformed from a kind of peripheral region of Brazil in the one of its most prosperous. This coincided with the expansion of the coffee economy and the pioneer region, which was constantly moving westward. The city of São Paulo rapidly emerged as Brazil’s second largest city and its industrial center. In 1900, the city had about 240,000 inhabitants. By 1928, it had reached 579,000, more than doubling in the next 20 years to reach about 1.3 million by 1940. By 1950, São Paulo had overtaken even the capital Rio de Janeiro in population and has since been Brazil’s largest city and the second largest in Latin America.

This urban and economic growth of the city was accompanied, not surprisingly, by an effervescence of cultural and intellectual activity. São Paulo has developed an important publishing industry and was home to the most widely circulating paper nationally, O Estado de São Paulo. The group around this newspaper was at the heart of the new university. São Paulo was home to the so-called modernist movement of the 1920s too, in which intellectuals in various fields, notably in literature, poetry and painting sought to Brazilianize culture instead of mimicking foreign fashions. The 1930s were also the high-water mark for what are often called Brazilian essayists.

This generation of Brazilian intellectuals— steeped in history, geography, sociology, and anthropology— sought to explain their country’s colonial heritage, its specific dynamics of cultural and ethnic mixture and its dependent position in the world economy, among other things.

Gilberto Freyre published Casa-Grande & Senzala in 1933, later translated into English as The Masters and the Slaves. There, he made the bold assertion that all Brazilians, however blonde they may have been, were in part African due to the primary impact of slave society upon the country’s cultural and ethnic formation. Sérgio Buarque de Holanda published Raízes do Brasil in 1936, recently translated as Roots of Brazil. Holanda was inspired by German sociology and especially by Max Weber. He also established a number of ideal types that remain powerful to this day, such as the cordial man of patronage and corruption, the bandeirante or frontiersman who, more often than not, was actually an indigenous slaver. As for Caio Prado Júnior, the Marxist of the bunch, he offered a compelling interpretation of Brazil’s integration into the global economic system, the extractivist nature of foreign capital, and the persistence of a colonial structure by which Brazil served primarily as a source of raw materials for the outside world.

As I show in the book, the French had relationships with all of these canonical Brazilian authors. They engaged with their work, corresponded with them when they didn’t see each other in person, and at times collaborated on projects.

Roger Bastide, as I mentioned earlier, became the most Brazilian of the four French scholars. He did so through his literary criticism, in which he offered original interpretations of Machado de Assis, Mário de Andrade, and lesser-known black authors, such as Luís Gama and many others. His immersion through literature allowed Bastide to develop a particular kind of sociological apparatus, one attentive to the cultures of the places that he studied. As Bastide developed his sociological and anthropological research on Afro-Brazilian religions, he also read the works of and corresponded extensively with Brazilians such as Arthur Ramos – who was then based in Rio de Janeiro – and Gilberto Freyre who he would ultimately come to translate into French. Bastide’s understanding of the intercultural contact and syncretism of these societies and these communities is both specific to Afro-Brazilian subjects and applicable to our globalized world, was Brazilian at its heart.

Monbeig accompanied São Paulo’s westward push and colonization through newspapers and fieldwork with privileged access to the state’s ruling elite. He stayed at their homes, looked at their documents etc. He also had students and colleagues who accompanied him on expeditions and filled the pages of Geografia, the journal he edited.

What made this city so conducive to research? São Paulo was at once a bourgeois city with all the resources necessary for conducting research and a city from which one could relatively easily access sites for fieldwork; it had a developed press, libraries, even if they were sometimes in private homes, thriving research institutes, and a highly educated elite but was also a base from which Brazilian and foreign scholar alike could plan their fieldwork, whether in the interior of central Brazil, the Amazon or the Northeast. When I talk about mediators in this book, I mean all of this – the term does not only refer to those Brazilians who corresponded with the French or worked alongside them but the entire social situation and the entire apparatus around them.

We have to remember that the social sciences, as we know them now, were new just about everywhere in the world in this period of the 1930s. In the North Atlantic, for example, one starts to see sociological studies of urban conditions, working class life and crime   financed by North American foundations – and not only in the US as the Rockefeller foundation, for example, was financing research into these questions in Europe too. In much of the rest of the world, the new discipline of anthropology was largely funded by different colonial administrations tasked with providing knowledge about subject populations to the state.

Just a couple years before the collaboration I explore in my book, France had financed a major expedition in 1931, the Dakar-Djibouti expedition which traversed from west to east many of its colonies in Africa.

What’s so interesting about Brazil in the history of knowledge, and what made it so fascinating for the French scholars that make up the book, is that it was both an independent country with its own research infrastructure but then also a country characterized by a colonial situation of sorts. What I mean by this is that Brazil was then in a moment of internal expansion and accumulation of knowledge about different populations within its borders.

It had its universities and institutes which funded research and brought in foreign scholars, but it also was a site for new research on indigenous and Afro-Brazilian people as well as human geography in the making.

Later on, you underline how Brazil was not only an object but a collective subject in France. You show how institution building in post-war France depended on Brazilian connections: connections to Brazil meant expertise but also an intellectual network and access to resources. You also discuss the unequal terms of exchange between French and Brazilian scholars and how the terms of this relationship have evolved over time. Would you be willing to address questions of postwar institution building in this connection, and how the terms of the relationship have evolved between the social sciences in the two countries after WWII?

I should start by saying that this importance of Brazil for French institution building was one of the more surprising, and I also think one of the more original aspects of the story.

I had enough material after conducting the research to write a book on São Paulo in the 1930s as this cosmopolitan place and the social sciences as part of its cosmopolitan culture. But when I began conducting archival work in France, I was taken aback by just how important these Brazilian connections were in the postwar period – when the French scholars who went to Brazil were back living and working in France.

Braudel alone exchanged some 60 letters each with Lévi-Strauss, Bastide and Monbeig, and Lévi-Strauss and Bastide too exchanged roughly the same number with each other.

While some of these letters were sentimental in nature or are just about friendship or other kinds of relationships, many were concerned with new social scientific institutions that they were building – what would become the École des Hautes Études de Sciences Sociales (EHESS), the Laboratory for Social Anthropology, the Human Sciences section of the CNRS and later the Institute des Hautes Études de l’Amérique Latine. These were all relatively young and ambitious professors who relied upon one another to occupy key positions not just in their own institutions of origin but also at places like the Collège de France. They used their knowledge of the networks in Brazil to advance these goals.

Braudel in particular consolidated his power through these networks, getting his students in São Paulo to key positions in Brazil from which they could ultimately invite French scholars for lecture tours etc. Some of these scholarly allies of Braudel in Paris who didn’t necessarily have anything to do with Brazil would benefit from these kinds of networks for sabbaticals etc. Braudel also helped colleagues, such as Bastide, to get jobs at the École des Hautes Études and advanced Latin American research via the journal Annales, among other places.

Another site for this Brazilian presence was the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) which was and is in Paris. After World War II and the Holocaust, UNESCO funded research into race relations worldwide. Brazil was seen as a candidate for a place where harmonious relations might exist between races, a country, therefore, from which one could potentially learn a great deal. Ultimately, studies were commissioned in different parts of Brazil. In the Northeast, Brazilian North American networks largely determined the course of research, but in São Paulo Bastide and the students, notably Florestan Fernandes, were tasked with the study resulting in the publication of Brancos e Negros em São Paulo (Whites and Blacks in São Paulo).

Brazil and Latin America in general figured prominently in the postwar French social sciences. The network of scholars who went to found the University of São Paulo in the 1930s and their Brazilian counterparts were crucial in making this the case. It was not just about bringing Latin America to bear on other kinds of academic questions.

At a time when the social sciences were just beginning to take root institutionally, the fact that these French scholars had preexisting experience, networks and practices put them in a privileged position. This position, I show, allowed them to contribute to the social sciences much more broadly in both metropolitan and colonial contexts.

To the second part of your question about the unequal terms of exchange that characterize the different parts of the story, the French and the Brazilians, I would say that it is important to remember that every relationship was different, some more equal than others, and that every relationship too depended on social context.

In the earlier period, when the Brazilians were the hosts often having published more extensively and many of them were also quite wealthy, the balance sometimes actually tilted in their favor. But there always remained this structuring inequality of center and periphery in terms of cultural production – texts in Portuguese never circulated like those in French or English or even German did.

In 1927, Arthur Ramos, a psychiatrist who has become a specialist of Afro-Brazilian subjects who I mentioned earlier, sent a book of his to Sigmund Freud in Vienna. Freud responded to Ramos simply that he didn’t read Portuguese – he expressed no interest in learning this language or having Ramos tell him anything about the book that he sent. This fact obviously limited Ramos’s circulation and reception like it did for many others.

By the 1930s, the situation had changed considerably. Brazilians no longer encountered European scholars only in Europe when they visited but they hosted them in Brazil. They offered opportunities to young scholars who learned Portuguese, became their colleagues and collaborators, and helped to circulate their work abroad. Brazil came to represent not a backward country but an emerging one from which people could potentially learn. This relative equality, as I show in the book, reached its zenith during and immediately following World War II.

We have to remember that Europe faced a serious economic crisis that limited its research capacity in the 1930s and 1940s. Beyond the very real demographic and military matters and the complete destruction of World War II, in symbolic terms too, Europe had to face its own barbarism after the Holocaust – a barbarism that France too was a participant in as an active fascist collaborator – and Brazil suddenly offered this contrast as an emerging multiethnic society that could be a partner in a new process of modernity.

By the 1960s, this influence started to taper off. Brazil suffered a military coup d’état in 1964, bringing an end to a certain kind of optimism from the immediate postwar period. This coup d’état also severed or at least reformulated many of the institutional connections between French and Brazilian academics. This is because the US government, and USAID in particular, helped to remake Brazilian universities through its agreements with the Brazilian Ministry of Education. The moment of intense dialogue and collaboration that I studied between French and Brazilian academics precipitously declined thereafter.

The intellectual exchanges between the two countries, however, did not end there. If anything, they’re much more cyclical. One can find the intellectual children and grandchildren of the story I have traced very much alive and well today. Some of them are very important actors and represent the continuation of these bonds between the two countries – I actually did the work for this book with an advisor at the University of São Paulo, where he was a professor, who now teaches at the Sorbonne. The bonds very much continue, even if there was a precipitous decline in the 1960s.

Let us talk more about the contents of scholarship. As you show, the influential scholarship of several leading French academics has in fact been rather profoundly shaped by their encounter with Brazil and Brazilians. You discuss a host of issues – the study of religious syncretism, Transatlantic trade, the study of kinship or of settler colonialism as well as the broad scholarly understanding of the world economy, of structures, the role of race and indigeneity, among others – as having been shaped by the familiarity with Brazil and research into Brazilian matters. Could you talk about the resulting impact on the work of French scholars, such as, perhaps most famously, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Fernand Braudel?

Let me start with Braudel here. Although by no means a specialist of Brazil, he himself said that it was in Brazil that “I became intelligent.”

We have to remember that when he arrived in Brazil, he had yet to really start writing his doctoral dissertation on the Mediterranean. During his three years of teaching at the University of São Paulo his work on the Mediterranean expanded to include the Atlantic. In 1938, as I mentioned, he had returned definitively to France and who was there but Caio Prado Júnior, one of his collaborators from the 1930s then in Communist exile. The two of them saw each other frequently at the National Library and discussed questions ranging from transatlantic trade to temporality, ideas that would be central to both of their subsequent scholarship. Prado then was in the midst of researching what would become his most significant work Formação do Brasil Contemporâneo from 1942. This is a book that Braudel would come to review as he was putting together his book on the Mediterranean for publication some years later. Prado’s book in many ways anticipated the geographic and economic aspects that we often attribute to Braudel.

Gilberto Freyre was another crucial author for Braudel. We can see this in the Mediterranean where Freyre is cited for providing insight into the role of the new Christians, the “cristãos-novos” in Transatlantic trade and what we might now call the capitalist world system. Freyre also helped him to understand Portugal as a kind of bicontinent between Europe and North Africa, a mixed geographic, ethnic and cultural space.

We see just how important Freyre was to Braudel – and also to Lucien Febvre, who was the founder and editor of Annales – when we remember that Braudel reviewed Freyre’s work in a German prison camp during World War II. Like most French officers captured by the Germans – and most intellectuals were officers, because of their level of education and the fact that they already worked for the state –, Braudel was taken prisoner first in Mainz and then in Lübeck. It was in these camps that he wrote much of The Mediterranean that many know and celebrate. Febvre, then in Paris, made a point of getting him Freyre’s work to review. Just the fact that somehow Febvre during wartime is managing to get a book into a German prison camp is enough – and the fact that it’s Freyre’s makes it all the more interesting.

Through the figures of both Gilberto Freyre and Caio Prado Júnior, we see the hallmarks of the Annales School at times preceded by but in all cases contemporary with Brazilian scholarship.

Braudel’s temporalities of the medium and longue durée as opposed to the history of events and his idea of total social and economic history rather than the politics of great men both would have looked completely differently had it not been for Brazilian thinkers, I argue.

For Lévi-Strauss, the argument about the intellectual importance of Brazil is, strangely enough, harder to make. In some ways he is the most easily identifiable with Brazil of all the characters in the book. The fieldwork that brought him recognition as an anthropologist was conducted in Brazil and Brazil figures prominently in his most famous book Tristes tropiques too. And he later published a couple of beautiful books of photographs that he had taken in the 1930s in Brazil which kept him in the public sphere and kept him associated with Brazil.

When it comes to discussing the intellectual importance of Brazil, Lévi-Strauss was the first to dismiss it. He claimed that some of his most important intellectual debts were to American anthropologists and to the Russian-Czech linguist Roman Jakobsen who he knew from his time in New York. These were, according to Lévi-Strauss, the true roots of structures and structuralism, his most significant ideas.

I tried to dispel this idea about Lévi-Strauss by re-centering his work in Brazil and among a Brazilians network.

I do this, first and foremost, through an exploration of the conditions of possibility for Lévi-Strauss’ fieldwork, highlighting exchanges with people such as Heloísa Torres at the Museo Nacional and, of course, Mário de Andrade in São Paulo. But I also situate his work among other scholars and friends that he knew from Brazil, demonstrating, for example, just how important Braudel, Monbeig, and Bastide were for his mature work.

This was especially the case in bringing success to Tristes tropiques but also for discussions about structure that preceded the publication of Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology.

Your book argues that the consolidation of the social sciences was an international project and countries outside the North Atlantic could be foundational to this process. You discuss strong affinities and a special kind of kinship between France and Brazil. Was Brazil a rather unusual crossroad in the global history of the social sciences where sea changes could be anticipated? What might be some of the broader, more global lessons – lessons concerning multidirectionality or otherwise – to be drawn from the history you so aptly reconstruct and analyze in the book?

Ultimately, I hope that the book generates interest in the intellectual contributions of other parts of the world, of other urban locales, particularly in Latin America and parts of the then colonized world, let’s say in Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, etc.

In terms of their place and what some scholars have called the world republic of letters, one thing that’s so curious about Brazil and Latin America in the late 19th and through the mid-20th century is its Francophilia. Scholars tended to consider this as a natural kind of epiphenomenon of class structure among elites – logically, the elites spoke French. I think it’s much more than that and there’s nothing natural about this fact.

Whether it be with positivism, originally a French social philosophy and church but from which the Brazilians came to excommunicate the French, or with Durkheimian sociology widespread in Brazil at the beginning of the 20th century, Brazilians were active participants in different strands of European thought.

As I show in terms of the social sciences, especially in the newer social sciences of anthropology and geography, their contributions were significant at both an institutional and an intellectual level.

The story I tell, therefore, is an anti-diffusionist one, a story that rejects the North Atlantic’s centrality in the history of the social sciences and an intellectual life more broadly.

Brazil and Brazilians, as I show, came to feature prominently in the French social sciences in a variety of ways. By and large, the Brazilians of this story were not subalterns. They were highly educated, conversant with more cosmopolitan forms of intellectual life. Their exchanges with the Europeans such as the French, North Americans etc. were unequal but they were also part of a privileged social class at home. They offered something profoundly new at that time: an understanding of non-Western histories, geographies and populations, a perspective from the South to be shared.

At a time of decolonial reckoning I think we’re in, especially in terms of the way that canons are written, many of the intellectuals of this book should rightly be exposed to critique. I engage in such critique myself in regard to Freyre who’s reception in France coincided with questions about French Africa and how to ease social unrest there. But, regardless of their politics and our present reading of those politics, the originality of those intellectuals has to do with their intermediary social position and the contradictions there.

These thinkers were at once central and peripheral, European and non-European, colonial but sometimes quite eloquently anti-racist. Perhaps most importantly, they straddled between empiricism and theoretical knowledge. This last point in my mind is what makes them so interesting for global intellectual history and social theory.

They knew a lot about the places that was useful, places that were not on the map. They could help to fill these places out in our imaginaries and understandings of the world. But they were conversant enough with the world beyond their specific location to point beyond it. For this reason, we need to continue to resurface thinkers from what’s often considered the global South as problematic as that term is.

We have to let the intellectuals and the non-intellectual actors we study deconstruct our categories. For me, the major point is to listen to the ways in which these intellectuals thought beyond themselves. To highlight not just their local knowledge, but also their contributions to global intellectual life that extended beyond the geographic or cultural or ethnic specificity.

In collaboration with Isabel Lasch and Lucie Janotová

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