by Mark Goodale. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009. 264pp. Cloth. $65.00. ISBN: 9780804759816. Paper. $24.95. ISBN: 9780804759823. E-book $24.95. ISBN: 9780804769884.

Reviewed by Raul Sanchez Urribarri, Department of Political Science, Tulane University. E-mail: sanchezu [at] tulane.edu.


To what extent do liberal principles and values – as defined, understood and shaped by the different actors that participate in the development of a global liberal discourse and the legal institutions that accompany it – shape the social consciousness and actual experiences of indigenous communities and peoples in different contexts, especially in Latin America? In his newly published work, DILEMMAS OF MODERNITY: BOLIVIAN ENCOUNTERS WITH LAW AND LIBERALISM, Mark Goodale addresses this and other related questions in a sophisticated and cogent manner. The book is the product of a decade of sustained research efforts to observe, document and evaluate the role and meaning of liberal principles in different instances of social and political life in contemporary Bolivia. The result is an extensive and thought-provoking ethnographic study of law and liberalism in this (still) understudied country, which challenges traditional understandings of the topic while building upon a wide array of works from several disciplines.

The analysis focuses on the remote area of Bolivia’s Norte del Potosí, an inaccessible location where one would not expect law and liberalism in their different manifestations to be actively sought and experienced by potosinos, but instead resisted or, at best, inconsequential. However, Goodale compellingly shows that this is not the case, exploring patterns of intention rooted in the country’s longstanding liberal project, dating back to the moment of its foundation as an independent nation-state in 1825. Thus, the book focuses on explaining “the ways in which specific kinds of social practices in Bolivia reveal a set of dilemmas at the heart of the modern project itself, dilemmas that appear in stark relief through both legal practices and contemporary struggles over the meaning of the legal-ideological principles through which Bolivia emerged in the early nineteenth century” (p.53).

The book is well organized, along seven chapters. The introduction and Chapter 2 offer the theoretical underpinnings of the work: Whilst the former succeeds in summarizing and introducing the argument, the latter further develops a thorough understanding of how liberalism, as a pattern of intention, continues to shape modern Bolivia. According to Goodale, Bolivian Law from the start placed the individual at the center of the country’s project and developed a logic of rights to regulate the individual’s relations vis-à-vis the state, establishing a structure that has endured in Bolivia despite remarkable [*101] social, economic and political changes over the country’s history until today. The subsequent chapters then provide a detailed view of how the linkages with liberalism shape individual and social experiences. Chapter 3 discusses how transnational legal principles rooted in liberal values influence local practices. The chapter challenges common assumptions about the role of courts, judicial institutions and legal actors in Latin America, and invites scholars to jointly consider other modalities of rights adjudication present in the region. This analysis is particularly relevant after the approval of the new 2009 Bolivian Constitution, which explicitly and officially recognizes the existence of separate ‘general’ (ordinaria) and indigenous jurisdictions (Bolivian Constitution, Second Part, Title III, JUDICIAL BRANCH AND PLURINATIONAL CONSTITUTIONAL TRIBUNAL, arts. 178 ss.), and creates a new Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal, with the ability to solve conflicts between these jurisdictional orders (2009 Bolivian Constitution, article 202). Next, Chapter 4 explores disparate perspectives on gender, in which local cultural values and principles stand in opposition to the global legal discourse and the values that inspire it; whilst in Chapter 5 Goodale offers an analysis of how the human rights ideological framework is adapted or ‘vernacularized’ through local practices and developed, not only as a strictly juridical discourse, but also as a moral parameter. Chapter 6 discusses local understandings of development, as the inhabitants of Norte del Potosí meet and confront different instances of modernity brought about by different projects targeted at improving their socio-economic conditions.

Finally, in the book’s conclusion, Goodale ties the argument up and briefly considers what is, perhaps, the most important question that remains after reading the book: What is the true nature of the recent political reforms carried out in Bolivia? Do they stand in contraposition to the liberal project that, following the book, serves as a core pattern of intention for the country’s social, political and economic development? The arrival of Evo Morales (2005) to the presidency has catalyzed ongoing social and institutional transformations backed by the overwhelming support of Bolivia’s indigenous majority and a broader social coalition, leading to the subsequent creation and approval via referendum of the 2009 Bolivian Constitution. Scholars have tried to explain the different social, political and legal implications of these changes (see, for example, Postero 2006). To Goodale, it is still early to draw any conclusions, but consistent with his explanation, the new revolution also incarnates, at least to some degree, the values of liberalism. I find this approach particularly valuable; it not only helps to evaluate Bolivia’s most recent transformations, but also presents an alternative paradigm to study other political projects emerging in the region, including Ecuador and Venezuela, countries with which the process of changes share some core common aspirations of social justice and inclusion, and which have also been channeled through democratic politics (though their actual commitment to democracy, and even what democracy entails in these countries, are contested issues).

Clearly, Goodale’s is an important book for Legal Anthropologists – especially [*102] those interested in the role and impact of Western notions of modernity and liberalism in contemporary Latin America. In this sense, the book joins other recent works about indigenous politics and social transformations in the region, such as Speed (2007). Moreover, this book is also provocative and essential for those who work in other subfields, and who are also seeking to understand the role of the law and human rights vis-à-vis local practices, within and beyond the understudied Andean context. DILEMMAS OF MODERNITY sheds additional light on the relationship between the rise of a transnational human rights discourse, inspired in liberal values and with universalist aspirations vis-à-vis both the longstanding existence of prior liberal projects carried out by state elites in search of modernity, and the existence (and persistence) of local cultures and their localized claims. Goodale’s effort to advocate for a nuanced understanding of this process offers valuable lessons for judicial and legal reform practitioners or policy advisors crafting democratization agendas. In this sense, the book adds to works from scholars in other connected disciplines, such as Sieder’s edited volume, MULTICULTURALISM IN LATIN AMERICA (2002). Well researched and clearly written, the book is a welcomed addition that will be especially useful for graduate education and research across several subfields.

REPÚBLICA DE BOLIVIA: CONSTITUCIÓN POLÍTICA DEL ESTADO DE 2009. Revised at: http://pdba.georgetown.edu/Constitutions/Bolivia/bolivia09.html, on January 30, 2010.



Speed, Shannon. 2007. RIGHTS IN REBELLION: INDIGENOUS STRUGGLE AND HUMAN RIGHTS IN CHIAPAS. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

© Copyright 2010 by the author, Raul A. Sanchez Urribarri.