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The Idea of the Middle Class: White-Collar Workers and Peruvian Society, 1900-1950.

The Idea of the Middle Class: White-Collar Workers and Peruvian Society, 1900-1950. By D. S. Parker (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998. xii plus 266pp. $49.50/cloth $19.95/paperback).

The Idea of the Middle Class is both a profoundly innovative and comfortably familiar examination of Latin American society. David Parker has authored a clearly argued, well-written, and amply documented history of Lima's middle class in the first half of the twentieth-century. Parker's lucid account traces the formation of the class, its economic and cultural dimensions, its political activity, and the manner in which it changed as Lima's demographic and economic expansion altered the city's labor structure. For these reasons, the book should enjoy a wide audience among urban, labor, and social historians.

In constructing his analysis, Parker challenges a generation of scholars to reexamine how they think about the formation and identification of social groups. Historians whose methodology was shaped by E. P. Thompson might find Parker's preference for ideology over lived experience as central to the process of class formation to be deeply disturbing. However, his logic and presentation are convincing. His simple yet profound statement that "classes, like other constructions, are products of the mind" (p. 9) turns much of Thompson's sense of class formation on its head. Rather than class happening as a result of struggles between groups defined largely by distinct occupational and cultural amalgamations, class is created as people think about themselves within a social hierarchy, and as those ideas gain currency as a satisfactory explanation for collective identity in opposition to other social groups. Ideas about social identity are dynamic, but explanatory frames, once in place, can undergo extensive modific ation without fundamental harm. Thompsonian scholars will find some comfort that contention remains central to the formation of Lima's middle class.

Parker's initial chapter on "Images of Society in Early Twentieth-Century Peru" is a masterful description of the bifurcated hierarchy of gente decente and gence del pueblo (literally, decent and popular peoples). Its sensitivity to social and cultural nuances deserves to be widely read. Empleados (employees), usually white collar workers in mercantile, banking, and commercial businesses, occupied a tenuous position within this hierarchy. (The absence of government functionaries from his account is notable. How did they interact with empleados in the formation of the class?) These future members of the middle class identified themselves with the values and expectations of the gente decente, even while their lived experiences more often paralleled those of the less affluent gente del pueblo. (In this, empleados are akin to the arcesanos with whom they often formed mutual aid societies, a relationship not discussed by Parker.) This sense of difference helped propel the turn of the century discussion on the "so cial question" into calls for special social legislation that, in time, became a contentious political issue around which empleados could unite. This unity appeared in the empleados' 1919 strike and in the congress's passage of the 1924 "Law of the Empleado."

While the discourse of the process generated the idea and increased self-identity of a middle class among empleados, Parker's text can be read to confirm that contention around a set of interests largely determined by material conditions remains central to class formation. His descriptions of the material conditions and socioeconomic position of empleados within the changing labor landscape of Lima's rapidly increasing population reads like a "standard" labor history. Social historians tooted in a structuralist analysis could well argue that these changing structural conditions were essential to the process of class formation that became visible in the 1919 strike.

The documentation and analysis of the 1920-1950 period is solid and impressive. Historians of most ideological beliefs will find his discussion of APRA's overtures to empleados an important counterpoint to its relationship with obreros. Parker skillfully presents the maturation of the empleado social structure in the 1940s, a period that is seldom analyzed. By 1950, the working and material conditions of empleados were quite differentiated, with a far greater range of empleado experiences than had been the case fifty years earlier.

Parker has made a significant contribution to our understanding of Latin American social and urban history. His theoretical frame will surely inspire much discussion. This book should be as much of a pleasure to talk about as it was to read.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Sowell, David
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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