Claudia Roesch. Macho Men and Modern Women: Mexican Immigration, Social Experts and Changing Family Values in the 20th Century United States. Berlin: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2015. VIII, 508 S. ISBN 978-3-11-039945-5; ISBN 978-3-11-039956-1; (paper), ISBN 978-3-11-039946-2.
Reviewed by Teresa Huhle
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (February, 2018)
C. Roesch: Macho Men and Modern Women
Juvenile delinquents, working mothers, submissive women, absent fathers, machos, extended family networks and unregulated reproduction: Claudia Roesch’s voluminous monograph comprehensively analyzes the contested construction of Mexican American families’ “difference” in the US-American Southwest from the 1920s to the 1970s. The book is closely based on Claudia Roesch’s PhD thesis, which she developed as part of the Emmy Noether Junior Research Group „Family Values and Social Change: The US-American Family in the 20th Century“ (2009–2016) at the University of Münster. Three groups of institutions and actors, social sciences and scientists, social work agencies and workers, and civil rights organizations and activists form the core of her account. They all constructed Mexican American otherness in diametric opposition to Anglo-American family norms regarding both external (family size, composition and system) and internal (gender norms, decision-making process) elements. Accordingly, normalized white middle class ideals – canonized by Talcott Parson’s influential formulation of an isolated nuclear family model – are a further focus of Roesch’s study.
In the introduction, Roesch raises three main questions: First, she asks about the interrelations between social science, social work, and civil rights, and how they influence each other, second, she aims to identify instances of changing values regarding family norms, and third, she looks for the influence of Mexican immigration on these values. In her theoretical framing, Roesch makes use of Foucault’s concepts of biopolitics and governmentality in order to understand the “governing [of] immigration through families” (p. 4). She further refers to the continuously growing literature on the “scientization of the social” and social engineering. She also refers to Thomas S. Kuhn’s concept of scientific paradigms, and more specifically to Howard Winant’s chronology of race paradigms in the social sciences. Roesch adapts it to the Mexican American case and stresses the longevity, continuity and parallel existence of certain paradigms. Consequently, the book chapters follow the chronology of the shifting paradigms without losing sight of their overlap: Chapter 1 looks at the “Cultural Deficiency Paradigm” of the 1920s and 1930s, whereas chapter 2 focuses on the “Biological Essentialist Paradigm” that prevailed in the same two decades. Chapter 3 moves on to the “Modernization Paradigm” of the 1940s and 1950s, chapter 4 analyzes the ascent of the “Psychologization Paradigm” in the 1950s and 1960s, and the last and fifth chapter looks at the “New Ethnic Paradigm” from the 1960s to 1970s.
The book has a regional focus on the US-American Southwest (Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and California) and is narrated around a series of recurring actors: state agencies, religious groups, civic organizations and civil rights organizations. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), based in Texas; the Catholic Welfare Bureaus of the dioceses in Los Angeles and San Antonio; the Chicago Area Project; the Immigrant’s Protective League from Illinois; the Mexican American Movement (MAM) in Los Angeles; the Methodist All Nations Church (east Los Angeles); the Mobilized Women of Berkeley (Bay Area); the California Immigration and Housing Commission; and the National Association of Social Workers (California) all provided services to Mexican immigrant families throughout parts or all of the analyzed period. Indexes of persons and subjects facilitate the search for specific actors and aspects. However, the exclusion of the third level of headings from the table of contents somewhat diminishes a quick orientation.
Claudia Roesch delves into every organization’s archival records, but also works with a large number of personal papers and printed sources. This rich archival material allows for many case histories and nuances. A pertinent example is Roesch’s collection of complaint files from the California Immigration and Housing Commission and the Immigrant’s Protective League, which date back to the beginning of her period of investigation. She explores the cases concerning family matters of Mexican American families (both immigrant and US-citizen), and highlights the agency of Mexican American women who sought counsel as well as the rationales of the social workers who provided it. The case of women looking to separate from their violent or unfaithful husbands encountering social workers who advised not to break up their families as economic units serves Roesch as an example of how the main focus of counseling was to prevent the expenditure of public benefits.
Roesch’s innovative interpretation of classics of US-American sociology is just as remarkable. Her close reading and contextualization of Oscar Lewis’ Culture of Poverty theory, published in 1959 and 1961, is a case in point. Not only does she examine the argumentation in his research on families from Mexico City and the alleged vicious circle of poverty they lived in, but also its impact on social work agencies in the United States such as LULAC. The organization’s educational program Little School of the 400 for preschool children that started in the late 1950s illustrates a broader shift towards the new target group. Whereas LULAC adopted the psychological logic behind the Culture of Poverty, it also pointed out structural disadvantages children from Mexican American families faced. A more explicit critique of Lewis’ assumptions was formulated by the Mexican American scholar George I. Sánchez, who wrote the parody Children of Jones (1963) on the dysfunctional elements in affluent Anglo-American families. He is one of many voices that critically contest the construction of Mexican American families in the social sciences in Roesch’s account, and it is a further strength of the book that so many of these are represented in all their nuances.
Finally, the subchapter on Chicana feminism deserves special mention, which contains, among other things, important contributions to the scarce historiography on population control and family planning in the United States that centers on women’s demands and practices, and puts race in the middle of the discussion. While many studies have focused on the “dark side of birth control” (e.g. Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body. Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, New York 1997, the quote is the title of the books’ second chapter), much still needs to be written on women of color’s reproductive practices and demands. One example for this approach is Simone M. Caron, Birth Control and the Black Community in the 1960s. Genocide or Power Politics?, in: Journal of Social History, 31(1998), pp. 545–569. As these examples illustrate, Afro-American experiences dominate the literature on the racial dimension of reproductive politics in the United States. Roesch shows how Chicana feminists agitated for their reproductive freedom on various fronts. They demanded research on the causes for high fertility rates among Mexican American women on the one hand, and fought against coercive sterilization practices on the other.
All the aforementioned aspects make the book highly recommendable for scholars working on the gendered history of the US-American family in the twentieth century, or on the history of Mexican immigration and Mexican Americans. However, it is a must-read for everyone interested in a nuanced exploration of the “scientization of the social”. Claudia Roesch not only provides evidence of the social sciences’ extraordinary and contested role in shaping social norms and order, she also innovatively explores the mutually fruitful cooperation between social science experts and social work agencies throughout the twentieth century in the United States. For a relatively new summary on this research see Kerstin Brückweh et al. (eds.), Engineering Society. The Role of the Human and Social Sciences in Modern Societies, 1880–1980, Basingstoke 2012.
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Teresa Huhle. Review of Roesch, Claudia, Macho Men and Modern Women: Mexican Immigration, Social Experts and Changing Family Values in the 20th Century United States.
H-Soz-u-Kult, H-Net Reviews.
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