PLASMA Workshop 2- Cartographies of Suffering and Mental Health in Latin America. A Century of the ‘Social Question'

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PLASMA Workshop 2- Cartographies of Suffering and Mental Health in Latin America. A Century of the ‘Social Question'


In the early 20th century, Latin America faced the emergence of a process that was named the ‘social question’. This expression was imported from industrialised countries in North America and Europe and it summarised the diverse challenges imposed by modernisation and urbanisation processes. The social question pointed to urban poverty, overcrowding, epidemics, and high rates of child mortality. The term also referred to a ‘moral crisis’ in Latin American societies, a decay in ethical principles. The social question was addressed by States through a set of policies directed to improve health and quality of life, while at the same time grassroots movements flourished.

One century later, the Latin American academic and political debate has returned to the term, pointing to the existence of a ‘new social question’. Despite the different approaches to this issue in the 20th and 21st century, the current debate has continued to focus on the existence of a mismatch between economic and technological advances and the conditions of vulnerability and poverty experienced by the population. The new social question can be viewed in the emergence of a new dynamic in the organisation of labour markets and social support systems, the transformation of social structure, the implementation of new economic models and the accelerated demographic and epidemiologic transition. Thus, the discussion about the new social question has led to a redefinition of the limits between social and sanitary issues.

Inequality, instability and vulnerability have shaped daily life in contemporary Latin America. In this context, discomfort and suffering have become more present for individuals. The ‘mental health’ field has thus become the political locus of new concerns and demands. The extended use of diagnostic categories such as depression, stress, anxiety, and addiction, as well as therapeutic and medical techniques, have been used as conceptual, moral and political tools to understand and intervene complex social realities.

‘Psy’, medical and ‘neuro’ knowledge and practices have transformed the vocabulary of public policy, redefining the questions about the subjective effects of poverty, inequality and vulnerability. Thus, a twofold challenge ensues the region: (1) thinking about new societal dynamics in terms of individual trajectories, resources and capacities and, (2) thinking about the field of intervention in mental health in relation to heterogeneous institutions and territories.

The aim of the PLASMA Workshop #2 is to map these tensions and to study the boundaries between social suffering and mental health from a historical, sociocultural and political perspective. The discussion around realities in Latin America will contribute to the development of a contemporary and integrated view on the region’s challenges in the field of mental health. This invitation is a continuation of PLASMA Workshop #1: Mapping new voices: towards a Latin American perspective on global mental health, that took place in Paris in June 2017. At this meeting, the debate focused on the position and the role of Latin America and the social sciences in the development of the contemporary global mental health agenda. On this occasion, we propose new questions:

• What are the historical and sociocultural roots of contemporary suffering in Latin America? What are the continuities and divergences between current issues and those of the early 20th century? What are the forms of discomfort and suffering in Latin America today?

• In what way are psychiatry and the field of mental health redirecting the social and political response to poverty, exclusion and suffering? How do the different languages and technologies of psychiatry and mental health redefine the imaginaries on the so-called ‘new social question’?

• How do health institutions, user organisations, academia, and other public and private actors in the mental health interplay in current contexts in Latin America? What challenges does the ‘new social question’ pose to mental health-related institutions, actors and organisations?

Key Themes

1. Historical and epistemological approaches to suffering and mental health in Latin America.

2. Inequality, instability, vulnerability and mental health in Latin America.

3. Social research methods on suffering and mental health in Latin America.

4. Public and private institutions, social policies and mental health in Latin America.

When: 5th and 6th October, 2018

Where: Senate House (University of London)

Agenda: For more details access the event programme

Keynote Speakers

  • Francisco Ortega (Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro) 
  • Angela García (Stanford University)
  • David Orr (University of Sussex).
  • Special participation: Nikolas Rose (King’s College London)

Organizing Committee: Gabriel Abarca (King’s College London), Sofía Bowen (King’s College London), Elaine Flores (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine), Álvaro Jiménez (Millennium Institute for Research in Depression and Personality, Chile), Cristián Montenegro (London School of Economics and Political Science), Claudio Maino (Université Paris Descartes), Felipe Szabzon (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris), Norha Vera (King’s College London).

Registration: Attendance is free but prior registration is mandatory through EventBrite

For further information about PLASMA, please visit their Website