Research Spotlight: Diego Armus and Urban History

This is the fifth interview in the series Research Spotlight, in which I share conversations that I have with faculty regarding their research, their journey within their field, and their field in a broader context.

Diego Armus is a historian. His work focuses on socio-cultural issues in urban Latin America.


REDDY: Generally, how would you describe the research that you do?

ARMUS: I’m a historian, and I’m particularly interested in cities. My work has mainly focused on Buenos Aires, I’m from Argentina. Urban history is a huge field; in the city, you have everything. So at some point, you focus your attention on some part of the life of the city. What I had been doing, even before coming to the United States, was first working on urban labor history, particularly housing for workers. From there, I moved to immigration — Buenos Aires is a city of immigrants. And from there, I moved to diseases and health. Since arriving in the United States (I lived for quite some time in Berkeley, California), I have been writing on and researching diseases in cities. My last three or four books were on history, culture, and disease. This is the core of my work.

REDDY: How did you develop an interest in this particular area?

ARMUS: I started my career as a historian in Argentina, where I got my first doctorate, and then I began to work as a researcher in an urban research center. At that time, I was doing urban history, but also urban sociology. At the center we were working on the history of low-income settlements in the outskirts of Buenos Aires. In that environment, I began to define my personal research agenda: urban history with a social and cultural emphasis.

REDDY: What book projects are you working on right now?

ARMUS: I’m working on three different books. I invited a former student of mine (Lisa Ubelaker Andrade) from Swarthmore to work with me on one of them. She was a history major here, then she went to Yale and got her PhD in history. Her thesis here at Swarthmore was on Buenos Aires. Her thesis at Yale was also on Buenos Aires. She ended up living in Buenos Aires and marrying an Argentinian. The book is about a cultural history of Buenos Aires. Duke University Press has a series of books on the cultural history of world cities, and they asked me to do one on Buenos Aires. We are working together on that. It’s a cultural history of Buenos Aires, mainly in the twentieth century. The book will probably be ready in two or three months. It’s called The Buenos Aires Reader.

I’m extremely pleased with the idea that I am writing a book with a former student of mine. That is quite an experience. She is now in her thirties. I am dealing with her as a sort of young historian. From the beginning,  I made it very, very clear that for me, this is an arrangement between peers. I am enjoying it a lot.

Another project is a cultural history of cigarette smoking in Buenos Aires. This is an individual project. This is a clear example of combining the city, urban life, and diseases. The argument is basically that for many decades (most of the twentieth century), smoking was a well-accepted practice. Everybody was smoking. This is not particular to Buenos Aires. In almost every big city, smoking was an important feature of daily life. But, in the last twenty years, the whole thing changed. There’s a new consensus that smoking cigarettes is bad for your health. Have you ever smoked?


ARMUS: You are part of a generation that thinks that smoking is almost crazy. I’ve never smoked, but I’m from a generation that assumes cigarette smoking as a fact of daily life. The argument of my book is that, for almost a century, smoking was part of the cultural fabric of the city, that smoking was a sort of party. But, in only twenty years, the situation changed drastically. Nowadays, few people smoke, and smoking is perceived as a sort of vicious disease and an addiction. My book deals with this change. A long history of the celebration of smoking, and a short history in which this celebration vanished, and now smoking and smokers have become stigmatized. This is basically the argument of the second book.

I am working on the third book with a colleague at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. It’s a book on healers in Latin America. Disease and History in Latin America is a book that I organized almost ten years ago. It’s basically about how public health systems were growing all over Latin America as well as the achievements and failures in trying to control or even eradicate diseases. It is book that deals with hospitals, the consolidation of the medical profession, changes in life expectancy, biomedical challenges and responses in one of the capitalist peripheries, metaphors and perceptions of diseases. The new book aims at underlining that although the medicalization of society and culture was quite successful throughout the twentieth century you continue to see — especially in the first half — the presence of a diverse group of traditional practitioners and healers, some with some formal professional training, some without it, but all providing some sort of healthcare. The perdurable presence of these traditional healers has to do with the limitations of biomedicine in trying to offer effective answers to some diseases and maladies and also with the limited accessibility of official health services for some social sectors. So in the first book, I attempted to show the expansion of the public health system; in the new one I’m interested in showing the limitations of that process.

REDDY: What does the process of doing research for those books look like?

ARMUS: While my main teaching activity is at Swarthmore, I have been offering short and intensive graduate courses and seminars in Latin American universities; I go to Argentina several times per year. I use these short visits to advance my own research in Buenos Aires’ libraries and archives. It depends on the project. For the book on smoking, I work with many different sources — advertising, tango lyrics, literature, movies, statistics, medical reports, public health campaigns, big tobacco corporations, and archives as well as personal histories. I want to delve into the “careers” of individual smokers or former smokers. So I have to do a lot of interviews and oral history. For The Buenos Aires Reader, I basically use print materials, from the speech of a mayor, to newspapers clips, comics, photography, theater pieces, tango lyrics, literature, and paintings. We historians have to use whatever is available. We attempt to reconstruct and interpret the past not with what we would like to have in terms of evidence and facts, but with what is available. And what it is available tends to be scarce most of the times.  This is the big difference when we compare our work with that of an ethnographer or a sociologist. Somehow, history looks like Swiss cheese, a cheese with plenty of holes. More often than not, it is quite difficult to fill all those holes; but it is possible to give meaning and interpret what is around these holes with the available evidence. The book on Latin American healers on which I am working is to a great extent an effort to take note of the perdurable presence of these holes. Medical and public health doctors have produced a huge amount of evidence about their practices; not so much for healers. Still, healers have been there, playing a role in peoples’ lives.   

REDDY: Regarding the second book about the history of smoking, is there anything that you found to be particular unique about the change of the cultural perception of smoking in Buenos Aires.

ARMUS: This a global phenomenon. What happened in Buenos Aires happened in almost every single corner of this world. Perhaps in the Far East, things were a little bit slower. My challenge is on how to localize this global process, in my case, in Buenos Aires. For instance, I already found a couple of things that go against what some historiography would suggest. For instance, some historians tend to believe that people smoke in the periphery of the world, the areas that were not in the center of capitalist industrialization, because powerful Anglo-American tobacco corporations imposed the habit of smoking cigarettes. They suggest that this habit was imposed from abroad, that is, another chapter in the unequal distribution of power between centers and peripheries, or postcolonial impositions. What I’m trying to show in my discussion is that people had been smoking in Buenos Aires before the arrival of these Anglo-American corporations. Somehow, smoking was part of the local culture. What happened afterwards is that the local cigarette companies began to share the market with external players — big Anglo-American corporations. In other words, at the beginning of the century there was a well-developed cigarette smoking habit fed by local companies; by the 1930s and 40s, foreign corporations arrived into the Buenos Aires market; and by the last third of the century, Anglo-American corporations dominated with global brands like Marlboro.  In tango lyrics, cigarette smoking was a recurring topic articulated around the city, issues of masculinity, and quests for female independence. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that women in Buenos Aires had smoked as early as the end of the nineteenth century, much earlier than modern US women began doing so in the 1920s. I can go on and on. These are just some examples of the localized history of a global habit.

Of course, along with these peculiarities, there were and are also plenty of similarities. For instance, the slow process – in fact, it took decades — of building a medical consensus around the association of smoking and pulmonary disease. For most of the century, the voices and interests of big tobacco corporations seemed to have had the upper hand, and certainly with the help of smokers who found in the habit so many pleasurable reasons.  This is a common story, let’s say, in London, Paris, New York, and Buenos Aires. The big change, the watershed, came about when public health officials proved the association between smoking-related diseases and passive smokers, that is, people who did not smoke but for whatever reason were in contact with smokers. This was the moment in which this long history of the twentieth century where everyone was smoking began to change. With this proven association, the struggle between big tobacco corporations and public health professionals and activists began to move toward the side of public health. For most of the century, the argument was: “I can do whatever I want with my body and with my health. If I want to smoke, I smoke. If I don’t want to smoke, I don’t.” When public health discourses articulated the figure of the passive smoker by the last third of the century, the whole scenario became a different one. It’s not that you are doing whatever you want with your body; you are doing something that will affect your neighbor, your partner, your co-worker. This was a turning point. From then on, public health tobacco control initiatives got the upper hand.

So the argument of my book could be summarized like this: a celebrated, accepted and widespread habit became in just a couple of years a vicious, medicalized, addictive and fatal practice.

REDDY: You were the first historian to be honored by the Science Ministry of Argentina. How did this come about?

ARMUS: One of the books that I wrote a couple of years ago was about the history of tuberculosis in Buenos Aires. It wasn’t really a medical history but more of a social and cultural history of tuberculosis in Buenos Aires. That book somehow opened a new field in Argentine historiography and facilitated the emergence of a network of young historians interested in working on the history of diseases and public health from cultural and social perspectives. I imagine that this is one of the reasons why they gave me the award.

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