Brief History of Brazilian Studies

The foreign researcher of Brazilian themes, usually identified as Brasilianista, played an important role in the emergence of social sciences in Brazil during the second half of the twentieth century. It is likely that the founder and initiator of this movement was the English historian Robert Southey. This keen observer of the Portuguese colonial empire – which preceded the more comprehensive studies of Charles Boxer – wrote, during the independence period, a “History of Brazil” which was the only reference in this discipline until the emergence of the first truly Brazilian historian, the diplomat Francisco Adolfo de Varnhagen. In the nineteenth century, the “brasilianista species” had several other representatives, including the German researchers Von Humboldt and Von Martius – who produced the first guidelines on “how one should write the history of Brazil”, and Handelmann, who, similar to Robert Southley, had never visited Brazil. Others include Louis Agassiz and Gobineau from Switzerland and Louis County from France.

Francisco de VarnhagenAlexander von Humboldt
Francisco Adolfo de VarnhagenAlexander von Humbolt

Despite those illustrious ancestors, the brasilianista concept was created much later, in times of the Cold War and imperial worries about a possible destabilization of the largest country in South America. The term “brasilianista” seems to have been used for the first time in Brazil in 1969, under the quill of the academic Francisco de Assis Barbosa for qualifying a foreign expert in Brazilian subjects. The concept was applied to the American historian Thomas Elliot Skidmore in the preface of the Brazilian edition of his book Politics in Brazil (1967).

The interest in Brazil grew exponentially in the United States during the transition between the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, and manifested itself both by new candidates for a research-driven university specialization on Brazilian themes, and also by the search for new sources of information from Brazilian reality. An example of the first trend was Robert Levine’s compilation of the first research guide identifying the characteristics of Brazilian laboratory: Brazil: Field Research Guide in Social Sciences (1966). Second, there was a great increase in the translation and publication of Brazilian social science texts in the United States. Several works of the following Brazilian researchers were translated and published: Gilberto Freyre, Celso Furtado, Jose Honorio Rodrigues, Jose Maria Bello, Caio Prado Jr.

Field Guide to BrazilFormação do Brasil ContemporaneoCasa-Grande e Senzala

Between the late ’60s and mid-’70s, when Brazil was facing one of the most dramatic phases of its political history, and several researchers were condemned to exile or were intimidated by the government repression, was one of the high points of American brasilianismo. Several authors devoted their research to the authoritarian regime and its modes of operation. Among them stand out Ronald Schneider, Alfred Stepan, and Philip Schmitter. Other thematic initiatives were focused on social or religious groups, as in the work of Skidmore and Ralph Della Cava.

Alfred Stepan
Alfred Stepan

In the other direction, on the “exportation” of ideas and theories from Brazil to the United States, the most conspicuous example refers to “Dependency Theory” – specially represented on the work of Fernando Henrique Cardoso – which elaborates a critical review of American sociological thinking on the problems of developing countries, particularly in Latin America.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso
Fernando Henrique Cardoso

Since the 1980’s a new generation of Brazilianists emerged, with either a sectorial thematic focus or a diversified spectrum of themes such as gender issues, environment, race, African diaspora, immigration, etc. Stand out on this group Steven Topik, Roderick Barman, Marshall Eakin, Joseph Smith, Sandra Graham, Thomas Holloway, Jeffrey Lesser, Barbara Weinstein, James Green among many others. Several Brasilianistas of this generation actively participated in the creation of BRASA.


The contemporary Brasilianista does not compose, as his “ancestor” from the ’60s and ’70s, a special space in the Brazilian social sciences scene, since it appears to have been emancipated from foreign tutelage and methodological imports, and the intellectual relationship between the United States and Brazil has become more equitable. In this latest phase, some of the thematic emphases became common among Brazilian and U.S. scholars, pointing a more than welcome bi-lateral intellectual osmosis. Some evidence of this fact is the high participation of Brazilian intellectuals in international congresses on Brazilian topics, and broad academic publication by Brazilians. Currently, over 40% of BRASA associated members comes from Brazil.

Some curious facts:

Expedição Rondon Roosevelt

  • The year of 2014 is the 100th anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt and Cândido Rondon’s expedition of the Amazon Basin
  • During the summer of 1970 in Rio de Janeiro, economist Werner Baer of the University of Illinois and the political scientist Riordan Roett from the School of International Studies John Hopkins were kidnapped by agents of the military regime. Notwithstanding both received in 2000 from the hands of Ambassador Rubens Antonio Barbosa, the Order of the Southern Cross
  • The researcher Charles Wagley would have been the inspiration for the character James Levenson in Jorge Amado’s Tent of Miracles

Jorge AmadoCharles Wagley

Source: Almeida, Paulo Roberto de. Eakin, Marshall C.. Barbosa, Rubens Antonio. O Brasil dos Brasilianistas: um guia dos estudos sobre o Brasil nos Estados Unidos, 1945-2000. São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 2002.