Madness in Buenos Aires
Patients, Psychiatrists and the Argentine State, 1880–1983

By Jonathan Ablard

“Ablard … shows something that many scholars have suspected but no one has been able to prove: that despite discourses and intentions, the Argentine state has been historically weak and therefore its ability for exercising social control has been very limited. I hope that Ablard’s book will encourage other scholars to take a fresh look at other dimensions of social control in Argentina.”

Mariano Ben Plotkin, author of Argentina on the Couch: Psychiatry, State, and Society, 1880 to the Present

“In the compelling Madness in Buenos Aires, Jonathan Ablard is interested in ‘madness’ as a window to understand strategic issues about Argentina, such as the structure of the state, social change and the restrictions of modernisation…. (T)he analysis and the narrative on concrete cases (of patients) present mental health troubles embodied in singular lives. This is a great achievement of the book….”

Bulletin of Latin American Research

“This book is thoroughly researched and full of compelling case studies interwoven with convincing analysis.”

American Historical Review

“(A) robust institutional history of the country’s psychiatric regime.”

The Americas

Madness in Buenos Aires examines the interactions between psychiatrists, patients and their families, and the national state in modern Argentina. This book offers a fresh interpretation of the Argentine state’s relationship to modernity and social change during the twentieth century, while also examining the often contentious place of psychiatry in modern Argentina.

Drawing on a number of previously untapped archival sources, author Jonathan Ablard uses the experience of psychiatric patients as a case study of how the Argentine state developed and functioned over the last century and of how Argentines interacted with it. Ablard argues that the capacity of the state to provide social services and professional opportunities and to control the populace was often constrained to an extent not previously recognized in scholarly literature. These limitations, including a shortage of hospitals, insufficient budgets, and political and economic instability, shaped the experiences of patients, their families, and doctors and also influenced medical and lay ideas about the nature and significance of mental illness. Furthermore, these experiences, and the institutional framework in which they were imbedded, had a profound impact on how Argentine psychiatrists discussed not only mental illness but also a host of related themes including immigration, poverty, and the role of the state in mitigating social problems.

Jonathan Ablard is an assistant professor at Ithaca College, where he teaches Latin American history.

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In Series

Research in International Studies, Latin America Series, № 47

Related Subjects

Latin American History · Medical Humanities · History of Psychiatry · Latin American Studies · Argentina



Retail price: $32.95, S.
Release date: Apr. 2008
300 pages · 6 × 9 in.

Additional Praise for Madness in Buenos Aires

“A particular strength of Madness in Buenos Aires are the multiple perspectives that emerge from the at-times heart wrenching narratives from inside the asylums, in which not only the patients and their families but well-meaning doctors suffered tragic setbacks. Thus Ablard’s book adds important new dimensions to our understanding of the acceleration of modernity in turn-of-the-century Argentina and its concomitant social effects, a subject of great interest to scholars who study this South American nation.”

Journal of Social History

“Like the very best historical and cultural documents, Ablard’s book tells us as much about ourselves as it does about its putative subject matter. It brings to our attention the inter-relationship of class, poverty, social stigma and social division. It is rich in detail (there are 60 pages of notes and another 20 of references), and he skillfully uses both personal research and archival material, but the books remains accessible and absorbing.”


Madness in Buenos Aires is a convincing and carefully researched study of Buenos Aires psychiatric institutions between the 1880s and 1980s…. Ablard’s main argument underlines the weakness of the Argentine state and its mental institutions in their intended policing and coercive functions…. It is another scholarly work that underlines the need of dealing very carefully with the complex issue of social control in history.”

Hispanic American Historical Review

“In Madness in Buenos Aires, Jonathan Ablard convincingly demonstrates that Argentine psychiatric institutions were not the agents of social control that Foucauldian scholars have maintained they were in Europe and the United States. While Argentina had the most developed system of mental hospitals in Latin America, according to Ablard a weak state limited these institutions' policing and coercive functions.... (T)his is a well written, carefully researched contribution to the history of medicine in Latin America and a refreshing revision to the now accepted wisdom that these institutions served as instruments of political policing and social control.”

Social History of Medicine