FRANCO, Maria Sylvia de Carvalho

Maria Sylvia de Carvalho Franco (1930-) is a Brazilian sociologist and philosopher. She was a member of a research group under the supervision of Brazilian sociologist Florestan Fernandes, which also included former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso. During her time in this group, Franco wrote her PhD thesis, concluded in 1964 and published five years later, under the title “Homens livres na ordem escravocrata” [Free Men in the Slave Order] (1969). The thesis was her main empirical work, from which she developed her theoretical ideas on the construction of sociological knowledge, the opposition between “tradition” and “modernity”, and on so-called “underdeveloped” societies.


Franco’s book is a study of the relations between farmers and impoverished free men in the Paraíba Valley (southeast Brazil) in the 19th century. At the time, this was the most prosperous coffee plantation region in the country with the largest number of enslaved people concentrated there. However, the focus of her research was not on slavery per se, but rather on the relations of domination within the margins of the slave system, among landowners and peasant farmers, traders, drovers, etc. These “favour-based” relationships engendered forms of, what Franco called, “personal domination”. Throughout the book, she develops how personal domination unfolded in the construction of the nation-State and economic market relations.


In Franco’s view, these were not “estate-type” or “patrimonial” relationships. In fact, her interpretation stems from a twofold movement: on the one hand, the refusal to consider Brazilian society as “traditional” and, on the other hand, inscribing Brazil’s historical formation within the broader historical process of global capitalism. Only through this double movement could we recover the singular historicity of this process. This should not be seen as “a re-edition of ancient forms of social organization or an expression of the dying breaths of the medieval world”, but rather “as an intertwined moment in the inaugural process of the modern mode of being in Western societies” (1964, p. 2).


Since its colonial past, Brazil displayed a social configuration organized in terms of a large-scale profit-oriented production of goods. In dialogue with authors such as Eric Williams and Caio Prado Jr, Franco understood modern slavery as fundamentally determined by the capitalist economic nexus, which organized the exploitation of labour on the export plantation. In Franco’s view, this capitalist nexus was the underlying basis, that crossed “from end to end”, of the formation of Brazilian society.


The relations between farmers and impoverished free men took place in a world in which these men were deemed unnecessary (given that production relied on the labour of enslaved people). Thus, the moral associations between the “colonel” and his dependents were fragile and tremendously asymmetrical. In the violent world of rural Brazil, the direct link between wealth and status implied the predominance of economic criteria for social classification. This situation was far removed from the distancing between “lifestyles” or the rigid conventions that determine mutual obligations and curtailed the power of the rural lord, as in Weber’s analysis of feudalism and patrimonialism.


Over the course of the book, Franco explores how the region’s singular historical process “settled” the more general determinations of capitalism. Attentive to the particular historical moment, she explores how the relative social indifference resulting from a background of generalized poverty in the São Paulo region spawned a “rough homo economicus” (Franco, 1969, p. 204). In this case, bourgeois domination and personal domination became merged in the actions of the rural landowners, who strived to profit from the coffee business. The characteristic violence of the “hinterland code” and its forms of authority were not the result of a pre-capitalist world, but rather emerged as part of capitalism understood as an “open social formation”.


In her habilitation thesis, “The modern and its differences” (1970), Franco systematized her criticisms of the “sociology of development” (also known as modernization theory) and orthodox Marxist interpretations. In her view, both approaches re-edited a dualistic vision, in which modern factors were constrained by traditional obstacles. Questioning the very terms of this opposition, she argued that both perspectives ultimately generalize the particular historical sequence of central countries as “universal” schemes of social change. In her own interpretation, she suggested that even dependency theories formulated in the late 1960s by Latin American theorists merely revitalized the dual vision between centre and periphery, in which the “centre” produced social relations which were “imperfectly” replicated in the “periphery”. Thus, we find in her works a strong critique of Eurocentrism in sociological theory – although Franco herself does not use this term in her work.


In the early 1970s, during the military dictatorship’s fierce repression of the academic environment, Maria Sylvia de Carvalho Franco transferred to the Department of Philosophy at the University of São Paulo, where she continued teaching and researching for the following decades. Her work has not yet been translated into other languages and remains largely unfamiliar outside Brazil.


Essential Reading:
Franco, Maria Sylvia de Carvalho 2002. Homens livres na ordem escravocrata. Unesp, São Paulo. [First published by IEB in 1969]


Further Reading:
Botelho, A. (2013) “Teoria e história na sociologia brasileira: a crítica de Maria Sylvia de Carvalho Franco”. Lua Nova (90): 331-366.
Cazes, P. (2014) “Passagens para o capitalismo: a sociologia histórica de Maria Sylvia de Carvalho Franco”. Crítica e Sociedade: revista de cultura política 4 (2): p.113-138.
Franco, M. S. de C. Homens livres na velha civilização do café. Doctoral Thesis. Department of Social Sciences /FFLCH, University of São Paulo, 1964.
Franco, M. S. de C. O Moderno e Suas Diferenças. Habilitation Thesis. Department of Social Sciences/Faculty of Philosophy, Languages and Human Sciences, University of São Paulo, 1970.
Franco, M. S. de C. “Sobre o conceito de tradição”. Cadernos CERU (Rural and Urban Study Center), nº 5. 1st Series, 1972.


What is Franco’s main claim against the interpretation of Brazil as a traditional society?
How does Franco criticize the uses of ideal-type methodology in modernization theory?
How does the concept of “personal domination” differ from the ideal-types of traditional domination (such as “feudalism” and “patrimonialism”)?


Submitted by Pedro Cazes

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