Susan Socolow: In Memoriam

“Socolow, center right, with a bandanna in her hair. The other people are Paraguayan campesinos who were working on clearing an overgrown farm-to-market road, and (grouped around her) students from the Universidad Catolica Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion. The students were helping the campesinos and also providing medical services. Susan was invited to join them and write an article about their work. Source: Photo provided by author.” Photo and caption from “Life, Luck, and How I Became a Historian,” The Americas 70:1 (July 2013), pp. 1-8.

The Department of History mourns the death of Dr. Susan Midgen Socolow, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor Emerita of History and a faculty member at Emory from 1977 to 2011. Socolow passed away at her home in Atlanta with her husband Daniel on July 21, 2023, “before Alzheimer’s could rob her of her identity and raison d’etre,” as noted in her obituary in The New York Times. Below, History Department faculty and two doctoral students advised by Professor Socolow reflect on her towering career as a historian and mentor.

Professor Socolow had an unusually distinguished career full of important contributions both to Emory and to the field of Latin American Studies. Professor Socolow began her career at Emory in September 1977 after receiving her PhD in Latin American history from Columbia University. Her first book, a study of the merchants of Buenos Aires, was published by Cambridge University Press in 1978, and she followed this with a second monograph, published by Duke University, nine years later. She also edited two collections of essays dealing with broad themes in Latin American history. Professor Socolow wasn’t the first historian of Latin America at Emory, but she did as much as anyone in constructing the undergraduate curriculum in Latin American history and founding what has become an enormously successful Latin American history PhD program. 

Over the course of her career Professor Socolow received three Fulbright Fellowships, two National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships, a Social Science Research Council Fellowship, and a Tinker Foundation Fellowship. She served on the Executive Committee of the Conference on Latin American History, the leading professional organization in her field, from 1997 to 2003 and as Vice-President of the American Historical Association from 1989 to 1993. In 2005, Professor Socolow was inducted into the Argentine Academy of History. In 2007, the Rocky Mountain Conference of Latin American Studies honored her with the Edward Lieuwen Award for Excellence in Teaching Latin American history.

A Remembrance by Former Students Viviana Grieco (Ph.D., ’05) and Fabrício Prado (Ph.D., ’09)

Susan Socolow was a pioneering historian of Latin America. Her research examined the countries of the Southern Cone of the South American continent at a time when most U.S.-based scholars focused almost exclusively on Mexico and Central America. Trained at Columbia University, Socolow helped advance the growth of history as a doctoral discipline, emphasizing methodological innovation, evidence-based scholarship, as well as clear and elegant prose. Susan easily bridged academic communities, not only because of her ability to speak multiple languages, but also because she fostered international connections and created opportunities for scholars and students from different parts of the world. Susan’s first book, The Merchants of Viceregal Buenos Aires (1978) was a pathbreaking monograph that turned the economic and social history of colonial Rio de la Plata (especially Argentina and Uruguay) upside down. In countries where the historiography had emphasized the power and wealth of landowners as the ruling elites, Susan’s work demonstrated that the merchant elites controlled most of the wealth, credit networks, and social and political capital during the late colonial period. Such an interpretation, based on intensive research in local archives (and combining administrative, private, and ecclesiastical sources), opened new avenues of research in Argentina and Uruguay, other countries of Spanish America, and Brazil.

A decade later, Susan published The Bureaucrats of Buenos Aires, 1769 -1810 (1987) which provided a carefully researched social history of the officers appointed to this area during the Bourbon Reforms. These works established Susan’s reputation as a leader in the field not only in the United States but also in Latin America and Europe. Beyond her initial and foundational contributions to the field of Rio de la Plata studies, Susan’s works incorporated early on the history of women and family as integral parts of society and put forward innovative demographic and quantitative approaches. Her studies contended with themes such as marrying strategies, migration, sexuality, and health. Additionally, her scholarly production helped demystify the pervasive dichotomy between cities and the countryside that had dominated historiography. Susan also pioneered adopting digital techniques applied to history, from utilizing large databases to GIS.
Susan Socolow’s passion for the history of Latin America is attested by her incredible publishing record and her tireless support for academic organizations. Susan published one of the most widely read works about the history of women in Latin America (Women of Colonial Latin America, 2000, 2014), three edited volumes, and 35 articles in top journals in the field. Her extensive scholarly and service accomplishments have been noted by numerous institutions and organizations, which have granted her many awards. In 2007, the Academia Nacional de la Historia in Argentina made Susan its first female foreign member. Susan was a relentless supporter of CLAH, RMCLAS, the Tepaske Seminar, and a founder of the Rio de la Plata Workshop, which she established alongside her students and is currently in its 15th edition.
Beyond her academic production, Susan Socolow’s commitment to her students, who successfully graduated and found employment in a highly competitive job market, was extraordinary. She staunchly supported her mentees and their ideas and encouraged us not to be afraid to leave our marks in the field. She constantly reminded us that, as scholars, we had the independence and autonomy to innovate, yet she also emphasized that only rigorous scholarship would enable us to challenge paradigms. As a mentor, Susan taught us the importance of advancing our careers alongside the need to care for our families and loved ones. She taught us to be collegial and supportive of our students and peers and to build communities around them. Susan’s passing invites us to reflect on her influential career and accomplishments.  Despite this enormous loss, we are proud to continue her legacy, not only as historians of the Rio de la Plata and South America, but also as friends and colleagues whose lives she enriched. 

Dr. Viviana Grieco is Professor of History at The University of Missouri – Kansas City.
Dr. Fabrício Prado is Associate Professor of History at The College of William and Mary.

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