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Documenting Mexico’s Culture War
Author(s): Elizabeth Maier
Source: Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 39, No. 6, TOURISM, GENDER, AND ETHNICITY
(November 2012), pp. 155-164
Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/41702301
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Latin American Perspectives
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Documenting Mexico’s Culture War
Elizabeth Maier
The tension between cosmopolitan and conservative viewpoints in Mexico positions
women’s bodies and human reproduction at the core of today’s dispute over cultural
meaning. A review of the history of abortion politics in Mexico, the legalization of abortion
in Mexico City in 2007, and the ensuing passage of right-to-life laws in 17 Mexican states
highlights the contending discourses, actors, and actions that make this issue emblematic
of Mexico’s culture war.
La tension entre las perspectivas cosmopolita y conservadora en México ha situado el
cuerpo de la mujer, la sexualidad y la reproducción humana en el núcleo de la disputa por
los significados culturales. Un resumen de la historia de las políticas de aborto en México,
la legalización del aborto en la Ciudad de México en 2007 y la posterior aprobación en
diecisiete estados de leyes que protegen la vida desde la concepción pone de relieve algunos
discursos, actores y acciones centrales de la guerra cultural mexicana.
Keywords: Culture war, Abortion, Right-to-life laws, Feminists, Mexico
In today’s contested terrain of national and global politics, abortion is one of
the most controversial issues. The abortion debate is often circumscribed by
a self-contained dynamic that obscures the importance of our contemporary
postindustrial context in its genesis, evolution, and implications. Through an
analysis of Mexico’s abortion politics, which I categorize as a culture war,
I wish to demonstrate that unsettled, postindustrial, liquid modernity (Bauman,
2006: 10) is pivotal in the dispute about cultural meaning that places women’s
bodies, reproduction, sexuality, and family at the core of the contention over
Coined by Hunter (1991: 287) in reference to conflicting “systems of moral
understanding,” with values and beliefs that serve as a source of identity, pur-
pose, and cohesion, “culture war” has since become synonymous with the
growing conflict between religious and secular visions of society. Given that
the very definition of modernity rests on the separation of church and state,
symbolically harboring the historical struggles between religious traditionalists and secularists over the nature of state and society, the current religioussecular confrontation could be interpreted as a new edition of the struggle for
modernity. I contend, however, that it is contingent on the contradictions of
stagnant institutions belonging to the industrial age, the rapid pace of changing
Elizabeth Maier is a professor and researcher at Mexico’s Colegio de la Frontera Norte. Her most
recent book, Women’s Activism in Latin America and the Caribbean (2010), coedited with Nathalie
Lebon, deals with women’s gender-centered agency in the region. Her current work focuses on
the cultural dispute over abortion and sexualities in Mexico. The author thanks Blanca Torres for
the editing assistance that she provided.
LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES, Issue 187, Vol. 39 No. 6, November 2012 155-164
DOI: 10.1177/0094582X12456680
© 2012 Latin American Perspectives
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structural, technological, and cultural realities, and the requirements of
ing collective representations that are reconfiguring everyday life.
Discourses and social actors emerge from specific historical mome
structural contexts. Deep-seated structural and technological changes
past few decades have marked the end of what Beck (2000: 13-14, my
tion) calls the era of “simple modernization,” an era in which tradit
rationalized and the industrial paradigm was consolidated, giving rise to
model in which sexual roles, the family unit, and social classes formed
a coherent totality.” “Reflexive modernization,” consumed by the “d
of the self” (Giddens, 1991: 189), characterizes the imprecise, nebul
chaotic interlude that follows this rationalist period of the centrality o
and Fordist industrial development. Beck’s description of this era as a m
of “industrial production without industrial society” indicates the p
dislocation of production, politics, and culture that previously had f
the life experiences of industrial times. Present-day institutional dysfu
underscores contradictions between the increasingly incongruous ins
of simple modernity and rapidly changing existential realities. As past
and values melt away, a sense of lost normality permeates daily life. Re
and reinvented identities and new relational possibilities brought
structural and technological transformations have created the need
stant renegotiation of traditional institutions and cultural meaning. The
family is a case in point. New representations and forms of organization
reconfigured the family. Beck (2000: 16 and quoted in Castells, 1999: 17)
of the “post-family family,” and Touraine (1997) sees the family as
example of deinstitutionalization. He uses Roussel’s term the “uncert
ily” (46) to describe a unit that today is defined more in terms of comm
tion among its members than by any predetermined framework or
system (33-35).
Tensions between stagnant institutions and rapidly changing relat
and realities have shaped a new field of contention. Contrasting d
dispute the cultural significance of pivotal points in our understanding
family, the state, and the place of religion in governance. They pond
such as the moment of personhood, the relationship between repr
rights and women’s equality, the philosophy of human rights, and the m
of the state. This is not a geographically contained dispute but permeate
realities in multiple national and local arenas. Often, contested discourse
ing with women’s rights and roles in society create contrasting represe
of femininity, with representations of women as sovereign and ind
confronting representations of women as the essentially cohesive compo
of family and community (Goldman, 2009: 169). In what is increasingly
culture war, traditional, conservative, and patriarchal discourses challen
secular, inclusive proposals of cosmopolitanism.1 Mexico’s abortion
one expression of this emblematic controversy over cultural meanin
current uncertain times.
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In the face of Mexico City’s legalization of abortion during the first trim
of pregnancy in 2007, conservative politicians across party lines, in a
with civic-religious organizations and church hierarchies, implemen
national strategy to preempt state-by-state legalization. In 17 of the 32 M
states, legislatures crafted laws that limited women’s reproductive rig
recognizing the personhood of embryos and their right to life from conc
(One additional state, Chihuahua, had passed a similar law in the
Though abortion has never been legal in Mexico except in cases of r
threat to the mother’s life, these laws have particular symbolic weight be
they represent a new, conservative push to reposition women’s bodies
the boundaries of patriarchal religious rule. The four-decade-long deba
abortion in Mexico has been marked by tensions among three principal ac
feminists and their allies, the Catholic Church and its supporters, and go
ment officials representing political parties with contrasting ideologies.
Women’s diminished mobilizing capacity in recent years is responsi
part for the fact that feminist activism was able to deter the passage of an
tion laws only in Veracruz (in 2009) and Baja California Sur (in 2011). Fem
did, however, influence the decision of Baja California’s ombudsman an
itant citizens in other states to challenge the laws before the Supreme
contending that they violated the fundamental rights of women guarante
national jurisprudence and international accords. Since their passage, d
and nurses in public hospitals have been obligated to inform police
pected abortions. Many women have been jailed for ending unwanted
nancies. A rough, unofficial estimate indicates that more than 300 y
low-income women have been incarcerated in nine states for offenses related
to these laws (Rodriguez, 2010).
Though feminism has never been a mass movement in Mexico,
capital of a highly educated critical mass accrued greater symbolic an
influence than its numbers suggested. The current debate on abortio
lighted the degree to which feminist discourse has been adopted ove
by a wide range of intellectuals and opinion makers unwaveringly
a free-choice, public health perspective.
By the 1970s, industrialization had reconfigured Mexican social
and culture. Rural-urban migration swelled the cities, a growing
was thriving, birth control was available for those who could afford
incipient feminist movement claimed “choice” as part of women’s re
sovereignty. The idea that the personal is political inspired the convi
full female citizenship was contingent upon achieving reproductive a
for which abortion came to represent an emblematic last resort f
empowerment. Unofficial estimates calculated 4,000 illegal abort
with a 10 percent fatality rate.2 Given abortion’s implications
independence, self-determination, and quality of life, its legali
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considered central to women’s citizenship, but because of fierce Catholic
sition feminists saw legalization as politically unviable at the time.
The 1980s witnessed a new strain of women’s activism born of a gra
movement spreading across the peripheral urban ghettos that housed
ing poor migrant class. Low-income women’s organizing was focused o
material needs, including government welfare benefits, affordable h
health care, and child care services. Abortion was played down because
Catholic conflict associated with it. The later reorganization of social, pol
and cultural structures unleashed by the global shift to neoliberal politic
lowed by the expansion of regional and global connections unfolded b
cyber revolution, paved the way for an upsurge in transnational and
women’s networks. Organized in the form of nongovernmental organ
(NGOs), this new feminist activism focused on influencing public p
through international platforms such as the United Nations. With the co
dation of neoliberalism in Mexico, urban grassroots movements lost their
ical clout as the state’s sense of social responsibility declined. Professi
feminist NGOs negotiated greater slices of gender equality within legal f
works by lobbying for equal rights in national and regional legislatur
Mexican feminist agenda of the 1990s stressed women’s leadership, re
tive and sexual rights, equal political representation, and the elimina
violence against women.
The collaborative intervention of local and national feminist NGOs in the
2000 rape and pregnancy case of a 13-year-old Oaxacan immigrant, Paulina
Martinez, in Baja California not only materialized the new translocal-transnational
order of women’s political organizing but also reignited the abortion debate
in Mexico. After local Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party – PAN)
functionaries and health care professionals procrastinated in performing
Paulina’s legal abortion (within the first-trimester window) in spite of the Baja
California Justice Department’s instructions to grant the request, the consortium of local and national feminist NGOs representing Paulina – in connection
with a broader international feminist community – brought the case before
the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), suing the
Mexican state for violating Paulina’s right to interrupt her unwanted preg-
nancy. The case’s settlement involved Mexico’s promising to guarantee
women’s reproductive rights in similar cases, including making the morningafter pill available for rape victims in public hospitals.3
The Catholic Church has been the main actor in the abortion de
that, from its perspective, abortion violates three basic tenets of Ca
losophy: human life as divine intention, procreation as the basic fun
sacred obligation of marriage, and motherhood as women’s prima
Christian dogma establishes that women’s vocation and mission a
their role as wives in binding heterosexual unions, and an embodied
altruism, sensibility, intuition, and intense loyalty to family and co
are not only ideal female virtues but also inherent gender traits. Sin
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ideology calls into question the validity of the natural family, Catholic conservatives consider feminism a threat to the Church. Muzzled by secular legal
restrictions progressively imposed on the Church in Mexico to control its economic and political power from the nineteenth century on,4 initially the reli-
gious authorities were able to mobilize only a network of Church-linked
antiabortion associations and flash crowds of Catholic faithful. In time, reli-
gious political strategy expanded to involve grassroots marches and prayer
sessions to sway public opinion in favor of antiabortion laws. New civic associations defended right-to-life reforms, heterosexuality, and the traditional
family, while collaboration among Catholics, Evangelicals, and other minority
actors shaped religiously oriented public policy. These actions reveal a growing recognition of religious diversity in a historically Catholic country, on the
one hand, and a newly crafted space for religious entities to engage in politics,
on the other.
These new political-religious tendencies can be traced to the 1992 constitu-
tional reforms passed under the Partido Revolucionario Institucional
(Institutional Revolutionary Party – PRI) administration of Carlos Salinas,
which conceded a greater public voice to religious denominations, thus challenging over a hundred years of secular restrictions on religious agency and
paving the way for Mexico’s current religious activism. These reforms not only
prompted more frequent and insistent Vatican interventions in matters of public policy, but also fashioned a new framework for all religious denominations
to come out of the silence of Mexico’s secular revolutionary past. Increasing
religious political activism led by the Catholic Church against reproductive
and sexual rights has repositioned the original feminist-traditionalist divide
within a much broader conflict that ultimately challenges the separation of
church and state, one of the mainstays of the Mexican nation-state.
An authoritarian, corporative, and political machista culture has limited feminist influence in most political parties and organizations (Lamas, 1992: 11). The
cultural iconography of the Mexican Revolution institutionalized a machista
gender culture as a vital part of a new-found national identity (Guttman, 2000:
320). Masculinity was represented as a risk-taking, gutsy, womanizing and
reproductively potent, commanding experience, while femininity was charac-
terized by abnegation, virginity, propriety, and – above all – motherhood.
Fertility reconciled and legitimized the two gender identities. Having “all the
children God sent” spoke to the hegemonic rural economy of the times, the lack
of modern birth control methods, and the absence of family planning policies.
Thus the abortion debate questions not only fundamentalist Catholic mandates
but also secular revolutionary gender representations.
Four decades of evolving women’s activism have made feminists central
actors in shaping Mexico City’s public policy on gender equality and reproductive and sexual rights. In addition, the compounded and overlapping effects of
globalized neoliberal structural conditions and the 14 years of secular govern-
ance under the social-democratic Partido de la Revolución Democrática
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(Democratic Revolutionary Party – PRD) – infused by a cosmopolitanist
pulsion to recognize and legitimize cultural Others (Beck, 2007: 56) –
transformed Mexico City’s gender culture. The city has been reconfigured
global city and the epicenter of the pro-choice movement in the collective
inary of Mexican politics. In 2000 the Robles Law, proposed by the fem
academic and PRD mayor Rosario Robles and supported by a host of l
minded civic leaders and nonprofit organizations, expanded the legal justif
tion for abortion in the city to include fetus malformation and serious ris
maternal health. In response, Church authorities threatened to excommuni
those who supported the law, and 22 congressional representatives, ma
from the Catholic-based PAN, challenged it before the Supreme Court
Supreme Court, however, favored the law with a seven to four majority v
In 2007, a proposal to legalize abortion in Mexico City sparked a lengthy
highly visible public debate. A network of NGOs in support of the me
based their arguments on three main premises: (1) Gender equality is co
gent on a woman’s right to exercise full control over her body and fecund
(2) Abortion is a public health issue, given its implications for women’s mo
ity and morbidity. (3) Legal abortion is a matter of social justice, sinc
stratification results in unequal access to safe abortions when it is il
Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir (Catholics for the Right to Decide – C
an organization of Catholic believers that stands for freedom of conscience
especially valuable in dispelling the doubts of Catholic legislators who f
excommunication for supporting the bill. The CDD argued that, accord
Catholic jurisprudence, excommunication could be based only on action
on opinions. CDD’s position illustrates the diversity within Catholic circ
issues of reproduction and sexuality (Maier, 2008: 39).
There is a growing discrepancy between Catholic doctrine and parishione
sexual and reproductive practices in Mexico, indicating an increasing tende
toward selective filtering of church doctrine in the creation of diversified
temporary lifestyles. A 1992 national survey on abortion found that 78 pe
of participants considered whether to terminate a pregnancy through abor
a concern limited to women and their partners (Lamas, 1992: 3). In 2003 a s
vey conducted by CDD found that 91 percent of Catholics surveyed in M
City thought that adults should have access to a wide variety of birth cont
methods; 82 percent agreed that adolescents should also have access to t
93 percent wanted sexual education taught in public schools, 96 percent
ported the Mexican government’s condom program to prevent AIDS, a
percent opposed excommunicating women who had abortions (CDD, 200
On April 24, 2007, Mexico City’s Assembly legalized abortion durin
first trimester of pregnancy with an overwhelming 46 in favor and 19 ag
As a last resort, two PAN presidential appointees, the president of the Nat
Commission on Human Rights and Mexico’s attorney general, filed law
on the basis of unconstitutionality with the Supreme Court. These law
were seen by abortion advocates as representative of the religious ideolo
the governing PAN. Increasingly blurred boundaries between secular g
nance and religious beliefs have characterized the two PAN administra
since 2000.
Opposition from the Catholic authorities and allied civic associations, 5 reli-
gious-driven judicial strategies contesting the new law before the Supreme
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Court, and preemptive right-to-life laws in other federal entities underscore a
contemporary religious tendency to dispute the separation of church and state.
Considered a basic tenet of modernity and a precondition for social and political diversity and religious freedom, the separation of religion and governance
is being called into question by conservative discourses. Religious conservatives propose to resolve the uncertainties of our anxious times by reinstating
the order and morality of a past era. The secular position, by contrast, relies on
individual freedoms and rights as a way of achieving plural, open, critical, and
democratic societies. Secularism asserts that freedom requires reciprocal
autonomy between church and state in modern societies, dividing law and
morality into allied but separate camps (Ferrajoli, 2002: 12). Moreover, as a
methodology, secularism allows multiple ideologies to coexist in functional
harmony (Bobbio, 1981: 857), producing a way of life based on individual
rights and freedoms linked to religious tolerance and freedom of conscience
(Blancarte, 2000: 118-123).
The Supreme Court decision in 2008 in favor of legalizing abortion in Mexico
City set a judicial precedent that implicitly relegitimized the separation of
church and state while underscoring the need to balance women’s rights with
those of the fetus, and indicating that categorical protection of the fetus might
violate women’s right to life, liberty, dignity, nondiscrimination, health, repro-
ductive freedom, sexual freedom, religious freedom, personal development,
and autonomy. In his opinion, delivered on August 2, 2008, Justice GóngoraPimentel asserted that state intervention to bring a pregnancy to term would
interfere with women’s autonomy and citizenship. In contrast, Mexico City’s
archbishop characterized the law and the Supreme Court’s rule as criminal,
asserting the primacy of religious mandates over society’s laws. By disavowing
the legislation, the archbishop was seen as implicitly questioning the legitimacy of congressional and judicial authority and, ultimately, the validity of the
secular state. Such statements served to orient followers in the battleground
states where right-to-life laws would soon embody a conservative crusade for
cultural meaning.
In October 2008 Sonora became the first state – after Chihuahua in 1994 – to
recognize the personhood of embryos and guarantee their rights. As in most of
the states that followed, there was no public discussion on the matter, and the
law was passed in a relatively covert fashion. Here and in all of the other 16
states, rape and threat of maternal mortality were the only considerations for a
legal abortion. (Baja California, for its part, eradicated all possibility of legal
abortion by guaranteeing the precedence of the new law over all earlier juris-
prudence.) With reduced numbers, waning passion, and diversified interests,
feminist activism against the right-to-life laws was initially symbolic and reactive, limited in scope and impact. Only in Veracruz and Baja California Sur was
it able to prevent a conservative vote. Various factors contributed to this loss of
political force, cohesion, and focus, among them the structural and social reor-
ganization produced by neoliberal policies, which left working-class women
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with little time for nonessential activities, the reduction of funding for wom
projects as a result of Mexico’s reclassification as a developed country by inte
national organizations, the institutionalization of feminist demands in nation
state, and municipal bureaucratic apparatuses, and the professionalization
feminist NGOs as consultants.
In 2009, however, feminists reactivated their legal and network resources to
challenge the right-to-life laws, coordinate actions, and strategize. Influenced
by Baja California’s ombudsman’s lawsuit, feminists in Sonora, Jalisco, and
Colima sued to prevent right-to-life state laws from going into effect. Pressed
by local feminists, congresspersons from San Luis Potosí challenged their
state’s antiabortion law before the Supreme Court. Four hundred members of
the Pacto Nacional por la Vida, la Libertad y los Derechos de las Mujeres
(National Pact for Life, Liberty, and the Rights of Women) placed caged
women in front of the national Congress, protesting the many incarcerations
of women who had undergone abortions (Norandi, 2010). In some cases, poor
women from rural communities have received 25-year sentences for miscarry-
ing (Garcia, 2010). Jalisco’s law, which doubles the sentence for women who
are not married, have a bad reputation, or have concealed their pregnancy
(Aranda, 2010a), is considered especially egregious. The head of the National
Women’s Institute voiced particular concern about a bill that proposed substituting women’s incarceration with “rehabilitation,” while the director of the
regional office of the United Nations Women’s Fund raised the possibility that
such laws could be jeopardizing Mexico’s international commitment to guaranteeing women’s human rights (Saldierna, Román, and Gómez, 2009).
In September 2011, Mexico’s Supreme Court deliberated claims
unconstitutionality of the right-to-life laws in Baja California an
Potosí. Though 7 of the 11 justices considered the laws unconsti
supermajority of 8 is needed to repeal a state law. In this case,
minority was decisive in upholding the right-to-life laws in these sta
restricting possibilities to birth control for women by blocking a
day-after pill, criminalizing abortion in most cases,6 and even s
women who have miscarried to police scrutiny. In deference to prior
Court decisions, the majority opinion contends that absolute defe
fetus’s right to life denies women the right to autonomy, dignity, a
over their bodies and their lives, thus viewing the laws as a violation
en’s human rights.
Of the four deciding justices, two based their arguments on a natura
pretation of human rights, akin to the Catholic defense of the right t
absolute value that takes precedence over other rights. The two rema
tices defended states’ right to rule on fundamental rights without bre
integrity of the federal constitution. These justices had recently bee
the court by Mexico’s president (in 2011), and their appointment
some as an attempt to reconfigure its liberal tendency on issues of r
rights. Certainly their position exemplified a swing toward tradition
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on issues of states’ rights versus federal rights, the meaning of life and personhood, women’s rights, and the roles and rules of the family.
Ultimately, however, this dispute between cosmopolitan and conservative
discourses points to a much broader global conflict, one whose outcome will
define the direction and values of the post-“post”-era to come. Though women’s bodies, sexuality, and reproduction appear to be at the heart of the dispute,
what is really at stake is the characterization of the family, the relationship
between church and state, the role of government in regulating intimacy and
private lives, and the validity of freedom of choice as a guiding principle for
human and social development.
1. Beck (2007: 56) defines “cosmopolitanism” as a particularly inclusive way of de
ing with cultural difference. Cosmopolitanism recognizes the plurality of Otherne
the foundation of a society based on the commonality of diversity without imply
inequality or discrimination as difference does in traditional cultures. While recog
ing postcolonial objections to the historical bias attached to the notion, I find revi
poststructural definitions of the term useful for depicting contemporary glob
national reconfigurations of societal visions, social relations, and power.
2. In 2006 the Colegio de México, a Mexican think tank, in association with
Guttmacher Institute and the Population Council, sponsored a study that conc
that 874,747 Mexican women had abortions that year, calculating an annual rate of
abortions per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44 (Juárez et al., 2008).
3. In May 2010 the Supreme Court overturned a challenge to the law that ensure
victims access to the day-after pill, confirming Mexico’s international commitmen
women’s reproductive rights, especially in the case of rape (Aranda, 2010b).
California’s ombudsman claimed breach of this agreement and violation of the law
his challenge to the state’s right-to-life law in the Supreme Court in 2008 bec
prohibited abortion in all instances.
4. Armed conflict between liberals and conservatives ushered in the precondition
Mexican modernity with the Reform Laws of 1856-1857, which severely limit
Catholic Church’s economic expansion and political influence (Blancarte, 2000: 39).
revolutionary constitution of 1917 furthered Mexican secularism by guaranteeing
public secular education, separate from all religious doctrine.
5. Among the most active civic associations was the Catholic Lawyers’ Gui
advisory body to the clergy formed in 2007, in the midst of the abortion deb
Mexico City. The guild believes that religious influence on politics will stem c
tion and immorality and opposes the separation of church and state (http: //
abogadoscatolicos.org (accessed May 17, 2010).
6. While Baja California’s law has no exceptions, San Luis Potosi’s allows abort
the case of rape or threat to the mother’s life.
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1997 ¿Podremos vivir juntos? Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica.
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For this assignment, you are to read a journal article ( I attached the article)
The report is to be 4-6 pages in length. Please be sure to use both a title page and
works cited page. (title and works cited pages do not count toward the overall
page count of your review) You are also encouraged to follow the MLA or
Chicago formats to develop this report. Please double-space your review
This an example of the type of the format you should follow:
“Argentina in 1983: Reflections on the Language of the Military and George
Orwell,” by Alberto Ciria. Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean
Studies, Vol. 11, No. 21 (1986), pp. 57-69.
In terms of the content of the report, I am looking for two main points of
discussion. First, you should devote the first half of the report to a summary of
the main points that the author is trying to convey to the reader. To help you to
address this issue, consider some of these questions: What type of article is this?
Is the author presenting an original feature, or is he/she conducting a book
review? If this is a book review, what book (or books) is being reviewed? What is
the author’s purpose for writing this article? What is the author’s academic or
professional background?
As for the second point of discussion, this is where you provide your opinion or
perceptions of the article. In other words, what did you think about it? What
were the strengths or weaknesses of the article? How did the article relate to the
class? You are definitely encouraged to write in first person singular (I feel
that…, I think..) as you provide your opinions. As a general rule of thumb, your
JSTOR review should be about 60% summary and 40% commentary. Thus a 5page review with about 3 & 1⁄2 pages summary and 1 & 1⁄2 pages commentary is
an ideal proportion.

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