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Bolivia: The Society and Its Environment
Country Study > Chapter 2 > The Society and Its Environment


Bolivian society in the late 1980s remained fragmented along lines of region, ethnic affiliation, and class. Profound differences existed between the Andean area and the eastern lowlands. With the exception of the Santa Cruz area in the lowlands, the Andes remained the most heavily settled region. The lowlands had a distinct culture, ecology, and economic history, reflecting in part a long history of isolation from most of national life. The 1952 Revolution and subsequent far-reaching changes affected the lowlands and highlands in strikingly different ways.

Indians made up more than half of the population in the late 1980s; mestizos and whites accounted for most of the remainder. Each of these groups differed widely in worldview, language, and way of life. For most of Bolivia's history, Indians lived in isolated rural communities where they remained socially and politically marginal. Whites and mestizos controlled the land and commerce and dominated the countryside where most Indians lived. A regionalism reinforced by strong geographic barriers further contributed to this ethnic diversity.

Changes beginning in the 1950s broke down much of the traditional isolation of Indian communities. Land reform, increased educational opportunities, universal suffrage, and improved transportation brought Indians into greater contact with national society and undermined the hegemony of whites and mestizos. These changes also permitted a modicum of social mobility.

Class loyalties and affiliation reflected ethnic identification. The upper class consisted of a white elite that based its sense of privilege not merely on wealth but on proper lineage and breeding as well. The middle class -- a diverse, vaguely defined group including everyone from small shopkeepers to prosperous professionals and business owners without the elite family background -- was mestizo. It arose as a politically self-conscious group during the twentieth-century mining boom and joined with wage earners in the 1952 Revolution to bring about much of the present configuration of society.

The working class, too, was a child of the mining boom. Miners and transportation workers formed its nucleus. Following the revolution, city-bound migrants swelled the ranks of the working class. The urban population grew rapidly; by the early 1980s, nearly half of all Bolivians lived in cities. Urbanization transformed social relations as migrants remade the face of the city and the village alike.

Despite far-reaching social changes, society remained profoundly oriented to kin and family. People of all classes and ethnic groups focused their deepest loyalties on their small community or neighborhood and a close-knit group of relatives. Family and kin offered a haven amid the economic uncertainties and political turmoil of the 1980s, providing a safety net for poorer Bolivians and a pool of trusted allies for those of greater means. Individuals consulted with kin on all important decisions, and social life centered mainly on family visits.

Data as of December 1989

Last Updated: December 1989

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Bolivia was first published in 1989. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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