In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Costa Rica

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Collections
  • Culture
  • Education
  • Ethnicity
  • Economics
  • Gender
  • Politics
  • Travelers’ Accounts
  • Environmental History and Tourism

Latin American Studies Costa Rica
David Diaz-Arias
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0167


Costa Rica has been studied extensively by social scientists. Indeed, the number of historical works on Costa Rica is impressive when compared to other Central American countries. This small country is attractive because of its particular democratic continuity in a region of continued dictatorships and social inequality. Therefore, explaining this Costa Rican singularity has become an issue driving explanations now and then. Institutional development and educational investment may explain this great number of works about Costa Rica because researchers have found political stability to research. Moreover, the Costa Rican National Archives, which has been organized since late 19th century, is safekeeping colonial documents that date back to the 16th century. Also, most of the State’s documentation has been preserved for years. The National Library has kept an invaluable collection of literature, journals, newspapers, and magazines. These documents are available for everyone. Furthermore, public universities have produced and funded researchers for decades, and other institutions, like the National Museum, also have invested in research. In a sense, the development of this nation accounts for both the extensive analysis of the country and the focus of analyses on explaining this difference within Central American history. Most of the analyses on this country began to appear after the Universidad de Costa Rica was opened in 1940; however, lawyers and other professionals had published books about Costa Rica since the mid-19th century. But the number of studies increased during the second half of the 20th century, especially after the 1970s, when Costa Rican social sciences underwent a transformation that integrated new forms of analysis. Indeed, studies on Costa Rica have gone through diverse trends. After positivist perspectives that prevailed before the 1970s, during the 1970s and 1980s there was a strong economic view that turned into a cultural one during the 1990s. The prevalence of a perspective did not yet imply the absence of the others. Studies about Costa Rica not only present general interpretations on the roots of democracy but also highlight myths about the country, social problems, gender inequality, violence, the role of education and ethnic integration, cultural traditions, and political and economic transformations. More recently, works on tourism and environment have introduced new problems to interpret Costa Rica’s particular development. Is there an answer for such Costa Rican exceptionalism? This bibliography presents some of the most distinguished works that have tried to address that question from different standpoints.

General Overviews

Costa Rica’s democracy roots have been deeply studied. Most of the general overviews about the country try to solve the question of why Costa Rica seems to have had a different political and institutional development from that of other Central American countries. Munro 1918 proposes an ethnic explanation for this difference. After the 1970s, Costa Rican historiography has tried to tear down the country’s fundamental myths by arguing they are part of a nationalistic discourse hiding reality. Some of those big explanations focus on material characteristics, like Mahoney 2001, a book chapter on Costa Rica. Other analyses insist on a social democratic paradigm to reinforce the view of exceptionalism, such as Meléndez Chaverri 1983. Hall 1985 criticizes this sociodemocratic standpoint and explains how the country integrated its different regions by economic links. More recently, Proyecto Estado de la Nación 2013– has tried to integrate social and economic indicators to evaluate contemporary Costa Rica in order to offer an objective assessment of current problems and some possible solutions to them. In this balance, general overviews on Costa Rica look into the particular historical development of this country, but they also reveal its similarities to Latin America and its problems. Works like Booth 1998, Pérez Brignoli 1997, and Wilson 1998 look for the roots of Costa Rican democracy after the Civil War of 1948 and draw the attention to the emergence of a middle class and the specific institutional development.

  • Booth, John A. Costa Rica: Quest for Democracy. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1998.

    Booth offers an explanation for Costa Rica’s uniqueness. He believes that the coffee elite had to accept political democracy because of the rise of a middle class during the 1940s. Then, after the Civil War of 1948, democracy was enriched by a social democratic vision that secured social reforms and made them more extensive.

  • Hall, Carolyn. Costa Rica, A Geographical Interpretation in Historical Perspective. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1985.

    This book is an important contribution to understanding Costa Rica’s historical progress from a geographical viewpoint. Hall frames Costa Rica in Latin America and offers information on how the country’s regions were populated and their economic and social particularities. Hall’s analysis of the transportation network is pivotal to comprehending how zones are integrated within the country. The book is illustrated with useful maps.

  • Mahoney, James. “Reformist Liberalism: Costa Rica.” In The Legacies of Liberalism: Path Dependence and Political Regimes in Central America. By James Mahoney, 142–164. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

    Mahoney explains Costa Rica’s socioeconomic development from a path-dependence interpretation. He explores Costa Rica’s economy and its early connection to the international market without the important support of foreign investment. This connection allowed Costa Ricans to build a national economy and an elite that depended on a small population to produce coffee. Liberals promoted a smallholders’ model, experiencing no opposition to their reform. The result was a reformist state.

  • Meléndez Chaverri, Carlos. Historia de Costa Rica. San José, Costa Rica: Editorial Universidad Estatal a Distancia, 1983.

    This study represents a social democratic interpretation of Costa Rican history. It is a general approach to the development of this society since colonial times. It does not include a critique of the main Costa Rican myths, such as peace and democracy; on the contrary, it tries to prove that those national discourses are real.

  • Munro, Dana Gardner. “Costa Rica.” In The Five Republics of Central America: Their Political and Economic Development and Their Relation with the United States. By Dana Gardner Munro; edited by David Kinley, 138–163. New York: Oxford University Press, 1918.

    This is a classic work comparing development in Central America. It has a very interesting chapter on Costa Rica, explaining why the country evolved differently because of its stability and peace after Independence. Munro focuses on the period after 1902 to talk about the consolidation of some democratic practices in Costa Rica, especially about elections and power alternation.

  • Pérez Brignoli, Héctor. Breve historia contemporánea de Costa Rica. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1997.

    This is a very concise, though rich, general interpretation of the history of Costa Rica after Independence (1821). The author includes a discussion of the evolution of politics and economics. The book was written when the Costa Rican State was going into a transformation, and it deals with this problem in historical terms.

  • Proyecto Estado de la Nación. Estado de la nación en desarrollo humano sostenible: Un análisis amplio y objetivo sobre la Costa Rica que tenemos a partir de los indicadores más actuales. San José, Costa Rica: Proyecto Estado de la Nación, 2013–.

    This is a valuable collective analysis of the social, economic, cultural, and political problems that Costa Rica is experiencing today. The Estado de la Nación program was established to provide an objective view of the contemporary Costa Rica, bringing tools to solve these problems. The most recent volume offers an interesting attempt to revisit several myths on Costa Rican society, explaining mistakes and offering some solutions to them.

  • Sáenz Carbonell, Jorge Francisco. Historia diplomática de Costa Rica. 3 vols. San José, Costa Rica: Editorial Juricentro, 1995–2013.

    This is a three-volume series that traces the diplomatic history of Costa Rica since Independence. It offers a chronological account of how Costa Rica established relations with international nations and of its diplomatic changes. It also offers information on the training of diplomatic professionals in the country.

  • Wilson, Bruce M. Costa Rica: Politics, Economics, and Democracy. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1998.

    In this book, the author provides answers to help understand Costa Rican political stability. It offers a historical analysis through the 1990s. The author focuses on institutional development after the Civil War of 1948 to explain democratic consolidation and also shows the fundamental political and economic transformations that took place in Costa Rica during the second half of the 20th century.

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