Brian P. Owensby

Director, Center for Global Inquiry and Innovation, Hotel A

(434) 924-6388
Nau 382
Office Hours: T, 11:00AM-12:00PM; W/TR 2:00-3:30PM

Field & Specialties

Latin America
Modern Brazil
Colonial Mexico
Legal History
Early-modern Spanish empire in the New World
Global History


B.A. Oberlin College, Economics, 1981

J.D. Univ. of Michigan Law School, 1984

Ph.D. Princeton University, History, 1994



Book project: Gain and Global Transformation in the "Land without Evil." Settlers, Guaraní and Jesuits in Early-Modern Paraguay.


Meanings of Justice in British and Iberian America: Settler and Indigenous Law as Counterpoints, 1600-1825, B. Owensby & R. Ross, eds., NYU Press (forthcoming 2017)


Empire of Law and Indian Justice in Colonial Mexico (Stanford, 2008; paperback 2011). Winner Murdo J. McLeod Book Prize, 2008. Latin America and Caribbean Section of the Southern Historical Association.


Intimate Ironies: Making Middle-Class Lives in Modern Brazil (Stanford, 1999; paperback 2001)


Select Articles


“The Theater of Conscience in the ‘Living Law’ of the Indies,” in, New Horizons of Spanish Colonial Law: Contributions to Transnational Early Modern Legal History, Thomas Duve (Max Planck Institute for European Legal History) and Heikki Pihlajamäki (Faculty of Law, University of Helsinki), 2015, 125-59.


“History at the Roots.  Modernity, Cordiality and the Middle Class in Raízes do Brasil.”  Estudios Interdisciplinarios de América Latina y el Caribe (EIAL, Tel Aviv University), 25:2, Jul-Dec. 2104, 71-98.


“Between Justice and Economics: ‘Indians’ and Reformism in Eighteenth-Century Spanish Imperial Thought,” in L. Benton & R. Ross, eds, Legal Pluralism and Empires, 1500-1850. New York University Press, 2013, 143-72.


“Domesticating Modernity: Markets, Home, and Morality in the Middle Class in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, 1930s and 1940s,” Latin America’s Middle Class.  Unsettled Debates and New Histories.  New York: Lexington Books, Rowman & Middlefield, 2013), reprinted with permission of Journal of Urban History, 129-150.


“Comunidades indígenas y gobernanza en la época de la independencia—antecedentes virreinales, transformaciones decimonónicas” in Erika Pani (El Colegio de México), Jordana Dym (Skidmore College), eds.  Declaraciones de independencia.  Los textos fundamentales de las independencias americanas. Mexico City: El Colegio de México, spring 2013, 81-110.


“In the Middle of the Margin,” in The Making of the Middle Class: Towards a Transnational History, eds. Barbara Weinstein, A. Ricardo López (Duke University Press, 2012), 288-297.


“Pacto entre rey lejano y súbditos indígenas—Justicia, legalidad y política en México, siglo XVII,” Historia Mexicana (summer 2011), 59-106.


“‘There is nothing self-interest cannot command’: A Romance of Early-Modern Mexico City,” in Erin O’Conner and Leo Garofolo, eds. Documenting Latin America: Gender, Race and Empire.  Prentice Hall: New York, 2010.


“Foreword,” in Negotiation Within Domination: New Spain’s Indian Pueblos Confront the Spanish State, Ethelia Ruiz Medrano and Susan Kellogg, eds.  University of Colorado Press, 2010.


“Slave Litigants and the Processes of Liberty in Seventeenth-Century New Spain,” in "Slavery, Citizenship and the State in Classical Antiquity and the Modern Americas," Special Issue of The European Review of History/Revue européenne d’histoire, 16:3 spring 2009, 125-150.           


“How Juan and Leonor Won Their Freedom: Litigation and Liberty in 17th-Century Mexico,” Hispanic American Historical Review 85:1 (Feb. 2005): 39-79.


“Toward a History of Brazil’s ‘Cordial Racism’ – Race beyond Liberalism,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 47 (2005): 318-47.


Select Recent Presentations


Invited paper, “Universalismo e o Mundo das Missões,” Universidade de São Paulo, Departamento de História, March 2016.


Invited paper, “’A Superstructure that has amazed the world’: Enlightenment as Crisis of Historical Imagination,” Séminaire de Recherches sur les Lumières, l’Insitut historique allemand, Paris, December 2015.


Invited paper, “El escandalo del reformismo y las misiones Paraguayas, 1750-1831,” Journée e’Études sur l’historiographie des missions guaraní de Mondes Américains, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, December 2015.


Invited paper, “Economy, Reciprocity and Theology in the Making of the Paraguay Missions,” Séminaire Histoire des Missions d’évangelization moderne, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, December 2015.


Conferencia Magistral at the “Territorio Guaraní International Workshop” (June 3-5, 2015) in Posadas, Argentina. The paper was entitled “Las Repúblicas Misioneras y el Escándalo de la Ilustración, 1750-1831.”


Invited Speaker, The Perry Lecture, Harvard Latin American Studies. “The Mission Polities of Paraquaria and the Shock of Enlightenment, 1750-1831.” April, 16, 2015.


Invited paper. Jornada Internacional Jesuitas, Buenos Aires, Argentina. “’An Extraordinary Species of Commonwealth’: Las misiones-estado jesuita-guaraní y la imaginación socio-política de la Ilustración”, Dec. 3-5, 2014.


Organizer, with Prof. Richard Ross (Univ. of Illinois – Chicago, Law School): Symposium on Comparative Early Modern Legal History: Meanings of Justice in New World Empires: Settler and Indigenous Law as Counterpoints.  Newberry Library, Center for Renaissance Studies, Chicago, Il, October 10, 2014.


Invited conference paper.  “La tiranía del constitucionalismo.  Algunas reflexiones sobre el desencuentro entre la República de Indios y el constitucionalismo mexicano en la época de la independencia.”  XIV Reunión Internacitonal de Historiadores de México, University of Chicago, September 18-21, 2014.


Invited paper.  Yale Center for Latin American and Iberian Studies, "Subjects of Justice in Spain's Atlantic Empire, 17th- and 18th Centuries." January 27, 2014.


Invited paper.  “Indians, Land and Law in Colonial Latin America.”  Tel Aviv University, Faculty of Law, April 30-May 1, 2013.


Invited paper.  “Searching for Raízes do Brasil.  The Middle Class, Cordiality and


Modernity in Brazil's 20th Century.”  For international colloquium: Middle Class: Practices, Transformations and Social Constructions In Latin America and Spain During the 20th Century.  Sverdlin Institute for Latin American History and Culture, Tel Aviv University, April 28-29, 2013.


Invited discussant for workshop “Understanding the institutional trajectory of Latin American development” (bringing together economists, political scientists and historians to discuss Latin American “development”), London School of Economics & Political Science, September 2012.


Invited paper for seminar on Colonial Courts. “A cada uno lo suyo.  Jurisdiction and Subjecthood in Spanish Imperial Legality (XVI to XVIII centuries).”  Uppsala University, Sweden, September 2012.


Invited conference paper: “Casuistry, Justice and the Desire to See the King.”  For special two-day panel “Hechos y datos de los pueblos del Gran Chaco: diálogo histórico entre la antropología, la historia y el derecho,” The Americanists Conference, Vienna, Austria, July 2012.


Invited paper for publication, “Conscience and Imperial Law in the New World,” for Symposium, “New Horizons of Spanish Colonial Law,” Max Planck Insitute for European Legal History, Berlin, July 2012.

Current Research

I am currently working on a book manuscript exploring the motive of economic "gain" as a global phenomenon played out on the stage of colonial Paraguay among Spanish settlers, Guaraní Indians, Portuguese slave raiders and Jesuits between the 16th- and 19th centuries. The main point is to rethink the story of Polanyi's "great transformation" from a more self-consciously global perspective and in doing so question the assumption that the pursuit of individual gain is simply a matter of "human nature."


As part of my abiding interest in the epistemological and theoretical issues of thinking historicallly in a Latin American context, I am working on Sergio Buarque de Holanda's Raízes do Brasil, a ground-breaking work of historical theorizing written in Brazil during the 1930s.  Currently, I am planning an introduction to an English translation of Raízes which Prof Joe Love (University of Illinois) and I are collaborating on.


My next book-length project looks toward a reflection on the Jesuit project among indigenous peoples in Spanish and Portuguese South America during the period up to the expulsion of the Society in the 1760s and beyond. I am interested in the intersection of the Jesuit project with the idea of alternative Enlightenments and the intersection with the emerging capitalist moral order of the late 18th century.

Courses Taught

Recent Courses taught


Undergraduate: Ecology & Society in Latin America; Thought in Latin America; Latin American Catholicism; Global Latin America; Conquest & Convivencia; Race and Mestizaje in Latin American History; Law & Society in Early-Modern Britain and Mexico (with Prof Paul Halliday); Comparative Middle Classes in the Americas.


Graduate: The History and Historiography of Empire; Methodology and Theory in Historical Thinking