NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Vanderbilt University political scientist whose research assists nations in building democracies has received major funding to poll Colombian citizens about their attitudes toward democracy.
The United States Agency for International Development has awarded Mitchell Seligson, Centennial Professor of Political Science and a fellow of the Center for the Americas, nearly $1.4 million to conduct annual surveys of thousands of Colombians as part of the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP). Seligson founded LAPOP in the 1970s to conduct scientific surveys of Latin American citizens about their opinions and behaviors related to building and strengthening democracies. At Vanderbilt the project is jointly supported by the Center for the Americas (CFA) and the Department of Political Science.
“On the one hand, Colombia is a South American nation that has had regular elections and institutionalized democracy,” Seligson said. “However, it also has suffered greatly from the violence of a protracted guerilla struggle complicated by the international narcotics drug trade. It is my hope that our surveys will help their leaders find the pathways to a more peaceful democratic rule.”
Seligson first became interested in values that support democratic regimes and people’s attitudes toward democracy while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Costa Rica in the late 1960s. At that time Costa Rica was the democratic exception to the military dictatorships throughout Latin America. “I wanted to know what values Costa Ricans had, apparently absent elsewhere in the region, that helped them to construct a genuine democracy,” Seligson said.
During the 1990s as the wave of democracies took hold all over the world, LAPOP expanded its research to all of the countries in Central America and through much of the Andes.
Seligson’s most recent focus has been on Bolivia and Ecuador, and LAPOP has partnered with research institutes and universities in these countries.
When Seligson presented the results of the last round of surveys, in which interviews were done in every country from Mexico through Colombia and on into Ecuador and Bolivia, there were vast differences in the extent to which people were committed to the legitimacy of their own system of government. Seligson noted that two presidents have been driven from office recently by protests in Bolivia and another has been ousted in Ecuador, and that the motivations for these actions by citizens emerge clearly in the LAPOP studies. “In many ways, the findings of the surveys seem to be serving as the political scientist’s equivalent of the economists’ venerated ‘leading indicators,’ which, if borne out in future studies, would be a breakthrough for the social sciences,” Seligson said,
Seligson said that LAPOP’s methodology requires the public opinion surveys to be conducted in face-to-face meetings, since many poor and rural people do not have telephones. “While many in the United States are jaded about responding to telephone surveys and have no problem hanging up on requests to be interviewed, many Latin American citizens relish the opportunity to make their opinions known,” he said. Vanderbilt currently has graduate students from Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador and Uruguay working on this project. “Through their work with LAPOP, they learn political science theory concerning democracy as well as quantitative skills for analyzing data in scientific research,” Seligson said. “The students then return home to contribute to their own democratization process, many working in government or at a university.”
At Vanderbilt, the LAPOP project has been receiving generous support from the Center for the Americas, and several of Seligson’s graduate research assistants and the LAPOP Coordinator of Research are housed in the newly refurbished Buttrick Hall. “Buttrick is a great facility, with lots of modern seminar space that will allow LAPOP to run its upcoming meetings and workshops in real style,” Seligson said.
Media contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens, (615) 322-NEWS