Latin America from an Interdisciplinary Perspective

Junior Alejandro Ecker | © Tobias Schwerdt
Junior Alejandro Ecker | © Tobias Schwerdt

Four new junior professors at the Heidelberg Center for Ibero-American Studies

Research at the interface between the humanities and the social and behavioural sciences: four junior professors have joined the Heidelberg Center for Ibero-American Studies (HCIAS). "With their interdisciplinary studies on the societal and social changes taking place in Ibero-America, Alejandro Ecker, Rosa Lehmann, Pablo Porten-Cheé and Soledad Álvarez Velasco make a significant contribution to further developing research and teaching at the HCIAS," explains Francisco Moreno-Fernández, HCIAS Director and Alexander von Humboldt Professor for Ibero-American Linguistic, Cultural and Social Studies at Heidelberg University. Founded in 2019 as a central research facility of Ruperto Carola, the HCIAS takes a regional approach to studies on, with and in Latin America and its contact regions. "It is a special feature of the HCIAS that our researchers work at the interface of different disciplines to tackle complex issues," the sociolinguist added. This approach is also reflected in the appointments to the newly established junior professorships. "Rather than adopting a single disciplinary perspective, they analyse thematic complexes such as political transformation, socio-environmental change, societal communication or migration dynamics from different, complementary angles."

Multiparty systems and voter behaviour in Latin America

Party competition and voter behaviour in Europe and Latin America - the supply and demand side of the political market - is the field of Junior Professor Dr Alejandro Ecker. Born in Argentina, he specialises in multiparty governments and does research from a comparative perspective on how they cooperate in different institutional structures. "Latin America is characterised by presidential systems and that is particularly interesting because the parliamentary majority is often not held by the party of the president," Prof. Ecker explains. At the same time, he is examining how voters perceive and respond to the behaviour of parties, particularly in multiparty governments. "That will enable conclusions to be drawn on how a representative democracy actually functions."

In a current project on, Prof. Ecker is studying the interaction between individual politicians and potential voters in the social media, particularly on Twitter. The project draws on experimental methods and approaches from machine learning. In his words, the parties in Latin America, for instance, are much less institutionalised than in Europe and social media are a popular means of political communication. One aim of the project is to collect data on the whole social media behaviour of a country’s members of parliament and government, in order to investigate which tweets are particularly well received by the electorate - the populist or less populist ones. In addition, a joint project on fake news on the internet is planned with Junior Professor Dr Pablo Porten-Cheé. The investigation aims to record how fake news copy the characteristics of genuine news in order to feign credibility.

Starting from the idea that the social media offer a good source of data to systematically cover deviating political opinions within parties, Alejandro Ecker is also occupied with the phenomenon of intraparty heterogeneity, which is particularly widespread in Latin America. With the aid of a heterogeneity score he intends to examine the issue, inter alia, of whether it is easier for closed parties with a strong party line to pass bills or whether governments with heterogeneous parties tend to fall apart more than the former. "It has always been thought that functioning political parties - that is, those with a strong party line - are a necessary precondition for stable democracies," Prof. Ecker says. "A big research puzzle in Latin America is that relatively stable democracies exist there without functioning party systems, e.g. in Peru or Bolivia. The question I would like to answer is whether intraparty heterogeneity or homogeneity can supply at least part of the explanation as to why these democracies are sustainable, despite their relative lack of institutionalised party systems."

Alejandro Ecker joined the HCIAS in April 2021 as Junior Professor for "Politics and Communication in Ibero-America". He studied political science and economics at the University of Mannheim and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore (USA) and earned his doctorate in 2016 at the University of Vienna (Austria). Before he was offered the position in Heidelberg, Prof. Ecker was from 2016 to 2021 a postdoctoral research fellow at the Mannheim Centre for European Social Research. Furthermore, in 2019 he taught as a guest professor at the Department of Government of the University of Vienna and in the following year temporarily covered the Professorship of Comparative Politics at Mannheim.

Socio-ecological transformations in Latin America

As the HCIAS Junior Professor for "Innovation and Sustainability in Ibero-America", Junior Professor Dr Rosa Lehmann studies the social and political dimensions of transitions from a fossil-based to an ecologically sustainable society and economy. The regional emphasis of her research has been on Mexico so far, but it also takes account of transnational interconnections and international dependencies. She graduated in anthropology and political science, and positions herself in the research field of political ecology. "A basic idea behind my work is that the human appropriation of nature always has a social and political dimension. Likewise, technology development always takes place in social contexts."

In her research projects, Rosa Lehmann has worked on various aspects of socio-ecological transformations in Latin America, e.g. on societal discourses and conflicts around wind-energy projects in Mexico. Her research interest also extends to questions of bioeconomy - an economy based on biological resources - as well as bio-based transition pathways that are designed to enable a more sustainable society and economy beyond fossil energy and resources. "As a post-doc in a research group on ’Bioeconomy and Social Inequalities’, I have engaged with bioeconomic strategies both in Europe and in Latin America. In particular, I have worked on questions of bioenergy and the energy transition in Germany. I am generally interested in what actors are involved in such transformation strategies, what knowledge plays a role, what practices are relevant and to what extent they could play a role for bio-economic scenarios."

At the HCIAS Prof. Lehmann is focusing more strongly on energy transitions in Latin America, against the background of climate change, socio-ecological and political inequalities, as well as specific local contexts and connections. One of her current research foci is on transnational fora, in which state actors and actors from private enterprise and civil society discuss questions of climate change and climate change mitigation. In this context, she is interested in interactions with national climate policies in Mexico, Chile and Argentina, amongst other things. Furthermore, joint research is planned with Junior Professor Dr Soledad Álvarez Velasco on displacement and migration movements in Latin America, especially in Central America, caused by climate change and extractivism.

Rosa Lehmann studied anthropology and political science at the University of Freiburg, where she also earned her doctorate in 2018. Before she was appointed as HCIAS Junior Professor of "Innovation and Sustainability in Ibero-America" in April 2021, she worked as a post-doc in the junior research group on bioeconomy and social inequalities at the University of Jena, funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Since 2012 Prof. Lehmann has been a research associate at the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute of the University of Freiburg.