Research at the Border: Politics PhD Alumna Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera

To celebrate her recently-published book, Los Zetas, Inc.: Criminal Corporations, Energy, And Civil War in Mexico, Research Matters sat down with Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a recent doctoral alumna of the New School for Social Research Department of Politics, and current Associate Professor at the Shar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

Born and raised in Mexico, Correa-Cabrera focuses on issues of border security, human trafficking and smuggling along the US-Mexico border. Straddling the line between political science and international security studies, her work probes the economic dimensions of organized crime in a transnational context, and other forms of unrest along the border.

Correa-Cabrera trained as an economist in Mexico. Interested in furthering her education, she chose to pursue a master’s degree in Politics at The New School for Social Research. After completing the program, she choose to stay at The New School to pursue a PhD under the supervision of Professor of Politics David Plotke and her dissertation concerned the relationship between politics and violence.

Having extended her stay in the US to complete her doctorate, Correa-Cabrera planned to return to Mexico upon graduation in 2010. As she put it, she wanted continue her research into “the institutional factors leading to violence and instability in my homeland,” which she had begun to explore more directly in her dissertation. These insights were later developed into Correa-Cabrera’s first book, Democracy in “Two Mexicos”: Political Institutions in Oaxaca and Nuevo León (Palgrave). Moreover, she felt a certain pull to continue teaching and writing in her native Spanish. Taking these factors together, a return to Mexico seemed like the most attractive option.

Before she could return, however, Professor Plotke suggested that Correa-Cabrera apply to a position at the University of Texas Brownsville (now The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley). Located adjacent to the border itself, and serving a community of American and Mexican students, this post offered her a unique opportunity to expand upon her research while reconnecting with her Mexican roots.

“You could cross the street and you could see the bridge to Mexico,” Correa-Cabrera said. After securing and accepting the position, she moved from New York to the small Texan town.

Correa-Cabrera explained that she “had been studying the northern part of Mexico, particularly the border states, especially Nuevo Leon.” But she added that the border is, “a very tough place.” Around the time of her arrival, Mexican border states were going through a particularly difficult period, with high rates of violence concentrated in the very states Correa-Cabrera had been researching. “Border violence was a big deal exactly when I arrived,” she said, “A very violent war between two organized crime groups started just on the other side of the border.” It was precisely this climate, which had previously shaped her teaching and gave concreteness to her doctoral research, that would define her unfolding research program.

As it turns out, Matamoros—Brownsville’s twin city across the border—is home to one of the most prominent violent drug organizations in the region. Popularly known as the “Gulf Cartel,” the organization is known not just for its violence, but for how its ‘business innovations’ have transformed the way criminal enterprises operate in Mexico and throughout the western hemisphere. Correa-Cabrera found herself as a political scientist precisely at the right place and time to delve into how these organizations operated.

As a result, she said, “It was inevitable” that her research focus would grow to encompass the issues of crime and violence in this region. She recalled that many of her students lived across the border in Mexico, and would often cite criminal violence as their reason for being absent from class. “They came to me and told me that their parents were very frightened,” Cabrera-Correa said, “A couple of them had had their parents kidnapped.” Undeterred, she explained that she and her students, “continued to work, often while listening to the gunfire coming across from the other side of the border.”

Applying her social research skills to what was occurring around her, Correa-Cabrera obtained a fellowship from the Social Science Research Council. The grant allowed her to conduct interviews on both sides of the border, and to review the way people discussed violence on social media. “At the time,” she added, “I didn’t have the consciousness of what was really happening, and it really shocked me […] it changed my life basically, and it gave some meaning to what I wanted to do. It gave me a project to pursue that was at the same time important, meaningful, relevant.”

Correa-Cabrera’s new book, Los Zetas, Inc., is the result of the research she conducted since that time. She explained: “It’s the product of personal experience in my own family, and other students who were suffering the same thing.” Despite the difficulties inherent in teaching and conducting research in such a precarious environment, she said, “It was the perfect laboratory for me.” Through this combination of research and life experience, Correa-Cabrera became an expert in border security, border relations, and organized crime, elaborating on the connections between a range of organized illicit activities. These extend not just to the transport of illegal drugs and weapons, but also to human smuggling and trafficking. Unlike smuggling, which consists of an agreement between two parties, in human trafficking one party is forced to work and is exploited, and the other party gains from that exploitation.

In other words, through the influence of the Gulf Cartel and others, Correa-Carbrera said, “drug trafficking organizations have consolidated and diversified to the point that they now involve all these illegal activities that were, at some point, controlled by different groups.”

Correa-Cabrera’s work was received positively, and she began to receive support from institutions like the Free University in Berlin, and UNAM in Mexico City. She also won a grant from the US State Department to study the connection between human smuggling, organized crime, and the trafficking of persons along migration routes. It was here that Correa-Cabrera pivoted, focusing on what she calls “the connection between the human elements and the criminal elements” associated with these international crime organizations. This connection led her beyond Mexico, to other countries in Central America’s “Northern Triangle”—Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador— where these networks extended their reach.

This project reveals a new dimension to Correa-Cabrera’s research: her on-the-ground empirical work, in which she accompanies migrants on the long journey from Central America to the United States border. “It made a lot of sense for me to go to the countries of the Northern Triangle and to take the journey with the migrants from there,” she said. To Correa-Cabrera, this was the only way to see how these people were affected by international criminal groups, and how, in the end, smuggling could lead to human trafficking.

“Today because of immigration policies of the United States, it can be much more complicated for migrants to enter the United States so they [often] pay a fee to a smuggler,” Correa-Carbrera said, “And these smugglers are connected to the criminal organizations.” She explained that trafficking can involve many forms of forced labor: from sex work to coerced domestic labor, agricultural work, or forced participation in the criminal activities themselves. She emphasized that this project was about, “how these are connected and the vulnerability of the migrants […] The project was about doing the journey and interviewing individuals in the migrant shelters and in the trucks.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, according to Correa-Cabrera, this was an exceedingly complex process that entailed over 400 interviews. After its conclusion, she was awarded a Residential Fellowship at The Wilson Center, a non-partisan policy forum in Washington, DC. There, she is turning her research into articles, which in turn will inform concrete public policy proposals. This marks a new chapter in her work as a publicly-engaged scholar.

“I’m contributing to the design of public policy by presenting the results of my research,” she said, “It’s an amazing opportunity.”

Fieldwork photos credited to Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera.

PhD Alumnus David Bond on the History of “The Environment” as a Political Category

In a matter of decades, political and scientific debates concerning the environment have generally moved from the margins to the center of public life. But our collective understanding of what constitutes “the environment” has changed significantly during that same period.

The notion of “the environment” has a specific and, in many ways, surprising history—despite the fact that it is a fairly recent conceptual invention. Bennington College Professor and New School for Social Research anthropology PhD alumnus David Bond studies this history of our present. Straddling the lines between anthropology, climate science, and critical theory, Bond’s work helps unpack not only what we know about the environment, but also how we came to know the environment. In this context, he pays particular attention to the role that environmental disasters bring the environment to the center of public debate.

Troubled by the injustice and racism he saw in the world, and moved by the desire to do something about it, Bond initially went to college to study sociology. He thought that sociology would be the best lens through which to grapple with the issues that motivated him. Bond was still on that path when he arrived at the New School for Social Research as a master’s student in sociology. Surprisingly, it was a course taught by Willy Brandt Distinguished Professor of Anthropology Ann Stoler that most marked his experience.

“Whatever she was doing,” he said, “I wanted to be a part of it.” Bond explained: “Ann was grappling with things in a way I’d never seen before, pulling out the tensions that animate our present with an incisive critical focus and clear political implication. That’s what I wanted to be a part of.”

Attracted by the foment of new work unfolding in the Anthropology Department, Bond decided to pursue his Ph.D. there. For Bond, anthropology at The New School is not so much “a venerable discipline, as much as a really useful set of tools to examine the present and to write urgent histories of our present, in all that that implies and commits one to.” He added that he also appreciated the department’s insistence that students “take seriously the critical and creative capacities with which people lead their lives.”

Bond has just published a paper in the journal Comparative Studies in Society and History concerning how the US empire of oil offshored crucial hydrocarbon infrastructure to the Caribbean to avoid rising labor and environmental concerns, and the unexpected role those leaky refineries had in bringing new attention to the ecology of mangroves. . In January, Bond also organized and edited an online forum at Cultural Anthropology, providing a space for anthropologists to respond to the rise of Trumpism “as a political present” in the United States and its implications for critical theory. He is expanding his introduction to the forum into a full-length essay while finishing a book manuscript based on his New School dissertation, which tracked the emergence of the category of “the environment” during the BP spill of 2010.

When it comes to the current state of the discipline of anthropology, and how his work contributes to it, Bond emphasized the importance of ethnography. “It’s a truism that ethnographic insights are lacking in our public discourse,” he said. For Bond, insights recovered from this kind of research represent insights into the most looming and complicated problems facing our world today. He added: “We really have to reorient and recommit ourselves to thinking about those problems with people. Ethnography promises a different kind of insight.” Bond’s focus on ethnography truly comes through in the work on the BP oil spill, during which he followed government officials to several town halls with local residents in the direct aftermath of the spill. Repeatedly, Bond witnessed residents raise concerns about their health, only to have these concerns waved away by the officials, who preferred to focus on damage to property and to wildlife. “The environment was defined, in the aftermath of the disaster, in a way that excluded public health concerns,” Bond explained. “It excluded a lot of voices that otherwise had very legitimate complaints that were very easily connected to the spilled oil.”

Continue reading “PhD Alumnus David Bond on the History of “The Environment” as a Political Category”

The Ethics of Climate Change: NSSR Alum Eric Godoy Asks Who Bears Responsibility

This is the second in a series of Research Matters articles profiling the interdisciplinary climate change work of students, faculty, and alumni at The New School for Social Research. Check back for more!

Who is truly responsible for the climate’s state of disrepair? Who should be responsible for preventing further deterioration of the environment? To help address these questions, Research Matters sat down with Eric Godoy, a recent doctoral alumnus of the Philosophy Department at The New School for Social Research and current Assistant Professor at Illinois State University. His research focuses on the ethics and politics of determining responsibility for the climate, and aims to articulate a frame for responding to it.

“I guess I’ve always been concerned with climate and climate change,” Godoy said. But his path to a PhD in philosophy was somewhat unexpected, given earlier interests in questions about climate from a scientific perspective. Having entered college as a chemistry major, he conducted research on waterways near his hometown in Central Florida. In the course of his fieldwork, he witnessed firsthand the disruption of delicate balances in the local waters, and began to consider ethical and political questions.

At The New School, Godoy wrote his MA thesis on the philosopher David Hume, examining how Hume’s ethical doctrines could be extended to envelop the concept of global justice—pressing on the typical boundaries of the scope of traditional philosophical inquiry of ethics. Godoy found the way ethics was typically framed to be much too restrictive, and went looking for an ethical and political framework that could address global challenges. Following his MA, Godoy began to work with Nancy Fraser, the Henry A. & Louise Loeb Professor of Political & Social Science at The New School. He both aimed to deepen and broaden his research, studying ethical and political frameworks that grappled with what he called, “the question of individual and collective responsibility.”

After serving as Assistant Chair of the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute, Godoy recently accepted a position at Illinois State University, where as Assistant Professor he is currently contributing to an effort to expand the university’s environmental studies major and minor. Over the past few years, Godoy has deepened his investigation into how ethics (and ethicists) can cope with a challenge as complex and overwhelming as those presented by climate change.

Godoy sensed that urgent issues related to climate change and environmental degradation are best explored within the framework of social and economic justice, but that little existing scholarship considered the issues from this perspective. “The question of where moral value resides is really interesting to me when it comes to climate change,” Godoy said. “There’s a far more pressing question that climate change presents […] and it’s going to get much worse.” The relative absence of justice from considerations of climate change seems, to Godoy, especially the case in his discipline. As he explained, “Especially outside of philosophy where a lot of the work focuses on environmental justice, climate change [is treated] as fundamentally a justice issue,” he said. Godoy’s work digs deeper: if environmental issues are fundamentally about justice, then who is the injustice being done to, and who can be said to be responsible for taking action? How can individuals ever feel individually responsible for such a large-scale problem? And if the responsibility resides with institutions or entire ways of life, then whom should we urge to action?

Godoy emphasizes that the causes of global climate degradation are profound and structural in nature. In his perspective, this kind of phenomenon is best understood by focusing on fundamental structures of our society like the way we economize, the way we govern, and our relationship to power. However, Godoy explained that, “the average person does have a sense that there’s something they should be doing. They don’t know what it is because it is a very complex problem.” He explained that this way of framing the problem and motivating action has considerable drawbacks. In his words:

This is kind of dangerous because there are plenty of corporations that will give those individuals an answer for a low, low price—just buy this, and do that—and these things don’t make much of a difference. The challenges are structural, and the solutions are political. So when we atomize responsibility, when all I have to worry about is whether or not I recycle, whether I remember to bring my reusable tumbler to Starbucks, that’s dangerous because it diffuses all that energy and motivation that people have.

At the same time, Godoy argues that swinging too far in the other direction can leave people feeling helpless about being able to do anything to fight climate change directly. He suggested that the history of recycling helps to illuminate the point, pointing to the introduction of aluminum cans to the market for beverages in the 1960’s and 70’s. “When recycling came along, beverage companies that had been able to survive Prohibition needed a much wider distribution method, so they were attracted to aluminum, which is easier to transport than glass.” This was a coup for beverage companies since the cost of glass manufacturing glass required companies to reuse these containers. However, the general public did not share this excitement. Godoy continued: “In short measure, there was waste everywhere. After widespread outrage, and a collective effort to band together to stop companies from being able to sell disposable containers and return to reusable glass, the companies themselves banded together to sponsor the America Beautiful Act. And they promoted recycling.” The crucial point is that, as a result of this move, “recycling passes the responsibility onto the consumer and the municipalities rather than the companies that manufacture the disposable containers.”

In more recent work, Godoy has written about the case of university campaigns to divest from fossil fuel companies. These efforts complicate the distinction between individual and collective action, as the campaigns are often made up of students, faculty, staff, and even Board members. Asked what attracted him to this kind of activity, Godoy responded, “For one thing it’s interesting pedagogically. For another, the communicative force of saying ‘this is not something we should be doing, this is not something we should be profiting off of.’ So it sends a very public message, and it comes from knowledge producers, which I think carries a certain kind of authority.” In this case, the agent of the activism is a single entity—a specific college or university—but the action illuminates how intimately individual persons and institutions are related at the level of economics and politics to the actions of big business, and especially, to the fossil fuel industry.

As a philosopher managing research that moves between disciplines, Godoy said, “I’ve always admired people, like Nancy, who can navigate two worlds. I’ve tried to push myself to work on interdisciplinary teams and to build relationships with different kinds of people so I can write with them.” Asked how this had worked out, and what he had learned about the terminological and methodological differences that exist between disciplines, he responded, “I think there’s something to be said for using disciplinary boundaries.” He clarified that despite one’s best intentions, it’s often quite difficult to co-author research across discipline lines without sacrificing some of the precision gained through disciplinary specialization. “I do think that when you try to approach real problems, you do give up a bit of precision,” he said. “But in the end, you might have to bracket certain issues in order to be able to work together.” Given the global magnitude of the challenges presented by climate change, the need to think through issues of individual and collective responsibility—and beyond intellectual specialties—has never been greater.

On the Psychology of Collective Memory and Group Membership

The 2016 US Presidential campaign and its aftermath have energized international dialogue on the prominence and proliferation of ideological echo chambers, fake news, and so-called “alternative facts.” We are in a moment that is forcing us to face pressing questions about the social nature of facts: how they come about and who feels entitled to ratify or question them.

NSSR Alumnus Alin Coman (photo credit: Princeton University)

To address some of these questions, Research Matters spoke with Alin Coman, a doctoral alumnus of the Psychology Department at The New School for Social Research, and currently Assistant Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University. Coman’s research — initially developed as a graduate student in the lab of William Hirst (the Malcolm B. Smith Professor of Psychology at NSSR) – focuses on the way that social contexts affect our ability to create and recall memories, both as individuals and as groups. Recent political events in the United States and around the world have brought new urgency to Coman’s investigation into how politics and group dynamics can shape and reshape our sense of the past.

Coman was first exposed to the field of collective memory as an undergraduate psychology student at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. At the same time, Professor Hirst was conducting research on collective memory while advising Romanian psychology departments through a rebuilding process that followed their abolition during the communist authoritarian rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu (1965-1989). After completing his undergraduate degree in Romania, Coman followed Hirst back to The New School for Social Research for graduate work.

Under Hirst’s supervision, Coman developed an empirical approach to the study of collective memory in communities of individuals, investigating how our social interactions influence the way that we create, retain, and recall memories. As Coman recently wrote: “Psychologists are now investigating the fundamental processes by which collective memories form, to understand what makes them vulnerable to distortion. They show that social networks powerfully shape memory, and that people need little prompting to conform to a majority recollection — even if it is wrong.”

It is this issue that Coman explores in his current work at Princeton.

Take a recent study completed in conjunction with Hirst and fellow NSSR Professor Emanuele Castano. The study asked American participants to confront two sets of stories about soldiers committing acts of violence in Iraq and Afghanistan. One group of participants read that it was the American soldiers committing acts of violence and abuse, while another group — reading about the same acts — were told that they were committed by Iraqi soldiers. “It turns out there’s a huge difference in terms of the cognitive processes individuals undertake as they’re listening to somebody describing these atrocities,” Coman explained. The interpretation of this information is influenced by the group membership of the person exposed to the stories.

This phenomenon extends to the process of remembering and forgetting. According to Coman, when we hear information from people we perceive to be within our group, these sources are, “more likely to reinforce memories that are already encoded.” He adds that they can also “induce forgetting of memories that are related to those that they hear from an [outgroup] source.” Information relayed by people inside one’s own group will “be prioritized in the cognitive system.” This leads to a bias in terms of what gets remembered and what is left to wear away from our memories.