Subject Areas Offer Focused Paths within Disciplines

Graduate school is a specialized environment where students can immerse themselves in a discipline. In Fall 2019, New School for Social Research Anthropology and Psychology students gained a new way to explore specialized areas of study within their chosen fields: subject areas. By pursuing course credits within these informal paths, students can deepen their research, develop closer relationships with faculty, connect with potential job and internship opportunities, and more.

Research Matters spoke to students in the Anthropology and Design, Global Mental Health, and Science and Society subject areas about their experiences. Read on to learn more!

Note that a new subject area is debuting in Fall 2020: Applied Psychology, which helps prepare Psychology MA students to be part of the growing field of user experience researchers

Anthropology and Design

Why do things look the way they do? In the Anthropology and Design subject area, Anthropology MA students have the opportunity to apply ethnographic research and conceptual frameworks in their field to how the world and its structures are designed. With access to the classes and resources of The New School’s Parsons School of Design and the Schools of Public Engagement, as well as NSSR’s Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism programs, Anthropology students can develop design practice and apply those skills to their research.

Erin Simmons, an MA student in the Anthropology and Design subject area, examines the evolving field of data representation. 

Erin Simmons, Anthropology MA student, and Shannon Mattern, Professor of Anthropology

I am looking at the way that data visualization is being used within the international development sector,” Simmons says. “I work with things like complex poverty indicators, the human development index to look at how people’s perceptions of what poverty is and how it’s defined can be altered by the visualizations that are being used to represent it.”

Simmons was drawn to the subject area after working with economic texts and data collection. Shannon Mattern, Professor of Anthropology and head of the Anthropology and Design subject area, encouraged Simmons to think deeper on how design tactics influence the way data is perceived. 

“Anthropology offers critical concepts and methods that are extremely valuable for the politically- and ethically-informed practice and analysis of design,” says Mattern. “Design, likewise, empowers anthropologists to think more expansively about the subjects, methods, and modes of their practice.” At The New School, continues Mattern, anthropology and design are “both honored as creative and intellectual practices that have much to learn from each other.”

By taking classes in data visualization and design, Simmons is elevating her work on poverty, and trying to present it in a way that is more accessible and effective. She hopes to collaborate further with designers and create new forms of data representation.

Global Mental Health

Mental health disorders are the leading cause of disability worldwide. Yet gaps in culturally relevant studies and resources persist globally and hinder the advancement of solutions to this problem. 

Psychology MA students can pursue the Global Mental Health subject area to understand how treatment and prevention can be better implemented on an international scale.

Adam Brown, Associate Professor of Psychology and an expert in global mental health, says the subject area exposes students to how “mental health researchers are reimagining the ways we can design and deliver mental healthcare, reduce stigma, and partner with communities to empower and support one another.”

Although the material draws largely from psychology, Global Mental Health courses are very interdisciplinary, drawing on anthropology, public health, and design. This experiential coursework, combined with internship placements, prepares students to work for international agencies, government, and non-profits engaged in community-based mental health work. 

Evan Neuwirth, Psychology MA student, and Adam Brown, Associate Professor of Psychology

This year, Evan Neuwirth decided to dive into Global Mental Health. In addition to finishing his MA in Psychology and starting his PhD, Neuwirth is an Executive Function Coach runs a small tutoring business that specializes in executive function remediation. A student fellow at NSSR’s Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility, he also works with the International Rescue Committee program and directed a documentary film that chronicled the lives of the Liberian national amputee soccer team.

From these diverse experiences, Neuwirth found a common thread: that the mental health of people affected by crisis is poorly understood. Turning to psychology, he realized part of the problem was in the lack of diverse and relevant research; many mental health studies are done in a Western context and without quality socio-economic considerations, which mean they are inadequate for addressing global disparities in mental health support.

After taking classes with Brown, Neuwirth was able to connect his own research ambitions to other work at The New School. Joining in Brown’s Trauma and Global Mental Health Lab, Neuwirth is working with other students to investigate and reduce barriers to mental health care in low-resourced contexts. Current lab research includes refugee mental health and psychosocial support, hospital-based mental health detection and prevention, and human rights and global mental health.

“Global mental health is still an emerging field,” Neuwrith said. “It is exciting to be involved now and to see the systematic and global impact this research could have.”

At the IRC, Neuwirth works on their newly implemented Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Framework, helping to foster programming to achieve mental health and psychosocial wellbeing outcomes for their populations. 

“The New School is one of the few places offering these kinds of global mental health studies now,” Neuwrith said. “This work is going to be the future of how we understand mental health.”

Science and Society

Writing a thesis is a solitary, often lonely process. For Anthropology MA student Sonia Zhang, her thesis is a deep dive into loneliness itself.

“I’m interested in how different understandings and experiences of loneliness come together in contemporary life, and one of the fields I identified is social robotics in Japan,” Zhang says. “By looking at how people in the field reconcile ideas of loneliness both in their professional life and through the products — in this case, robots —  they design, I am trying to understand what loneliness does in the contemporary, technology-infused landscape.”

Zhang’s research has always been interdisciplinary, drawing from literature in anthropology, public health, medicine, and engineering. In Fall 2019, she took Science and Society, a class taught by Nicolas Langlitz, Associate Professor of Anthropology, and began to study canonical readings and current debates in Science and Technology Studies (STS).

Sonia Zhang, Anthropology MA student, and Nicolas Langlitz, Associate Professor of Anthropology

“Without some training in [STS], I wouldn’t have the confidence to pursue a project about scientific knowledge and technological institutions at all,” Zhang says. The breadth of material in the Science and Society course also helped her move forward toward this goal. “The course’s emphasis on morality made me consider some angles of the loneliness debate that I have neglected before,” she adds, connecting questions of moral behavior and classification to current pressing political and social problems.

The course is foundational to the Science and Society subject area, which aims to help Anthropology MA students ethnographically and historically investigate how scientific research is informed by and informs social processes. Langlitz, who turned to Anthropology after completing training as a physician, focuses his research on behavioral sciences and larger philosophical questions. 

“The sciences construct the societies we live in and our societies construct the scientific knowledge that informs some of the most consequential political decisions we take,” says Langlitz. “This complicated relationship raises long-standing philosophical questions. But recent attempts on both the left and the right to democratize and politicize scientific expertise are making this relationship one of the most pressing issues of our day.” The Science and Society subject area helps “provide students with the conceptual and methodological toolkit they need to understand the knowledge societies we live in.”

Outside of class, he helped Zhang by recommending independent STS readings and convening Anthropology student meetings and workshops on collaborative research in science-related topics.

Although Zhang didn’t initially set out to pursue a science-related topic, she’s now deeply engrossed in the area. “I would recommend this subject area to anyone who has some curiosity in how science works in general, as a form of knowledge, truth, institution, power.”

Student Fellows Innovate at NSSR Centers and Institutes

How student research is informing new modes of interdisciplinary social thought

The New School was founded in 1919 as a place where scholars could advance progressive social thought and provide the public with accessible and relevant education. The school’s early thinkers came together across disciplines to explore major social issues of the day: migration and mobility, democracy and fascism, capitalism and socialism.

A century later, The New School for Social Research continues that important work through myriad classes, publications, public programs — and especially through interdisciplinary centers and institutes. In these special spaces, faculty and students meet across departments and divisions to research many of the same major social issues. Centers and institutes help fuel policy debates, promote public discussion, and welcome visiting scholars into the New School community.

Many of NSSR’s centers and institutes have robust student fellowship programs that provide Master’s and PhD students with financial support and mentorship as they conduct major research projects. Research Matters spoke to current fellows at three centers, looking at student work across issues of economic empowerment, migration, and ethnographic design

GIDEST: The Intersection of Social Theory, Art, and Design

Photo credit: GIDEST fellow Otto von Busch

The Graduate Institute for Design, Ethnography & Social Thought (GIDEST) is The New School’s home for transdisciplinary ethnographic research at the intersection of social theory, art, and design. Funded by a grant from Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, GIDEST “draws on The New School’s tradition of politically-engaged, historically-grounded, and theoretically-innovative social research” and connects scholars across the university, especially in their bi-weekly seminar series on art and theory.

Hugh Raffles, Founding Director of GIDEST, is a Professor of Anthropology whose work is a sustained ethnographic inquiry into relations between humans, animals, and things. As a GIDEST Senior Fellow himself, he has been completing The Book of Unconformities  (Penguin Random House, August 2020), in which he uses anthropology, history, and geology to explore the stories of stones.

“The work of the student fellows is central to the institute,” Raffles says. “They bring their own expertise and interests into the group, and help create a supportive and dynamic environment in which we can all develop our ideas. As GIDEST fellows, they gain structure and the experience of participating as peers in high-level conversations with accomplished scholars and practitioners,” and receive mentoring on their research projects.

The current cohort of GIDEST fellows include faculty and students working in Politics, Psychology, Photography, Media Studies, Historical Studies, and Sociology. Amanda Arena-Miller is a PhD candidate in Psychology and GIDEST fellow whose work explores the relationship between dance and interoceptive awareness — a person’s ability to sense internal bodily states. 

Amanda Arena-Miller, Psychology PhD candidate

“My dissertation is a collaboration between the NSSR Psychology department and the Dance Department at Eugene Lang College,” Arena-Miller says. “It was a brainchild of my advisor Miriam Steele (Professor of Psychology) and Professor Neil Greenberg, who is a choreographer at Lang. They were both interested in how dance might impact your awareness of your internal signals and how that relates to the psychology of body representation. I had been working on body image research and experience as a dancer, so I took over that research.”

Arena-Miller has been coordinating this study for over four years, and it has since branched off into additional research on how art practice can impact body awareness. At GIDEST, she is compiling quantitative data on biofeedback and self-reporting; holding interviews; and conducting qualitative research on dance, using grounded theory and ethnographic work to explore interoception. 

Although their respective work can appear largely unique — past topics have included ethnographic studies of cellphone designs in China, the research of multiple spatial “under-commons” of Black and Brown community resistance in Mississippi, and the role of television in the resurgence of the historical avant-garde in the late 1960s — GIDEST fellows are able to support and elevate each other’s research with a sense of community.

“We are all interested in how knowledge is created and perpetuated within discourses and academia,” Arena-Miller shares. “Largely speaking, we’re all interested in the production and also having a critical eye on knowledge.” And in addition to the welcome financial support, “we have a space where we present our work and give each other feedback. It’s really enriching.”

SCEPA: Connecting Policy to Economics

Photo credit: Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis

The Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) works within NSSR’s economics department as a research center focusing on policies that raise living standards and foster economic security. Collaborating with economists, SCEPA provides research analysis and policy recommendations in the areas of climate change, public finance, and retirement.

Teresa Ghilarducci, Schwartz Professor of Economics and Policy Analysis, directs SCEPA and helps guide the work of its student fellows. “Educating tomorrow’s economic leaders is fundamental to SCEPA’s mission,” Ghilarducci says. “Our team of fellows and research associates learn how to use their academic and economic skills to impact policies that can better people’s lives. In turn, SCEPA benefits from the diversity of experiences, academic and professional, that our fellows bring to the team’s daily work.” 

A noted expert and media authority on retirement policy, Ghilarducci has launched SCEPA’s Retirement Equity Lab, which is dedicated primarily to conducting research on the U.S. retirement system and vulnerable older workers. ReLab engages with both the media and policymakers to share their data and seek major structural reform. 

Owen Davis, a former financial reporter, and a first-year Economics PhD student, works as a research assistant at SCEPA’s ReLab. His work helps to illuminate vulnerabilities that have fueled the growing retirement crisis and led millions of American workers to downward mobility in retirement

“We use government and survey data sets to explore how retirement policies and labor market trends affect older workers’ retirement prospects,” Davis explains. “For example, last semester I used a nationally representative data set to show that the financial fragility of older workers has been rising since the 1990s, and remains elevated since the Great Recession. In short, the typical older worker has more debt relative to their assets than they did before the last recession.”

Owen Davis, Economics PhD student

Student fellows contribute their own interests and areas of expertise to  SCEPA’s work and also gain hands-on experience in the economics field.

“In many instances, we end up working with our former students as professionals, such as former SCEPA research assistants Kate Bahn, who is now Director of Labor Market Policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, and Kyle Moore, senior policy analyst with the U.S. Joint Economic Committee,” Ghilarducci says. 

The center’s work is often shaped by movements and financial trends in real time. 

“Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, we have devoted virtually all our attention to predicting how the crisis will affect older workers and determining what policies would be most important to ensuring income and retirement security, as well as basic safety, for older Americans,” Davis says. “We’re hard at work seeing how all of these phenomena will play out for the current crop of retirees and near-retirees. Hopefully we can get our message out to policymakers.” 

Zolberg Institute: A New Understanding of Human Movement 

Zolberg Institute fellows in Amman, Jordan, summer 2018

The Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility examines human movement in the age of globalization. Building on The New School’s tradition of migration studies, the institute combines art, activism, and research to create a forum on issues of human movement. 

Catherine McGahan is the Associate Director at the Zolberg Institute and previously worked for the International Rescue Committee (IRC). “The Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility is the first institute to focus specifically on mobility,” McGahan says. “We pull in different disciplines to create programming that is accessible to the general public, outside of academia. We are working on research, we are working on policy, we are working on academia, we are creating a more robust view of migration and mobility, not just for New York City or the country, but also for the world.” 

The Zolberg Institute is also supporting the next generation of migration scholars and immigration advocates. Graduate student fellows come from a diverse range of scholarly backgrounds; NSSR students from Anthropology, Politics, Sociology, Liberal Studies, and Psychology collaborate with students from other programs at The New School, including International Affairs, Public and Urban Policy, and Transdisciplinary Design. They work on a host of projects, including writing content for the Mobilities Seminar series at Public Seminar, NSSR’s publishing initiative, working in specialized faculty research clusters, and producing the Zolberg Institute’s immigration policy podcast, Tempest Tossed.

Special Zolberg-IRC fellowships allow students to work directly on global issues, piloting interventions and policy recommendations that then get rolled out to a global community at large. 

Mat Cusick is an MA candidate in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program and a current Zolberg fellow. Cusik is an editor at Public Seminar and works on Tempest Tossed.

“I would say that the Zolberg Institute is where I feel the greatest sense of community in the entire university,” Cusick says. “All of my colleagues share a commitment to issues that matter to me, and we have the opportunity to work together on these issues in various practical ways — writing and editing articles, researching and planning the podcast episodes, hearing and discussing scholarly work in progress, and attending and supporting public events.”

With their robust public events calendar currently on pause, Zolberg has gone digital, launching an online series of discussions with scholars and activists on migration-related issues and COVID-19.

 Mat Cusick, Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student

The upcoming season of Tempest Tossed, produced by the student fellows, is a deep-dive on the Trump administration’s immigration tactics, their impact, and their potential lasting legacy.

I have responsibility for researching and editing the script for an episode on the Trump administration’s ‘virtual wall’ — another way of describing the systematic dismantling of the asylum system,” Cusick shares. “The fellowship has provided me with my first opportunity to be involved directly in a podcast, at all levels of production, from proposing subjects, speakers, and titles, to recording interviews and editing scripts, to strategizing about marketing and promotion.”

As an editor at Public Seminar, Cusick has written his own pieces on migration as well as commissioned and edited the work of major scholars in the field for the Mobilities Seminar, on topics such as asylum policy, offshore detention of refugees, climate change, forced migration, and sanctuary movements.

“Zolberg fellows are engaged in a wide range of important and exciting work around what I consider to be one of the most fundamental political issues of our time, transcending borders,” Cusick says.

Revival Magazine Examines the State of the Left

Revival on 15th Street, a cheap bar with a patio, became a regular spot for the NSSR community to meet for a post-class drink near campus. One particular group of graduate students routinely went to Revival together every Friday night. They would talk about The New School, the chaos of graduate life, and the intricacies of leftist ideologies and movements happening in, around, and far from the university. These discussions soon became the inspiration to start their own magazine.

“The idea to establish Revival Magazine originated from the realization that The New School, and in particular NSSR, lacks accessible and student-led spaces where we can exchange ideas and arguments that are not academic in nature,” says founding co-editor and Economics MA student Ruben Brockbreder. “We wanted to create Revival to document these conversations, which, while most passionately delivered in the dim light of the bar and animated by Friday night spirits, would often dissipate within daily routine and university madness.” 

“All That’s Left”

The first issue of Revival launched in May of 2019, entitled “All That’s Left.”  “The quite gloomy title for Issue I describes our attempt to collect or survey the condition of leftist movements and parties around the world,” Brockbreder says.

The issue featured three sections: commentaries on the state of the left in seven different countries; research briefs spotlighting the work of MA and PhD students in NSSR’s Three-Minute Thesis Challenge; and art and essays on themes of labor, alienation, and a sense of belonging in and near the left. Submissions came from across NSSR, representing how social science students are grappling with today’s most pressing issues.

Ye Liu, a Sociology PhD candidate, wrote a commentary on China:

Amy Osika, a Historical Studies MA student, explored the use of satire by the New Left and the U.S. counterculture for social and political critique in 1960s.

P.J. Gorre, Philosophy PhD candidate and Coordinator of Academic Affairs at NSSR, shared advice from his mother amid difficult times.

Kalpa Rajapaksha, an Economics PhD student, presented photographs from “beyond the horizons of capital in New York City.”

Making a Magazine

But as Brockbreder tells Research Matters, an idea is far from enough to make a magazine materialize from scratch. The original team of five editors found funding for Revival through NSSR’s MA Project Grant, which provides support for initiatives launched by MA students that focus on learning, research, and community-building. 

“From the very beginning, we all agreed that we wanted to produce a physical rather digital product that we could ‘hold in our hands and pass around’. From getting submissions for essays and artwork, to editing and finally printing and binding, everything in setting up Revival, in fact, has been refreshingly physical,” Brockbreder says. They printed and bound the magazine by hand at Parsons Making Center, with a digital copy created as an archive. 

Isobel Chiang, a Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student and Revival’s art director, has worked as a publishing fellow with the New Republic and as an assistant at both the Parsons School of Design and at a New York City design firm. She points to the Parson’s Graphic Design Lab and its technician, Joe Hirsch, as major resources for producing the physical magazine. She included her notes on design and layout in the arts section of Revival:

“Our goal when typesetting and laying out Revival was not to make a magazine that succumbs to stale associations of leftism (the color red, images of people protesting, stars, etc.),” she writes. “Our goal, instead, was to somehow carry over the spirit of the left into a print product.” The magazine uses only three colors on uncoated paper.

Publication design is an essential part of the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism (CPCJ) curriculum. All CPCJ MA students take Design and the Future of Publishing, a hands-on studio course investigating typography, book and pamphlet design, digital printing, content on the web, and ideation. They also examine contemporary issues that cross design and publishing through readings and analysis of contemporary books, magazines, and periodicals across both printed and digital platforms. Every spring, Parsons School of Design undergraduates join CPCJ students in multidisciplinary teams that work to create conceptual publishing projects — a truly New School-only experience.

Looking Left of The New School

Buoyed by student response and a second MA Project Grant, Revival’s editors are working on its second issue, “For our second issue, we now want to shift the focus from the global to the local to focus on the movements and debates organized by New School students and workers,” Brockbreder says. 

Submissions for the second issue should touch broadly on the relationship between leftist ideas and ‘liberal institutions,’ such as The New School, timely in the year of its centennial. Some topics suggested in the call for submissions include how the New School’s health insurance policy is affecting students, the meaning and symbolism of sanctuary schools, and labor organizing on campus and at other academic institutions. 

As the first issue told us, “We want to continue thinking beyond academia; coming from within but looking beyond. This is an attempt at reviving that tradition.”


If you would like to write for Revival, please email revivalmag@newschool.edu with a brief pitch of your idea; the essay does not have to be written at this point in time. If you have a complete essay, please submit that as an attachment with a brief summary of the essay in the body of your email. The submission deadline is December 15, 2019.

Psychology Flexes on the Dance Floor

Last fall, Ragnhild (Ragz) Bruland received $10,000 at the AC3 Festival and Conference for Flex, a youth dance mentorship program she co-founded five years ago. The award — a major nod of approval at one of the hip-hop community’s biggest events — has given a major boost to Ragz, a Cognitive, Social, and Developmental Psychology PhD student at The New School for Social Research, as well as to the Flex teachers and students she works with.

As the New School News wrote in 2018:

The FLEX program employs renowned dancers from the local community to work with students on choreographing dance routines; stimulating students’ creativity while also helping them to develop their self-esteem, cooperation, and communication. Currently there are two modules of the program, “FlexIN” which works with students on-site in secure detention centers, and “FlexOUT” which provides free workshops for students in community centers in New York City.

The teacher-student relationship is absolutely crucial to the program. “One of the aims of this program is to introduce these kids to a community of dance where they can learn and practice a constructive artistic outlet,” writes Ragz. “Mentorship, one of the key components in Flex, provides youth with a touchstone of safely to rely on — developmental research shows that having one or more caring adults in a young person’s life increases the likelihood that they will flourish, and become productive adults themselves.”

The Flex program isn’t just grounded in psychology research; it’s also contributing to the field. Ragz has worked closely with advisor Howard Steele, Professor of Psychology, to develop an experimental framework to evaluate the program.

“The overarching inquiry of this research is to discover if there are aspects of Flex that may make it more beneficial than traditional mentorship alone,” she writes. Three groups are part of Ragz’s research: those who participate in the full Flex dancing and mentorship program; those who only receive mentorship; and those who do not participate in the program. Everyone involved in the study completes short questionnaires designed to assess social emotional functioning as well as resilience. In addition, all participants as well as Flex teachers join in semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions. 

Research is ongoing, and involves several graduate students from NSSR as well as the Schools for Public Engagement. However, several Flex participants can already attest to how the program has changed lives. Sticks Harvey, a 29-year-old Flex teacher, got involved five years ago, right as Ragz was getting the program off the ground. “I liked Ragz’s vision and what she understood Flex to be,” he says. “This is an approach for youth to channel their anger and do something different. Instead of being violent, you could dance it off.” 

Credit: @Anwander

He signed up to demonstrate the dance at a youth detention center but stuck around to teach. A highlight for him was working with youth to put a program together for a family visitation day. “When they perform and got praise, that was new for them,” says Harvey. “Even if they say they’re not dancers, it gives them a chance to try. And there’s no pressure. Not everyone gets it right away.” 

He’s not the only one whose life has been changed. “Flex gave me a new path careerwise,” Harvey says. “My mind reshaped when I met these teens. I try to be a more positive leader for them.”

Marie Borden is a mostly self-taught dancer who began studying Flex about eight years ago and recently joined the Flex program as a teacher. “Flexing is a form of freedom, a form of creativity,” the 28-year-old says. Working with Ragz as well as with elementary and middle school-age youth, she has seen firsthand how dancing can help students express themselves and handle anger and pain. “They don’t know how to release their emotions, and I help them with that. When kids come to me with problems, I tell them, ‘Don’t think about what to do, just dance!’ And they feel a lot better.”

When Harvey and Borden talk about their experiences Flexing, they are careful to cite their many teachers and recognize their place in the growing Flex legacy. Now, they’ve become those teachers for another generation of youth. “What was passed down to me continues to be passed down,” says Harvey, commenting on both the dancing as well as the culture that surrounds it.

Flex is fundraising to expand the program and support the research project. Come see Flex teachers and students celebrate the program’s fifth anniversary with FLEX HYPE, performed live on Friday, September 27, 7 PM at The New School, and on Saturday, September 28, 7 PM at BRIC. 

Lucas Perelló, Politics PhD Candidate, Wins Fulbright to Honduras

Free elections contested by parties are central to our conventional notions of democracy. But on what basis does a voter relate to their party: ideology, favors, personal interests, something else? And once party systems are established, how do they evolve? For New School for Social Research Politics PhD candidate Lucas Perelló, these questions provide the framework for his dissertation. And starting in September, he’ll be investigating them as a Fulbright Scholar in a country going through a nearly unprecedented political shift: Honduras.

Born in the U.S. and raised in Chile, Perelló studied politics broadly before focusing on comparative politics, especially in Latin America. After completing an MA in Chile, Perelló completed an MA in Applied Quantitative Research at New York University. But as he approached a career as a political scientist, he felt something was lacking. Looking to expand his conceptual formation, Perelló moved a few blocks north to NSSR.

“The New School overlapped with one of my other interests, which was to expand my methodological knowledge qualitatively. I was drawn to the emphasis given to aspects of development to solve conceptualizing things differently, giving you a different theoretical lenses to study particular political phenomenon.”

Political Party Shift

Immersing himself in empirical case studies and theory, Perelló began to formulate a research plan that married these elements tightly while renewing his passion for comparative approaches. “I study how political parties, and how is it and why is it that party systems change…and how it is that political parties engage with voters,” Perelló says. In this case, ‘political party systems’ refers to how elections are set up, whether voters choose between two parties or multiple parties. The question of party linkages looks at how parties get votes.

“This is a continuous debate within political science and comparative politics, but originally people thought political parties would appeal to voters on either on a programmatic basis, or a clientelist basis, or a charismatic one.” In other words, people vote for a party based on either an ideological agreement, a quid-pro-quo arrangement whereby a vote can be redeemed for favors, or force or personal magnetism of a candidate alone.

Of course, one party can have multiple sorts of such ‘linkages’ with voters, varying according to target demographic, general level of development, or ideology, and changing over time. With this interest party linkages and their evolution, Perelló was drawn to a comparatively understudied region, Central America, specifically Honduras. “Honduras actually presents very interesting insights into the entire discussion of party system change, and the types of party linkages that exist within society,” Perelló says.

Case Study: Honduras

Like many Latin American countries, Honduras transitioned from military dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s. For several decades after — even through a coup in 2009 — the country featured a two-party system that operated on a decisively clientelist model. But in the 2013 elections, a fundamental shift occurred: the two-party system gave way to a multi-party one, including an upstart Anti-Corruption Party led by a popular sportscaster.

“What is interesting about this change is that not only did the party system change quite abruptly, but the types of linkages that the political parties are adopting also shifted suddenly,” Perelló explains. Whereas clientelism and corruption were once the norm, programmatic appeals on the basis of ideology are gaining ground, especially among wealthier constituencies.  

There are several reasons that clientelism can lose its power. Appeals based on loyalty-for-favors become weaker as countries become wealthier. Additionally, clientelism can disenfranchise large parts of a population. “There’s many levels associated with this, but at least in the Honduran context these are very exclusive networks,” says Perelló. “For example, you can have a low-income household that is very dependent on some specific policies. The benefits that you might receive from these policies that are actually aimed at reducing poverty are contingent upon who you vote for. And [the government can] keep the electorate poor because they’re dependent on them if they want to stay in power. It’s been so entrenched that the way that it also molds how individual voters, how citizens actually see democracy.”

Because this shift from clientelism to programmatic appeals in developing countries is so unusual, Honduras is a fascinating case study against which to test existing theories of party systems and linkages. Perelló has visited Honduras several times, but found that pervasive clientelism made it nearly impossible to access the people and spaces relevant to his research. It also made for an interesting situation of mistaken identity. Once, while dressed up for a visit to the National Congress, dozens of older women surrounded him. “They approached me with receipts, with CDs, pictures of their kids, asking me if I could get their sons or their daughters who just graduated a job, if I could help them pay for receipt of electricity,” he says. Only when he opened his mouth to speak — in Chilean Spanish — did the crowd realize he was not a government official and could not help them. Local politicians were similarly reluctant to let Perelló in, stonewalling him or only disclosing details of the opposition’s approach.

Opening New Doors

Returning for 10 months with the prestigious Fulbright scholarship and an office and teaching position at Central American Technological University (UNITEC), Perelló is hopeful that more doors will open to him, especially among the political elite. “I really need to spend more time there — more time to conduct interviews, more archival research,” he says. He applied to several different grants and credits his Fulbright success to the wisdom and guidance of David Plotke, Professor of Politics and his dissertation advisor, as well as Tsuya Yee, Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs. But he’s cautious: “A Fulbright can work in favor or against you in the sense that, perhaps you’re seen as a representative of the U.S. government who’s meddling around internal politics of a country that has been historically intervened by the U.S. But at least to get my foot in the academic world, Fulbright has so far worked in my favor!”

Despite his focus on Honduras, Perelló believes his project can help scholars and the public understand how political systems can move away from clientelism, and how two-party systems can become more open and contested. “My overall objective in understanding these changes is to understand how can you strengthen democracy in countries that have such a strong authoritarian past.”