Wayne State University

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Fulbright gives political scientist key advantages in study of Mexican civil society

December 24, 2013

When Sharon Lean (left, with husband and Law Professor Gregory Fox and their family),  associate professor of political science, decided to undertake a major study of national accountability institutions in Mexico, she knew she needed two things: time and location. A Fulbright research award gave her both, embedding her at Mexico City’s El Colegio de México where she could conduct critical qualitative research for six months.

Lean, who specializes in comparative democratization in Latin American politics, conducted research from January to June of 2013 on the Human Rights Commission, the Federal Elections Institute, and the Federal Institute for Access to Information – all autonomous public regulatory agencies that ensure political accountability from the state. The research is important, says Lean, because it attempts to explain an apparent paradox: state-created agencies that hold the state accountable.

“These agencies are the guarantors of political, human and information rights in Mexico, and represent an effort by the government to deepen democracy,” Lean explained. “This research looks at how they work and how they interact with organizational actors in civil society.”

Once in Mexico City, where she had lived for four years and earned a master’s in social sciences at the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, Lean headed to the stacks at El Colegio de México.

“The first thing I did was spend a lot of time reading the Mexican literature about these institutions,” Lean explained. “In a globalized world, it’s not hard to get particular books or articles from other countries and in other languages, but it is hard to know which ones are the most important unless you’re in the library up to your knees in the local literature.”

Next, Lean accessed the archives of the three accountability institutions, studying working papers and reports that provided a rich layer of information beyond the original statutes. Finally, she talked with current and past institution officials and representatives of civic associations working on election, information and human rights.

“My Fulbright gave me the opportunity to do extended field and archival research and conduct interviews, which is not something I could have done during a one-week trip to Mexico,” Lean said. “This was an initial period to refine my research questions and do a round of data gathering. It was invaluable to get the project up and running.”

Lean, who is working her findings into articles and hopes ultimately to publish a book, said the experience also afforded her opportunities to present her research and “to be part of the rich university and academic life in Mexico City on a day-to-day basis.”

“Here at Wayne, I’m the only one who does what I do,” Lean said. “But there, I had lots of chances to be with many people who have similar interests or even a stake in the project I’m working on. I could interact with them every day and get very useful feedback and new ideas.”

Meanwhile, Lean’s students here will benefit indirectly from her time abroad. One of the classes Lean teaches is a qualitative field research methods course that culminates in a study abroad experience in Mexico.

“The opportunity to be there for an extended period of time strengthened my contacts within the university, civil society and government groups, which presents my students with a much broader base of people to interview when they conduct their field research,” Lean said.