Heidelberg Center for Ibero-American StudiesLatin America from an Interdisciplinary Perspective

25 February 2022

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 Prof. Dr 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 funded by the German Research Foundation, 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.

Junior Professor Dr. Alejandro Ecker

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.

Junior Professor Dr. Rosa Lehmann

Digital information societies in Ibero-America

“Since I have been involved in research, the question of how digital media content affects people has been my main incentive,” says Junior Professor Dr Pablo Porten-Cheé. As a communication scientist, he is researching how people absorb news content in the digital media world and what effect they achieve. Amongst other things, he works on how certain narratives in political messages can spark the motivation to participate politically. In a current cooperation project involving the Latin American community in the United States, Prof. Porten-Cheé is, for example, relating media use to notions of democratic norms. In addition, he is concerned with issues around opinion formation on the internet, and also with the impacts of hate speech or fake news and the differing forms of intervention – such as flagging or “counterspeech” – with which users react to them.

As HCIAS Junior Professor for “Communication Studies and Information Society in Ibero-America”, Pablo Porten-Cheé applies these questions to the cultural contexts and, in some cases, fragile information societies of Latin America. Here he is building, inter alia, on previous work around the concept of digital citizenship and new citizenship norms – expectations of the good citizen and how they are to behave in a digital world. In this context, the researcher is interested in how the concept of citizenship norms is changing under digital conditions and what aspects play a role in forming new civic ideas about digital interactions, such as taking care of the discourse.

In addition, Prof. Porten-Cheé is working on various aspects of media use and opinion formation on the internet. “A quite measurable effect of societal fragmentation can be traced back to social media use: people seek out their information niches on social media and mainly operate within their boundaries.” According to the scientist, this is rather not the case when they consume mass media, which better convey different topics and standpoints. This also impacts on the individual perception of public opinion. “Many people are not concerned with surveys or current data from polls. They go online to get a picture of what others think based on user comments.” User comments consequently influence what is perceived as public opinion – and can also influence how individuals position themselves in society. “In the worst case it can lead to developing a completely wrong impression of where someone stands with their opinion,” says Prof. Porten-Cheé, “and that can have serious societal consequences, including, for instance, certain opinions being voiced in public less often because they are believed to be fringe opinions.”

Pablo Porten-Cheé studied business management and media and communication research in Pforzheim and Ilmenau (Germany) and obtained his doctorate in 2015 at the University of Düsseldorf. Before he was offered the HCIAS Junior Professorship of “Communication Studies and Information Society in Ibero-America”, the communication scientist worked as a researcher at the University of Düsseldorf and as a post-doc at the University of Zürich (Switzerland) and the Freie Universität (FU) Berlin. In addition, he headed the research group on digital citizenship at the BMBF-funded Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society, also known as the German Internet Institute, of which he is an associated researcher.

Junior Professor Dr. Pablo Porten-Cheé

Migration, control and spatial transformations in the Americas

Junior Professor Dr Soledad Álvarez Velasco explores the phenomenon of irregularised transit migration in and between the two Americas. “Some states in South America have developed into a catchment area for migrants from all over the world in the last few years and decades,” explains the trained social anthropologist and human geographer. “You meet people there from Syria, Iraq, Niger, Sudan or Zimbabwe and also from the Caribbean, or people who have been deported from the United States and set out again on the route. In addition, there are millions of internally displaced people. All these people are in transit – northwards to the United States or southwards to the southern countries of South America.” Prof. Álvarez Velasco is exploring the connections existing between these migration movements, state control policy and the emergence of transit migration corridors – and looking to see what spatial transformations they produce. For this she takes a historically comparative perspective, combining approaches from anthropology, multi-sited ethnography and digital ethnography with those from critical and feminist political geography, as well as from critical migration and border studies.

“My motivation comes from the people, the migrants who are struggling for their lives at the local level, and sometimes for their bare survival. I want to give these people a voice,” says Soledad Álvarez Velasco. For her current book project, she is working on the phenomenon of transit migration in her country of Ecuador, which − owing to its progressive constitution – is a supposedly attractive destination for migrants from all over the world. Ecuador, according to one conclusion of her studies so far, is part of a global dynamic made up of violence, displacement and migration, a global transit space in which irregular migrants have to assert themselves in the tension between mobility and control. “You can’t understand migration if you don’t engage with the economic issues or the worldwide consequences of climate change, with the legacy of colonialism, with racism or the restrictive border-control regimes with which the United States is trying to control, and criminalise, migrant flows in the whole of Latin America,” the researcher says. She is examining the interplay of these factors on the basis of conversations with migrants on the ground, but also with actors involved in their transnational wanderings – border officers, human smugglers, guerillas, paramilitary groupings, gang members and the inhabitants of border towns.

In her research at the HCIAS, Soledad Álvarez Velasco is also working on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here she is concentrating on two major migratory corridors that connect the Andes region with Central America, Mexico and the United States, on the one hand, and with the countries of the Southern Cone, on the other. “States like Chile, Ecuador and Peru with a supposedly liberal immigration policy have made the pandemic a reason to close and militarise their borders, and create a new legal framework to prevent migrants from transiting through,” she reports. The consequence has been that irregularised migration movements have intensified. According to Prof. Álvarez Velasco, since the start of the pandemic eight major caravans of migrants have proceeded through the northern corridor alone towards the United States. Closed borders force them to deviate onto particularly perilous routes – the Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama, the Atacama Desert between Peru and Chile or the primeval forest of the Amazon. Soledad Álvarez Velasco: “Taken together, many more people have disappeared or lost their lives than before the start of the pandemic.” In a research project on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on migration movements in the Americas she poses the question of the role of the state, which is supposed to stand up for the rights of these people and protect them.

Since September 2021, Soledad Álvarez Velasco has been HCIAS Junior Professor for “Migration and the Americas”. After studying sociology at the Universidad San Francisco in Quito (Ecuador) and social anthropology at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico, the native Ecuadorian obtained her doctorate in 2019 at King’s College London (UK) in human geography. Before being offered the appointment at Heidelberg University she worked from February 2020 to August 2021 as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies of the University of Houston (USA).

Junior Professor Dr. Soledad Álvarez Velasco

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