Argentine and U.S. interviews – interesting discussions with student political leaders

Besides surveys, the other primary component of my Monroe project is interviews with students who lead or have led (if the new leaders have not yet assumed their responsibilities) student political groups. I conducted in-person interviews at the National University of La Plata during June and have been conducting interviews at William & Mary (mostly via phone or Skype since most students are not currently on campus) since the third week of July.

First off, I would say that the interview is a very interesting medium. I have conducted some interviews for sociology projects in the past so I had a little training with that, but they can still vary a lot. It is important to ask all the questions you want answered, because you cannot go back and get that information later, but for an informal interview (an interview that is not strictly standardized, instead more conversational and natural in nature) it is also important to notice if your interviewee has already answered a question or if they do not want to talk about something – you want your interviewee as casual as possible, and you want them to know you are really hearing them. They are also often hard to arrange. I also used the interviews to get references for who else to talk to by asking the interviewees for suggestions of other groups or students.

I found the Argentine interviews much harder because I was not able to write down what the Argentine students told me as quickly, and I had a little more trouble clarifying questions or responding naturally to do follow-up questions. I did take notes in Spanish because translating in my head would have taken longer, but I felt in general that Argentines supplied me with less information because they knew it was challenging for me, and because it felt less like an organic conversation. Mostly, I listened. Since a perfect comparison would not be possible anyway given language issues, I have tried to sharpen my questions a little for the W&M interviews (or at least my analysis of the responses, I really have not changed questions much) so that they addressed topics that tended to come up naturally in the UNLP interviews, such as protest tactics or the meaning of social justice or whether they subscribe to a larger student movement, that might not have come up organically in the W&M interviews.

While I am still doing some interviewing at W&M, I have coded the UNLP interviews to look for evidence of different authors’ arguments about political engagement. Here are some interesting observations so far, in terms of differences between the W&M and UNLP students’ groups. (Translations, mine). These are not all related directly to the theory I will look to apply but they are nonetheless real distinctions.

  1. View of protest – the UNLP students were more pro-protest. Some UNLP students on protest:
  • “occupying public space, making noise in the street, people see that”
  • “we have to mobilize against every bad measure that’s taken…[it’s] the only way to be able to show our disagreement and try to effect change”
  • “what’s important is to demonstrate disagreement, no matter who’s in charge”

And some W&M students:

  • “as a club that’s not how we want to engage…we’re not the angry passionate type” [concerned it would turn people off]
  • “no, we don’t protest with signs and yelling, but we also haven’t had a real crisis” [such as big tuition hikes]
  • “if we can have people for an hour, we’d rather knock doors for an hour”
  1. View of politics
  • “it’s falling in love, we have to show the love and multiply it so that we can transform things” – a UNLP student

** I really have no equivalent because no one from W&M said anything remotely comparable to this, make your own conclusions lol

  1. Student movement/causes they have taken up?
  • I believe every UNLP student I spoke with specifically referenced either the “student movement” or named several national causes they are currently campaigning for, which cumulatively included: a campaign to end femicide, a campaign to get the government to cover students’ commutes to the university, campaigns against police brutality, affirmation of human rights in general (this has a more historical context), and even the freeing from prison of an indigenous rights activist and a woman who was put in jail for having an abortion. So far I do not think a W&M student has mentioned the “student movement” or referenced any sort of national campaign. If I get to talking to more single-issue groups, I think I will hear about some… but none of the UNLP groups I spoke with were single-issue groups – in fact I was told they don’t really exist at UNLP. (It is worth noting that La Plata is the 4th largest city in Argentina and close to Buenos Aires, the capital, and that that could have something to do with this preponderance of ties to more national campaigns and causes.)
  1. Cooperation between student political groups
  • While the W&M students I spoke with generally expressed a desire to develop stronger ties between their groups and other groups, they also mentioned activities or events held with other groups. No Argentine student I spoke with mentioned cooperating on a specific event, although many of the groups have probably been out in the street advocating for shared causes or attended the same march in their different groups.
  1. Social justice
  • Everyone was asked what social justice meant to them – UNLP students had uniformly positive definitions of the term, talking about providing all people with the same possibility or shrinking the gap between the rich and the poor, while many of the W&M students spoke predominantly of “social justice warriors” and the idea that sometimes, people go too far in trying to right wrongs and fix historical inequalities. The same attitude certainly exists in Argentina, but I think that in contemporary Argentine politics, the term “human rights” and/or human rights organizations might be the equivalent in terms of something that people may tend to see as well-intentioned but that they also question. The term “social justice” was popularized in Argentina in the years of Peronism, which began in the 40s, and seems to continue being more positive. I will also say that I was unable to find a student group that represented the “far right” in Argentina, even asking many students.
  1. Is politics pervasive?

A UNLP student told me that, “politics and ideology intersect every space” (and I feel that this is a typical view of politics among the politically active UNLP students), while the W&M students I spoke with told me that Student Assembly seems “apolitical” or that it would be “inappropriate” to try to get involved in SA as a student political group, as it might “divide the campus or sway the way students look at student government”.

(To be clear, I do not meant to suggest all Argentines feel like this^, or all Argentine students or all UNLP students, but what I want to show is that there are at least views present in UNLP student politics that I think are not very present in W&M student politics).

Comments

  1. Hi! I think this research is so so cool- I studied abroad in Chile last semester and also observed/experienced how different student life is there compared to at W&M (our school was even shut down the last couple of weeks because of the student movement strike). I think interviews are a great way of getting different perspectives and gauging the political culture on campuses, and I can completely relate to trying to conduct interviews in Spanish, it’s super difficult. Knowing what the movements were like in Chile, and what you’ve said about Argentina, I wonder if you’ve come across any broader literature about Latin American student movements in general? I don’t know if your research focused on this, but it would be interesting to see if there are some reasons that Latin/South American countries are more likely to have student movements (and more political involvement in general). I know in Chile that protests and strikes among the general population are also far more common than they are in the states, do you have any thoughts on the reasons for some of these opinions and comments from Argentine students? Great research- I’m excited to see your conclusions!

  2. Very cool research idea! I agree that interviews can be an interesting and fluid medium to gather information, and when conducting them in a language other than your native one it can be tough to make conversation flow organically.

    The divergence in beliefs between UNLP and W&M students is very interesting. I find the statement “we also haven’t had a real crisis” to be especially interesting. My freshman year on campus there were several suicides, including one during orientation, and that same year funding for mental health on campus fell. I also personally know and know of at least half a dozen students who had to take a semester or more off due to burnout. Whether that constitutes a ‘crisis’ I’m not sure, but it is a grave issue for sure.

    Personally, I wonder if there is an element of socialization at play rather than just a lack of issues at W&M worth protesting over. If students arrive at UNLP and are socialized by their peers and upperclassmen to believe public protest is the right way to draw attention to causes and force change, while students arriving at W&M are socialized to believe protest just makes the protestors seem angry and turn others off, then that could be a contributor.

    Additionally, institutions may play a role. Here in the US (including W&M), student government is affiliated with the university, whereas in other countries students organize into unions independent of the university administration (I am unsure if this is true at UNLP or Argentina in general). But this could mean institutionally, W&M students are incentivized to address issues by working through the system while UNLP students turn to protest and demonstration.

    These are both just conjectures and I’m not sure how well they fit with the data you’ve gathered from your interviews, but it may be worthwhile to take a look and see if either of these pop up as themes in the interviews you conducted.