(still re-capping) Research in Argentina cont. – surveys and challenges

The main difficulty I had with the Argentine side of my research was with the surveys. The university I was involved with in Argentina was the National University of La Plata (UNLP is the acronym in Spanish), which is one of the most respected universities in Argentina and serves 90,000+ students in 17 different Faculties (like schools, ie there is a Faculty of Fine Arts, one of Economic Sciences, Programming, Social Work etc). The initial goal was to sample two or three of the Faculties, specifically one that was more conservative (like Law or Economic Sciences), one that was more liberal (like Social Work or Journalism) and one that was in between. But as previously mentioned, it would turn out that neither the university administration nor the Faculty administrations have any kind of list of the emails of their students.

I spoke to a sociology professor about my project. He was helpful and sent me a link to a recent publication of their sociology department, mentioned in the previous post. I looked over these articles and some other related ones, and added or modified a few of my survey questions so that I could compare my results to those of other studies done at the UNLP. He then referred me to another sociology professor he knew who had done empirical work of this sort. I described my project again and she told me that because I only had about a month and a half (I left Argentina on the 17th of July) I would likely have great difficulty obtaining a good sample of UNLP, or even of several Faculties. So she suggested I select several majors and focus in on those. She specifically recommended sociology because she thought they would be most likely to participate and are generally to the left, and Modern Languages because most of them study English, and those who study English are generally more conservative. This way I would at least have an approximated left-right split. She told me I had set too high a bar because no one anywhere in the university had master lists of students’ emails. (I suppose it is less important when the university is non-residential and tuition-free, but this still came as a surprise).

This threw a large wrench into my plan, because I had designed a web survey of 38 questions about politics, attitudes related to politics, and political participation that, when printed out, was 5 double-sided pages. I have done exit polls for a class project in the past, and it was pretty hard to convince people to take a 1-page (front-and-back) survey in my native language, so I knew that I would not have much success soliciting them by hand. Adding to the complication was the fact that the different Faculties are distributed throughout the city of La Plata.

Per her recommendation, I began by talking to the Office of International Students in the Faculty of Humanities, which includes Sociology, History, Modern Languages, English (they call it “Letters”) majors, etc. Since W&M is a liberal arts university I decided that this was also the closest match in general terms. Many of the other faculties are more technical or pre-professional and therefore not like any of W&M’s offerings – for example the UNLP has Faculties of Agronomy, Social Work, Law, Medicine, Dentistry, Engineering, Astronomy. I also needed to get my survey reviewed to see if it made sense in Spanish – this was time consuming as there were a lot of small changes that needed to be made. Between that process, many delays in being able to meet with people (this tends to happen in Argentina) and a strike or two, it ended up that although the Office of International Students was willing to contact departments on my behalf, out of 5 departments only Modern Languages actually passed the survey on to their students despite follow-ups. I then scrambled, and was able to reach sociology students via a large student-run Facebook group that the sociology students have to talk about textbooks and assignments and other things relating to their major. All in all, I collected 140 survey responses (although some are incomplete, presumably because it was a long survey), which is less than I had hoped but still pretty many given the many challenges. It is could not be a representative sample of anything other than those two majors, but it can still serve as a rough basis for comparison with W&M students, especially if there are questions or themes where both the more “liberal” and the more “conservative” Argentine students differ significantly from their TWAMP counterparts. And it is still a learning experience for me, both in terms of the field work and the statistical analysis of survey results.