La Profesora Abstraída

Weblog of Michelle Dion, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, at McMaster University. My blog has moved to Visit my other website.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Mexican field work

No, I don't mean work in the real fields. I mean doing research on the ground in Mexico. Since I'm at the end of my Fulbright time, I thought I would post some advice regarding doing research, mainly elite interviews, in Mexico. Most would probably apply to research in other Latin American countries.

In no particular order:

1. Plan on everything taking twice as long as it would in the U.S., and then add another 20% for good measure. Seriously.

2. Bring lots of business cards, preferably with your Mexican cell phone number. You will be giving them away to anyone who will take one.

3. Buy a cell phone, so potential interviewees can cancel at the last minute and you don't find yourself in the middle of Tlalpan at 9 a.m. on a Monday morning with nothing to do.

4. Use your title, even if it's only Licenciada/o or Maestra/o because if you don't, the Mexicans will assume you don't have a title. And therefore, you are not important. Put your title on your business cards.

5. Hire a (Mexican) research assistant to make all your appointments, even if it's just your roommate. All important people have assistants, and if you have to make your own phone calls, you are obviously not important and not worth granting an interview.

6. Always have your assistant confirm your interview the day before. Have your assistant give them your cell phone number for any cancellations.

7. Arrive early for interviews, and plan to wait. Bring your pocketPC with downloaded news or newspaper to read while you wait. Legislators and bureaucrats tend to be on time; labor leaders are notoriously late and poorly organized.

8. Be nice (but formal) to the secretaries; they are important gate-keepers.

9. Understand that hierarchy matters in Mexico. A contact will suggest you interview subordinates or equals, but will rarely suggest you interview their boss. It is best to try for interviews as high as possible in the hierarchy you are trying to penetrate. If they reject you at the very top, give them a convenient out by offering to meet with one of their subordinates.

10. Despite #9, it is often a waste of time to interview the very highest person in an organization. They will rarely tell you the truth. Instead, try for the group of leaders just below the top person, e.g., the CEN of a political party or union or subdirectors in a bureaucracy.

11. In addition to #s 9 and 10, try to interview retired politicians, bureaucrats, etc. They have little to lose if they are really retired, and more time to tell you the real dirt. Besides, it's nice to hear about old times and you get to see their fancy houses and cool art collections.

12. Read the newspaper everyday, especially if you are interested in current events in addition to things that happened 5-60 years ago. This will enable you to politely correct people when they try to lie to you by saying you read a different version in the paper. If you're interviewing the left or union leaders, refer to La Jornada. If you're interviewing the right or business leaders, refer to what you read in Reforma.

13. Smile. A lot. Be nice and friendly. If you are a man, shave. If you are a woman, wear lipstick. Practice your handshake. (Feminists need not be offended....if you are trying to work in a macho society, you have to play along.) I have had several interviews that began by the person telling me that had another commitment and could only spare 15 minutes and that ended over an hour or two later. If interviewees like you, they will be more likely to talk to you longer. (I think being short and non-threatening may help in this one instance, too.)

14. Be prepared to chat about Mexican politics in general, how you like Mexico ("It's great" "The people are wonderful"), and U.S. politics. In my case, since I study social security, many Mexicans wanted to know whether I thought Bush would be able to privatize pensions in the U.S. Most of my interviews ended with cocktail party chatter.

15. Realize that your interviewees may talk to each other about you, even if you think that they are too important to care or bother. You must always may a good impression and seem well-informed, discreet, and prepared.

16. Don't believe everything they tell you in interviews. Remember, these are political people who will always have their own agenda. Have a healthy dose of skepticism. It helps if you know enough about who you are interviewing (and their political connections) to be able to know where their allegiances lie.

That's all I can think of for now.

posted by Michelle @ 1:08 PM,


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