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Princeton Weekly Bulletin   June 18, 2007, Vol. 96, No. 29   prev   next   current

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  • Editor: Ruth Stevens

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Yashar analyzes complex issues of citizenship in Latin America

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ — As a young girl, Deborah Yashar was fascinated by the politics, languages and literatures of other places. Her mother’s parents had come to the United States in the 1900s to escape the pogroms in the Ukraine, and her father had left Iran in the 1950s to pursue a better life for himself in this country.

“I was always curious about my parents and grandparents, about why they came here,” said Yashar, who recently was promoted to a professor of politics and international affairs. “I was struck by their need to leave where they had been because they couldn’t be full citizens. I wanted to explore why some people are accepted as members and equals, and some are not.”


Deborah Yashar, recently promoted to a professor of politics and international affairs, specializes in the intersection of democracy and citizenship. She conducts research in Latin America and also directs Princeton’s Program in Latin American Studies. (photo: Denise Applewhite)

As a faculty member, Yashar has channeled that early interest in immigration and displacement into a specialization in the intersection of democracy and citizenship. In her scholarship and in the classroom, Yashar has probed the delicate relationship among citizenship, regimes and ethnic politics in Latin America, a region where these issues come to the fore in complex ways.

Her current research has led her to analyze El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Brazil to try to understand why there has been a recent rise in violent crimes despite the fact that political violence appears to have declined in the same years. She also has traveled to Nicaragua and Chile to try to probe why violent crimes are relatively low in these two countries, in seeming contrast to regional homicide trends, high levels of inequality and histories of political violence. Yashar has interviewed members of the police and the military, activists, scholars who study gangs and people who work for nongovernmental organizations, speaking with some of these subjects several times during the last 10 years. Her research will be compiled in her next book, “Violence, Citizenship and Public Security in Post-Authoritarian Latin America.”

In conversations with citizens of those countries, Yashar was struck by the way the rise in violent crime, especially homicides, had affected the geography of urban life in many Latin American cities — significantly raising concerns about walking at night, driving down certain streets, taking certain buses and visiting certain neighborhoods. Victimization surveys have highlighted rising insecurity throughout the region; trust in the police is correspondingly low; and private security firms have grown in turn. Feeling secure is a gateway to democracy, she explained.

“If you don’t have security, you can’t exercise your rights as a citizen,” she said. Yet in Latin America, Yashar pointed out, one must be judicious when using the word “security” because it evokes memories of authoritarian leaders who employed the term to couch their repressive regimes. In the long term, she is interested in the comparative dimensions of such issues and hopes to look at similar situations in South Africa and Russia.

In 2005 Yashar wrote “Contesting Citizenship in Latin America: The Rise of Indigenous Movements and the Postliberal Challenge,” published by Cambridge University Press. The book, which examined the politicization of ethnic cleavages and why indigenous people have successfully mobilized social movements in some parts of Latin America and not others, received the 2006 Best Book Prize from the New England Council on Latin American Studies.

“Ethnic politics is a very understudied subject,” said Helen Milner, chair of the politics department. “‘Contesting Citizenship in Latin America’ is seen as one of the most important books on a topic of rising interest in Latin America. And Deborah is regarded as one of the most important scholars on the politics of Latin America in the country.”

In the classroom, Yashar makes the complex histories and roots of conflicts in Latin American countries understandable and illuminates the roles of revolution, military rule and constitutional democracy in the region’s political development.

“Being Latin American myself, I felt that Professor Yashar did a great job in drawing similarities and general trends in the Latin American region, while at the same time talking to us about the particularities of each country,” said Antonio Lacayo, a member of the class of 2007, who took her “Latin American Politics” course, an introduction to the region. “She has challenged me to think outside the box.”

Alisha Holland, a member of the class of 2007 and a winner of this year’s Pyne Prize, asked Yashar to serve as her adviser for her thesis on rampant gang-related violence in Central America. “Professor Yashar encouraged me to chart my own path and pursue my research interests,” said Holland, “while also pushing me to think more rigorously and deeply about the questions I explored.”

Yashar, who earned her bachelor’s degree from Brown University and her Ph.D. from the University of California-Berkeley, teaches courses on ethnic politics and citizenship, on democracy and authoritarianism, and on ethnicity and race in Latin America. Before arriving at Princeton in 1998, she taught government and social studies at Harvard University for six years.

Yashar recently launched the Project on Democracy and Development with Atul Kohli, the David Bruce Professor of International Affairs.

“We wanted to create a forum for people to get together on a sustained basis to increase our exposure to and engagement with people working on democracy and development,” Yashar said. The goal of the project, funded by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, is to promote interdisciplinary debate and scholarship by hosting visiting fellows, holding lectures and organizing thematic workshops on a variety of topics in the field.

Yashar also directs the Program in Latin American Studies, which recently increased the number of fellows it brings from Latin America to campus each year.

“I think it’s important that our students interact with scholars from Latin America while they’re at Princeton,” Yashar said.

Next year five fellows — from Brazil, El Salvador, Mexico and Uruguay — will come to Princeton for one or two semesters to teach, present their work in seminars and advise students on research projects.

Yashar also encourages students to take advantage of the many opportunities the Program in Latin American Studies and the University provide to spend time in Latin America. In the last seven years, 87 undergraduates and 97 graduate students have done research and independent projects in the region through the Latin American studies program, supported by the Paul Sigmund Scholars program, the William Ebenstein Student Research Fund and the Kingston Family Fund for Chilean Research. About 10 students each year have summer internships in the region, and another 10 alumni have the chance to work there for a year through Princeton in Latin America, an independent nonprofit organization supported at its inception by the Program in Latin American Studies.

“There’s nothing like actually being there,” said Yashar, who has traveled to the region countless times in the last 15 years. “Visiting the region opens up and animates your thinking in a way that nothing else can.”


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