In the coastal town of Santa Marta, Colombia, one day a man is on the run.
He has just stolen a purse from a woman in broad daylight. Already, a throng of onlookers—normal civilians—is beginning to swell. Instead of waiting for help to arrive, they chase after the robber. They pursue him relentlessly through the streets and into alleyways, until they catch him.
Then something happens that surprises Vincent Mauro who is from Vancouver, British Columbia. He is staying in the town and has witnessed the scene unfold. He watches as the crowd takes justice into its own hands, surrounding the man, beating him. It is no longer the woman and her purse who need saving but the thief himself. When the police arrive on the scene, they must drag the man from the crowd to protect him from further injury.
“You see these things happen,” says Mauro who is a Cornell political science graduate student, “and at the time it doesn’t make sense. But you begin to wonder why they happen.”
A lot goes into answering why these things happen when Mauro returns to Cornell and has time to reflect on his experiences. “It’s very much a reiterative process. I have these experiences, and when I come back and read more about theories of politics and government, it helps to frame them.”
Into Their Own Hands—Informal Institutions
The citizens of Santa Marta who took the law into their own hands are an example of an informal institution. “If the government or other formal institution doesn’t function properly or isn’t stable, and there are high levels of inequality in the society, people will form their own solutions to deal with their problems," Mauro says.
Mauro became fascinated with the idea that people will form their own informal institutions to respond to consequences of inequalities. As a student of political science, he naturally began to consider how formal political institutions and society interact in relation to societal inequalities. He looks at how central political parties are often in this process.
“It’s very much a reiterative process. I have these experiences, and when I come back and read more about theories of politics and government, it helps to frame them.”
“The basic trend,” Mauro explains, “is that when you have strong, stable party systems, levels of inequality are lower than when you have party systems that are weak and unstable.” Mauro’s research explores this trend, examining the redistribution of income in a society. Institutionalized party systems, he hypothesizes, will redistribute income to a greater degree over time. That is, strong and stable party systems are more likely to prevent income disparities from concentrating among few members of society and will instead cause wealth to be more evenly spread across society, leading to lower levels of inequality.
Testing a Theory in Latin America
Testing this working theory, Mauro empirically quantifies how strong party systems are and whether those indicators correlate with levels of inequality and redistribution. To measure party system strength, he examines their stability: In each election cycle, are the same parties running for election? Do they receive similar vote shares? Are their platforms clear and consistent across each election? He also examines the parties at a local level. Do the parties have local offices, and do they possess dedicated local activists? Then, he measures economic inequality, using household survey data to create indices of relative differences of income distributions across populations and how they change over time.
Mauro conducts field work, to collect his data, in the countries he is interested in examining— Latin America for this project. Latin America intrigues Mauro because political parties and party systems across the region encompass the entire spectrum of strength. Some countries have stable party systems, while others are much weaker. Even within countries, individual states have incredible variation in their party system’s stability and strength. This allows Mauro to apply his theory not only across countries in Latin America but also across individual states within countries.
Latin America also presents an ideal theoretical situation for Mauro to test the relationship between party system stability and the redistribution of income. “It’s an incredibly interesting situation. Contemporary Latin America is largely democratic, and yet it has some of the highest levels of inequality in the world. In a city like Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, you’ll have massive favelas, or slums, right next to luxury apartments.” This suggests that predominant political science theories that emphasize the importance of democracy for redistribution are not telling the whole story.
Rio de Janeiro, a Good Theoretical Model
Mauro saw this inequality first-hand on several occasions when visiting Rio and more recently when conducting preliminary field work in Brazil. He spent time collecting electoral data, looking through archives of previous elections and examining party documents. With this information, he was able to quantify the stability of Brazil’s parties. To get data on inequality levels, he turned to national household survey data that record the income levels of over 200,000 Brazilians each year. With these data, as well as other political and socioeconomic measures, he has been able to statistically model his theory.
“So far, the data from Brazil fits nicely with the results from the cross-national analyses. I’m seeing the correlation I predicted.” Now that his preliminary field work supports his theory, Mauro plans to visit Mexico next. Like Brazil, Mexico is also a federal system and possesses significant variation in party system strength and stability at the subnational level, allowing Mauro to compare party systems and inequality within Mexico as well.
Adding the Qualitative Fieldwork
Mauro plans to conduct fieldwork in a select number of states within Brazil and Mexico, interviewing local party and government officials and closely looking at legislative policy at the state level. The interviews will enable him to connect his quantitative models with qualitative data. He hopes that this qualitative data will deepen his understanding of what might drive the relationship between party systems and inequality.
Until then, he spends his time reading, writing, refining his model, reflecting on his past experiences, and anticipating new ones.
“There is a sense of adventure in Latin America. Every time I travel, I always end up there. Ever since I took a trip one summer during my undergraduate years to Brazil and Argentina, I was in love.” Far from his original home in Vancouver, Mauro has found another—a new world, brimming with opportunity and the thrill of the unknown.