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Pushing the boundaries of political theory and empowering academics of color

Arturo Chang’s research can’t be confined to a conventional academic category — and he likes it that way. The sixth-year Ph.D. Candidate’s dissertation, “Imagining America: International Commiseration and National Revolution in the Modern Post-Colony” draws upon his interests in comparative political theory, while his co-authored work on "The Roots of Right-Wing Populism: Donald Trump in 2016" exemplifies his interests in American politics. “Political science is most interesting when it’s not committed to protecting subfields,” he says. In this interview, Chang discusses his interdisciplinary research interests, as well as his desire to engage with students — particularly those of first-generation and migrant backgrounds. 

Question: Your dissertation shows how “marginalized communities transformed republican thought by centering racialized bodies, Indigenous identities, and religious beliefs in their visions of post-colonial emancipation.” Could you expand upon this work? 

Arturo Chang: The goal of the dissertation is to highlight a kind of hemispheric discourse that is uniting revolutionary movements across the Americas. This takes place during the Age of Revolutions, which is between 1775 and 1830. What the dissertation is trying to demonstrate by focusing on hemispheric connections, is to move away from the notion that elite actors are the ones guiding revolutionary thought and revolutionary movements, and to demonstrate that Indigenous, Black, Mestizo movements are themselves connecting with one another across colonial spaces. So in the case of Mexico, where I discuss religious beliefs, for example,  the movement largely consisted of Indigenous actors within the insurgency itself. The end goal of my project is to come up with a new interpretation of the Age of Revolutions in which these actors that the political science field and others tend to think of as merely subjected to colonial politics are actually acting as very strategic and self-guiding, self-assessing communities. I do this by decentering the nation-state. The connections are across colonial spaces, so the project focuses on Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and the United States. 

Question: What methodologies are you using to study this topic? What are you looking at to show those connections? 

AC: One of the primary motivations of the project is to address the erasure of marginalized actors from the archive and from the history of political thought and the field of political theory. What really motivated me when I was designing the project was trying to assess approaches for using popular discourse to understand the evolution of political language. The project uses pamphlets, journal entries, speeches, and visual objects. The chapter on Mexico uses the banners used by the Indigenous insurgents, which have the image of the Lady of Guadalupe which is a Catholic symbol. Basically, the approach is to take these popular objects, like a banner, and connect it to the production of pamphlets, which might not be coming from the same context and the same actors, but which are connected via these republican vernaculars.

So in this way, we're basically forming a kind of popular discursive analysis that works across hemispheric space. 

Question: Outside of your dissertation, you co-authored a paper on the roots of right-wing populism in President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign published last summer. How does that tie into your larger academic interests? 

AC: The paper with Tom Ferguson, Benjamin Page, Jacob Rothschild, and Jie Chen was a project that came out of an interest in linking what are called open-ended responses. Open-ended responses are basically open survey responses where voters give an improvised response to a question. We wanted to return to that kind of data to understand how we can use it to trace and analyze the way political language was being used by voters in the 2016 election. In terms of my research, I see this linking more along with my interest in popular discourse. The reason I wanted to get involved in that project is that I thought it was important and valuable to look at the way people speak about politics in off-the-cuff moments, even if they're framed by a question — which is essentially what I'm studying in the dissertation. The way that actors are responding to events in real-time and, in this case, recording them in things like speeches, poems, novels — that's something that I was really interested in understanding in the 2016 election. 

My role in that project was basically to create a coding scheme through which we could organize all of these open-ended responses — we had over 4,000 or so — and basically find patterns in the terms used to see how people were justifying their reception of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. That really gave us a sense of the power that media narratives were having on the reception of the candidates. People were regularly connecting the campaigns to conspiracy theories related to George Soros, for example, or to other conspiracies around the New World Order. Obviously, we also saw connections to racial politics and gendered politics. The major underlying concern in these responses, the one we saw the most, were concerns of economic downturn, in different terms. The paper tries to show that we can take each of these factors to be true: that there's a racial politics underlying this, gendered politics, there's this connection to conspiracies, and that people are kind of funneling and voicing all of these through a concern about economic precarity. 

Question: What motivated you to enter academia and the field of political theory? How do you hope to contribute to that field? 

AC: I wanted to do a couple of things as an academic. The first one was to problematize and expand the kinds of materials and people we study in political science and the kinds of academics who are doing that work. Political science is a very conservative field historically. In political theory, for example, there's a need to study contexts and texts and people that exist outside the so-called Western canon. 

At the same time, there's a need to have more academics of color join the field. I really benefited from mentorship relationships at DePaul, and I wanted to be able to work in each of these areas and to mentor students that could help do work to improve political science. 

I focused on political theory because I'm motivated by introducing Indigenous political thought and Black political thought in popular contexts to the field. I've also been able to stay connected to the problems that interested me in American politics with this project on the 2016 election. 

Moving forward, I'm going to try to continue working across some fields. I have another paper with a colleague, Owen Brown, who is an international relations scholar — we're writing a paper that kind of converges political theory and international relations theory to talk about the category of race in colonial order. I feel like political science is most interesting when it's not committed to protecting subfields, or subfield boundaries. Luckily, the community at Northwestern is encouraging of that kind of work. 

Question: You received the Diversity and Inclusion Research Advancement Grant in Indigenous Studies from the American Political Science Association in 2020. What does that entail? And what have those funds helped you to do? 

AC: The improvement grant gives you research funds to go to do whatever kind of research is specific to the project you propose. In my case, my work is primarily archival. There's a lot of translation and transcription and just going to archives and looking for this for the stuff you need. The project that I proposed when I got that grant is for the third chapter of my dissertation, which studies the reception of radical republicanism between free Black actors and Indigenous actors in Colombia. 

What I'm basically demonstrating in that chapter is that we shouldn't take radical republicanism to be emancipatory in general terms. It's not that radical republicanism promised to "liberate" marginalize actors in general, rather, the reception was motivated and framed by the way actors were positioned within colonial society. The reason Colombia is a good case study for this is because there were radical Black republican actors in the city of Cartagena who were calling for independence, but they were at the same time resisted by royalist, Indigenous actors in a neighboring city, Santa Marta, who were calling for the maintenance of Spanish rule. Basically, the reason is because Black people were not recognized by the Spanish colonial system, whereas Indigenous peoples were — they were considered pure of race. 

So, what I'm doing with these funds is I'm going to the National Archives in Colombia and the municipal archives of Cartagena to look for documents in which these groups are speaking to one another and justifying their positions. We just started to do that work already, and because of the pandemic, it's challenging and we're working online. I have some materials that I'm using already and I have received support from a colleague, Sofia Sanchez, who is working on this project with me. Together, the goal is this summer to have a good set of materials that we can then use to add to this chapter and also to write a standalone article for Latin American audiences touching on the importance of popular discourse as political critique in Colombia.

Question: Since I first emailed you, you’ve announced you will join the University of Toronto’s political science department as an assistant professor, so congratulations! Would you like to talk more about that? And regarding your career, where do you envision yourself in the coming years? 

AC: I'm really excited about joining U of T because they are historically one of the strongest political theory departments and they really emphasize interdisciplinary work. I'm very interested in continuing to work within comparative political theory by bringing in the contributions of Latin American political thought and Black and Indigenous actors working in or from Latin America. There are really great scholars doing comparative political theory and related types of approaches at U of T, so one of the most exciting aspects is being able to work and learn with them. 

Something that I'm really excited about with this is on the education side is that Mississauga has a lot of commuter students that come from first-generation and migrant backgrounds. Something that I've enjoyed in teaching so far — at Northwestern, now at Williams College, and when I taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — is that my classes try to push students to think about their experiences as sources of learning. I have students, for example, at Williams right now, that are first-generation Latinx students who find themselves in a position where they can learn from their cultural identities and communities for the first time in a university context. When I decided to join U of T, that was one of the most appealing features about the university — that I'll be able to keep engaging with these kinds of students, probably in a lot of ways more so than I did at Northwestern and Williams. 

In terms of research, the goal is just to keep publishing work that doesn't fit comfortably within the boundaries of political theory as the field has self-identified for a long time. Finally, I have to turn my dissertation into a book. So that's the major goal.

Interview by James Pollard (WCAS '22)