Erica Simmons is an Associate Professor of Political Science and International Studies and holds the Department of Political Science Board of Visitors Professorship. She also holds a courtesy appointment with the Department of Sociology and is the Faculty Director of the International Studies major.
Simmons’ research and teaching are motivated by an interest in contentious politics, particularly in Latin America. Simmons received an AB from Harvard College (1999) and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago (2012). Her current work explores the intersection of market reforms and political resistance in the region and her dissertation on the topic was awarded the Latin American Studies Association/Oxfam America 2013 Martin Diskin award. Her recent book, Meaningful Resistance: Market Reforms and the Roots of Social Protest in Latin America (Cambridge University Press 2016) tackles questions of resistance to the marketization of subsistence in Latin America.
An Interview with Erica
What are your current research interests? What sparked your interest in this field?
I am interested in the intersection of social mobilization, market economies, and natural resource politics in Latin America. I am currently working on two related book-length projects. First, I am exploring state responses to social movements by asking questions about why and how states respond the ways they do when social mobilization occurs. Second, I am engaged in research on the intersection of extractive economies and ideals of plurinational governance. I am exploring questions about how states reconcile redistributive goals, commitments to indigenous autonomy, and legacies of development rooted in natural resource extraction.
Both of these projects build directly on my first book, Meaningful Resistance: Market Reforms and the Roots of Social Protest in Latin America. The book explores the origins and dynamics of resistance to markets through a careful examination of two cases in which social movements emerged to voice and channel opposition to market reforms. Protests against water privatization in Cochabamba, Bolivia and rising corn prices in Mexico City, Mexico offer a lens through which to analyze and understand the mechanisms through which perceived, market-driven threats to material livelihood can prompt resistance. Through exploring connections between marketization, local practices and understandings, and political protest, the book shows how the material and the ideational are inextricably linked in resistance to subsistence threats. When people perceive that markets have put subsistence at risk, material and symbolic worlds are both at stake; citizens take to the streets not only to defend their pocketbooks, but also their conceptions of community.
I have been interested in environmental questions in Latin America since my first year of college when I wrote an essay on the environmental impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement. I then spent my summers during college working on questions related to Latin America and the environment—first in a rain forest in Ecuador, then at a think tank in Washington, D.C., and finally along the U.S.-Mexican border conducting research for my senior thesis on NAFTA’s environmental institutions. I have been working on related questions ever since.
What are some memorable experiences you’ve had while doing research?
Over the course of my research I have found myself lost in the Ecuadorian Selva, irrigating fields in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and wandering empty Mexican streets during the H1N1 outbreak. But I think the most memorable experience is not one particular event but a collection of memories related to the sights and sounds of Mexican food. From walking through milpas with Mexican farmers in Guanajuato, to hand-grinding corn to make tortillas with a group of women in Oaxaca, to making tamales with friends in Mexico City, for me there is something truly special about the connections that I feel—to the people with whom I am growing, cooking, or eating, and to the ones that I imagine are doing and have done similar things for generations—when I am doing something related to food cultivation, production, or consumption in Mexico.
How did you become interested in learning about the world?
When I was a small child my parents made it clear that if I wanted them to pay attention to me an interest in people and places outside of my hometown was required! Both of them traveled internationally for work and often brought me (and my brothers) along with them. I think I always assumed that whatever work I did would somehow be related to the world outside of the United States.
What classes do you teach?
I regularly teach International Studies 101: Introduction to International Studies; International Studies/Political Science 431: Introduction to Contentious Politics; International Studies/Political Science 401: Social Movements and Revolutions in Latin America; International Studies/Political Science 401: The Politics of Food and Water; and Political Science 919: Qualitative Methods.
How have your students shown interest in learning about other parts of the world?
Student interest in international questions and issues manifests itself in all kinds of ways. For me the most rewarding is when a student has an experience in my class that changes their perspective on something or exposes them to something about which they had little prior exposure. I have had students tell me, for example, that their perspective on how we should think about divergence in contemporary health outcomes has been fundamentally altered by incorporating and understanding of colonial practices (something we cover in IS 101). Or that understanding concepts like structural inequality or slow violence has helped them reflect on their own position in the global world and how they want to engage as global citizens. But I have also seen them show an interest in other parts of the world by thinking about questions that seem very Madison-focused a little differently than they might have before one of my courses. I love it when thinking about the international world helps students change how they engage with big questions like local inequality and seemingly more mundane issues like where the milk we produce in Wisconsin goes or where and how the smart phones they use every day are produced.
Why is international, cross-national, or transnational research important?
International, cross-national, and transnational research is crucial not only because understanding both where we are situated in a global world and how we are all connected is the only way to address our most pressing challenges (climate change, poverty, and global health come to mind) but also because it can bring awareness to how we conduct ourselves at the local level and the ways in which the actions we take at home can have important effects across the globe.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about your work?
Teaching at the UW–Madison is a true privilege. There is nothing more rewarding than joining students on their journey as they seek to understand who they are and how they want to relate to our global world.