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Regina Bateson: Crime, punishment and politics

MIT political scientist studies the long-term effects of war on people’s social and political behavior.
Assistant Professor Regina Bateson
Assistant Professor Regina Bateson
Photo: Stuart Darsch

Regina Bateson’s career with the Foreign Service of the U.S. State Department began in terrifying fashion: In her early days processing visa applications and assisting American crime victims, she could do nothing but watch in horror as her Guatemalan colleagues were extorted, held at gunpoint, and kidnapped.

“I was immediately shocked by the level of violent crime,” says Bateson, now an assistant professor at MIT who joined the Department of Political Science in 2013. On paper, Guatemala had negotiated a durable peace agreement to end its brutal decades-long civil war in 1996, and the country had begun to show socioeconomic improvements. As such, Bateson went into her assignment, in 2004, expecting a post-conflict success story. But she realized very quickly that violence still dominated daily life in this Central American nation.

Having focused on issues of conflict and human rights as an undergraduate at Stanford University, Bateson’s reaction wasn’t fear, but desire — for engagement. “I was trapped in the embassy every day behind bulletproof glass and razor wire, banned from talking to people about the issues that I wanted to go investigate,” she says.

Within 18 months, Bateson left the Foreign Service to pursue a doctoral degree in political science at Yale University. She focused on understanding the disconnect between Guatemala’s purported post-conflict success and reality on the ground. Through extensive qualitative fieldwork, she looked for clues to explain her most puzzling observations.

Now at MIT, Bateson is turning those volumes of data — a total of about 220 interviews with people throughout Guatemala — into a book about the after-effects of the Guatemalan Civil War. Her findings, which she plans to broaden to include observations in Nicaragua and El Salvador, suggest that civil war and similar conflicts can affect people’s social and political behavior in concrete and lasting ways.

Understanding the violence

The first thing Bateson noticed when she took a closer look at criminal activity in Guatemala was that the differences in crime rates that had initially intrigued her most — more crime in areas least affected by the war and less crime in areas most devastated — were really a side effect. “It was the tip of the iceberg to what emerged as two completely different systems of social order in Guatemala today,” she says.

State-sponsored policing has proven ineffective in Guatemala, so Bateson looked to citizens to describe how the community handles security. She found that in war-torn areas, the security patrols that had emerged during the war still remained, sometimes run by the same individuals, using the same code words and the same ritualistic, public punishments. “We think of war as being exclusively destructive,” she says. “But it actually constructively affects local security in unexpected ways.”

In less devastated areas, a quieter form of illegal vigilantism had emerged, one of targeted retribution with punishments akin to mafia-style hits. The result is a higher crime rate in areas where citizens feel safe. “People in this region say this is the safest place in the world, as long as you haven’t done anything wrong to anyone,” Bateson says.

Delving deeper at MIT

Bateson, who brings a unique anthropological and sociological perspective to the department, will share her qualitative field research expertise with graduate students in a new seminar this spring. “It’s common for students to be told, oh, you should do fieldwork. So they fly off to Zimbabwe or Peru and then realize they don’t know what that means,” Bateson says. “This class will give students room to experiment in a lower stakes setting.”

In another line of research that draws on quantitative methods including analyzing survey data, Bateson is exploring the relationships between crime, violence, and political participation. Having already found that victims of crimes tend to become more involved in politics, Bateson anticipates seeing other losses, such as the death of a relative to AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, affecting rates of political participation. Her ideas on this topic are expansive, and can be applied to the United States as well. She is considering, for example, efforts to include locations with voter turnout data to investigate whether the community trauma of mass shootings in the U.S. affects political involvement.

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