Latin American Parliamentary Elites: A Methodological Approach

This chapter presents the Parliamentary Elites in Latin America (PELA) project, based at the University of Salamanca, and the methodology used in that project, to study elites from a comparative perspective. Set in the context of the field of political science, and focusing on members holding representative office, this analysis reflects on the importance of studying elites as well as the various possible ways of so doing, and the challenges inherent to each.

After more than 20 years’ experience, the difficulties and challenges that have arisen during the PELA project are indicated here, along with its main inputs and, especially, the relevance of their use in academic activity and production. In this regard, questions are addressed related to both the methodological design and challenges encountered throughout the project’s research phases, including data compilation during fieldwork and data processing and their subsequent use for academic production.

That is to say, we focus not only on the strict aspects of methodological design, but rather that we adopt a more global vision of the research process. The chapter’s aim is to rethink several issues (such as data mining) that arose during the research process, taking into account the wealth of available information (after tw'o decades of development) and the particularities that parliamentary elites present as an object of study.

The text is in three parts. The first considers the main issues inherent to the study of elites from a theoretical-methodological perspective. Second, the principles treated in the first section are related directly to the PELA project. Finally, there is a discussion of the main challenges and future agenda. All of this is supported by the specialised bibliography, as well as by data from the project itself.

How to Approach a Survey of Elites?

Interest in the study of elites derives from the centrality of the figure of the professional politician in political science. Politicians are significant because without them we would have no politics; without representation, it w'ould not be possible to speak of political life (Schmitt 1982: 208; Bourdieu 1990). In this sense, the political class is a fundamental component of the political system in every society, insofar as politicians can be a reflection of the sociopolitical context in which they act, the dynamics of power and the aggregate demands and interaction guidelines among political actors.

But what does it mean to study elites? According to a holistic approach, it means consideration of their socio-demographic characteristics, their expectations and beliefs and their socialisation, previous expertise and performance. However, the scarcity of empirical research on political elites and their trajectories is somewhat surprising. This scarcity is even more evident in terms of the study of political elite values, beliefs and attitudes.1

Despite the impact of Putnam’s seminal work (1973) on the variables that determine the beliefs of political classes in the United Kingdom and Italy, few studies have approached this subject empirically and in depth. In any case, as Garcia, Mateos and Rivas (2014) have noted, certain important contributions can be found that focus on distinct geographical areas. For Western Europe, we have the works of Best and Cotta (2000, 2007); for Eastern Europe, we have the contributions of Higley, Pakulski and Wesolowski (1998), Crowther and Matonyte (2007) and Semenova, Edinger and Best (2013). For the United States, one of the main contributions was made by Eztione-Harlevy (1993). Finally, for a comparative approach that goes beyond regional boundaries, the studies by Czudnoswki (1983) and Eldersveld (1989) deserve mention.

For the case of Latin American, before the launch of the PELA project such contributions had been minimal, the work of Higley and Gunther (1992) notwithstanding. This scarcity of analysis on the Latin American sphere can be said to have two explanations: one theoretical; one pragmatic. Related to the former, Latin America during the 1980s was characterised by transition processes towards democracy, while during most of the 1990s studies tended to focus on analysis of the ‘third wave’ of democracy and on institutional strengthening. Related to the latter, the difficulty of accessing relevant material and human resources must be borne in mind. These difficulties can be even greater when applied to elites, given the complexity inherent in arranging interviews with legislators due to tight agendas and low availability or even mistrust towards research in general.

In any case, the study of elite opinions and attitudes can be undertaken through both qualitative and quantitative techniques, as well as through mixes of the two. In the first group, tools include in-depth interviews, discussion groups and discourse analysis. With regard to quantitative tools, the survey remains the most common, and content analysis constitutes a good example of a mixed strategy. Qualitative tools focus principally on particular phenomena, seeking specificities. On the other hand, quantitative tools look for generalities, focusing on big data with a positivist approach.

Faced with these two possible techniques, which are not exclusive and can be applied complementarity, researchers must first make a methodological decision to define the strategy. Adoption of one or the other approach, or a combination of the two, will depend both on the resources available and on the final objective of the study. Thus, if the context and the search for specificities are to be prioritised, then quantitative tools will be used; if generalisation from large samples is the objective, quantitative tools will be used.

Together with this decision, other aspects to be taken into account include: the selection of concrete tools for development of the technique; consideration of research variables; the process for obtaining data; and treatment of data. In the next section, the main design characteristics developed in the PE LA project will be examined from a critical perspective.

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