Regina Bateson: Crime, Punishment and Politics

Regina Bateson’s career began in Guatemala City in 2004. Working in the Foreign Service, she spent her time processing visa applications, assisting American crime victims, and watching 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, who joined the MIT Department of Political Science in 2013 as an assistant professor. She had gone into the assignment expecting, based on her reading, a post-conflict success story. On paper, Guatemala had negotiated a durable peace agreement to end its brutal civil war in 1996 and had begun to show socioeconomic improvements. But for the people on the ground, violence dominated daily life.

Having focused on issues of conflict and human rights as an undergraduate at Stanford, Bateson’s reaction wasn’t fear, but desire — and in her current job, untenable desire — for engagement. “I was trapped in the embassy every day behind bullet proof 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. 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 conflicts such as civil war can affect people’s social and political behavior in concrete and lasting ways.

The first thing Bateson noticed when she took a closer look at crime in Guatemala was that the differences in crime rates that had initially intrigued her, higher crime rates in the areas least affected by the war, lower 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.

Nowhere in Guatemala is state-sponsored policing effective, so Bateson looked to the people 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, yet people 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,” says Bateson.

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,” says Bateson. “This class will give students room to experiment in a lower stakes setting.”

In another line of research that draws on quantitative methods, such as 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 is looking to see other losses, such as the death of a relative to AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, change political participation. Her ideas are expansive, including efforts to correlate locations with voter turnout data to investigate whether the community trauma of mass shootings in the US affects political involvement.

By: Elizabeth Dougherty

Learn more about Regina Bateson

Top: Police vehicles in a parade in Joyabaj, El Quiche. 2008
Middle: A schoolgirl seated by gang graffiti in Joyabaj, El Quiche. 2008. 
Bottom: A security committee sign in Joyabaj, El Quiche. 2009.