Gudmundson and Townsley Receive NEH Grants

Posted: March 11, 2008

Two Mount Holyoke faculty members have received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities to carry on extensive research projects on coffee production and democracy in Central America and intellectuals and the U.S. media.

Lowell Gudmundson, professor of Latin American studies and history, has received a grant from the NEH for his project Deepening Democracy and Disciplining the Democrats: Coffee, Cooperatives, and the Lessons of Costa Rican Development.

Eleanor Townsley, associate professor of sociology and gender studies and chair of sociology and anthropology, received a grant for her project Media Intellectuals and the Social Space of Opinion.

Coffee and Democracy
The NEH grant will allow Gudmundson to forge ahead with his extensive research on the historical bases for the relative success of Costa Rican democracy and that nation's agrarian policies and coffee growing industry. He will also work on a book on this subject.

As Gudmundson wrote in his grant proposal, "Costa Rica is generally recognized as having one of the most stable and democratic political systems, as well as one of the most advanced social welfare policies, not only in Latin America but among less developed, agrarian societies worldwide. And that favored status has long been seen as based on a widespread distribution of property within its historically dominant coffee economy. However, the timing and logic of social welfare advances and their relationship to overt public policy choices are still remarkably poorly understood."

Since the 1980s, Gudmundson has conducted extensive data gathering on land ownership and other trends in Costa Rica, including widespread exploration of probate and census records. In the next phase of research, enabled by the NEH grant, he will interview surviving founding generation coffee co-op members. Working with a team of graduate students, he will also create an audio and video archive at the Universidad Nacional in Costa Rica for these interviews as well as various probate and census record databases from the two coffee districts he has studied. These records span, in many cases, from 1850.

A leading figure in the fields of agrarian and social history in Latin America in general, and in Central America in particular, Gudmundson has looked deeply at the economies of coffee production in that region. Gudmundson's books, in both Spanish and English editions, include (as coeditor and contributor) Coffee, Society, and Power in Latin America (1995, 2001); (with Hector Lindo-Fuentes) Central America, 1821-1871 (1992, 1995); Costa Rica before Coffee(1986, 1990); and three edited collections on social history topics published in Costa Rica in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Media Intellectuals
Townsley's grant will allow her to complete a book exploring the role of media commentary and the shape, composition, and nature of opinion in the elite public sphere in the contemporary United States.

In her grant proposal, Townsley points to one of the most hotly contested--and longest burning--debates set off in recent years by a piece of opinion journalism as a way to introduce her project, writing:

"On July 6, 2003, the New York Timespublished an opinion column titled 'What I Didn't Find in Africa.' In that space, Joseph Wilson, a career foreign service officer and former ambassador, argued that the Bush administration had led the United States into a war in Iraq 'under false pretenses.' Wilson's argument ignited a furor which dominated the political public sphere of the United States for the next three years. Beginning in media spaces of opinion and commentary, the meanings and significance of Wilson's claims were debated by newspaper columnists and guest columnists at every major U.S. newspaper, by senior editors and contributing editors writing analytical pieces for the elite news magazines, by television talk show hosts and their guests, and by a raft of bloggers, radio talk show hosts, and political newsletters. In the process, these overlapping spaces of opinion provided a central focal point for debates about the Iraq war, the Bush administration, and the role of journalism in a democratic society.

"Despite its importance however, there has been little systematic attention paid to the space of media opinion, or to the role of media commentary in contemporary civil society."

Townsley is a sociologist who teaches courses in the cultural sociology, social theory, sociology of gender, and an archival and field methods class based in the Mount Holyoke College Archives.

As dean of faculty Donal O'Shea has noted, "Eleanor aims to understand the dynamics of news commentary and opinion empirically and how they function in a political democracy. She compares TV and newsprint: who is talking, and how are they making claims to authority."

As part of her NEH research, Townsley has compiled extensive data and will analyze large random samples of newspaper op-eds and television transcripts from shows including Face the Nation (CBS News), Crossfire (CNN), The Lehrer News Hour (PBS), and Hannity and Colmes(Fox News).

Townsley's research has examined the possibilities of intellectual life in contemporary societies, with a focus on the institutional contexts and political consequences of intellectual practices. Townsley's early work focused on social science professionalization in the United States during the 1960s and the role of the intelligentsia in transitions from socialism in Central Europe.

Townsley's research has been published in the American Journal of Sociology; Theory and Society; Theory, Culture and Society; Gender and Society; Thesis Eleven; and New Left Review. She is a contributor to the Handbook of Economic Sociology and coauthor of Making Capitalism without Capitalists(1998).

Related Links:

Lowell Gudmundson Faculty Profile

Eleanor Townsley Faculty Bio

National Endowment for the Humanities