Interdisciplinary discussions in Mexico

I’ve just spent several interesting days at the second science and humanities conference of the Mexican Academy of Sciences in Mexico City (link). My thanks to Dra. Rosario Esteinou, Chair of the Social Sciences Section of the Mexican Academy of Science, for inviting me to participate.

This forum is a very interesting effort to bring together researchers across the spectrum of the sciences and humanities in useful dialog with each other. Biologists, physicists, biologists, astronomers, sociologists, and humanists from Mexican universities and institutes (along with a handful of international visitors) interacted intensively through a series of panels and plenary talks, with animated conversations taking place in the common areas throughout the days of the conference. Speaking for the Academy in the opening session, organizers set high and convincing expectations about the value of interdisciplinary and international collaboration. I attended sessions on nano-materials, plant evolutionary history, and economic development goals, and I found all the presentations to be of high quality and interest. And more significantly, I witnessed a real intellectual engagement by physicists, biologists, and social scientists around each of these topics.

Particularly interesting for me was a session on well-being and development for poor and disadvantaged populations in Mexico. This season was chaired by René Millán and included presentations by Gonzalo Hernández Licona (Director of the National Council for the Assessment of Social Development Policies – CONEVAL), Rodolfo de la Torre (Director del Programa de Desarrollo Social con Equidad, CEEY), and Gerardo Leyva (Deputy Director General for Research of INEGI). Key themes included human development, the status of indigenous people, the situation of rural women, and the challenge of extending opportunities for all Mexicans.

Speakers showed a real and committed involvement in the importance of poverty reform that really works in Mexico, with an emphasis on creating greater equity and opportunity for all Mexicans. Each speaker took Amartya Sen’s theory of capabilities and functioning as given; disagreements turned on how this basic theory might be supplemented to incorporate empirical studies of perceived well-being and how to create policies that worked to broaden social inclusiveness.

Gerardo Leyva framed his presentation around new interest in “happiness” as a goal of development, referring to the United Nations World Happiness Index Report 2016. The heart of his presentation was a report of a study conducted by INEGI on life satisfaction in Mexico, the BIARE survey (link). It turns out that Mexican citizens have an average level of satisfaction of about 8 on a ten-point scale. Of course the absolute level of the average response to the question, how satisfied are you with your life currently?, is not very meaningful. More interesting than the aggregate were the disaggregated results Leyva reported for specific segments of Mexican society, and an analysis of the separate factors that appear to bring down life satisfaction. Here is a snapshot of satisfaction reports by age for Mexico as a whole:

There are not large differences across age groups, but it is interesting to see that 18-29 year-olds report the highest level of satisfaction. In particular, it seems to suggest that young people have a favorable view of their futures in Mexico.

Outside the agenda of the conference I also had a very interesting discussion with David Barkin, professor of economics at the Xochimilco Campus of the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in México City, and two of his PhD students, about an alternative approach to just economic development, ecological economics. The Center for Ecodevelopment is one node in a global network of researchers, activists, and communities who are actively working to establish new economic practices embodying sustainability and community cohesion. Emphasis is placed on the autonomy and knowledge of the indigenous communities who make their livings in various parts of the world. Here is a paper in which Barkin explains the perspective of this field of development thinking (link). Here is a short snippet from the paper:

Rural communities in general and indigenous groups in particular continue under increasing pressure. Their living conditions deteriorated as their production systems demanded more from the land; they produced crops for human consumption on their rainfed lands, developed handicrafts and other artisan products, and raised animals and horticultural products, including hogs, chickens, fruits and herbs, in their backyards. The most fortunate among them were able to protect their access to other natural resources, such as a lake or river for fishing and to meet their water needs and a forest for wood or hunting. Over the decades, they accumulated a rich experience in managing these resources, developing sophisticated management systems that were integrated gradually into their customary practices. They continued trading activities, among themselves and with others, maintaining and modifying their traditions, adapting them to changing conditions, strengthening their communities and their identity, choosing to protect their most cherished values and practices in each historical moment.

Organizations like the New Rural Reconstruction Movement in China (link) and Via Campesina in many countries (link) came up in the conversation, and the two recent PhD students in this program described their economic ethnographic work in several Mexican indigenous agricultural communities. This work is interesting in part because it is aimed at crafting an alternative to both neo-liberal and classical leftist ideas of an economic future for the developing world.

My overall impression is that the sciences are robust in Mexico today, and that there are energetic efforts underway to solve Mexico’s most pressing social problems. 

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