Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies

Professor Emily Sellars

Professor Emily Sellars
November 9, 2020

For our latest profile as part of our CLAIS faculty series, we were delighted to speak with Assistant Professor Emily Sellars.

“Doing interdisciplinary research well requires some humility, I think. Every discipline or approach has limitations, and different research questions naturally lend themselves to different methods.”

For Emily Sellars, a political scientist who has used historical data from 16th-century New Spain to help understand public policy in contemporary Mexico, ‘interdisciplinarity’ is no mere buzzword. Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, she earned her PhD in Political Science and Agricultural and Applied Economics from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2015 and held positions at the University of Chicago and Texas A&M University before joining Yale in 2018.

Professor Sellars is currently transforming her prize-winning 2015 dissertation, “Essays on Emigration and Politics,” into a book about how “emigration shapes political mobilization and reform, focusing on Mexico and Central America.” Mobilizing historical data sets from the colonial period, Sellars provides a macro-scale view on the formation of public institutions, labor markets, and policies of centralization and decentralization in contemporary Latin America.

In a co-written article (with Francisco Garfias of UCSD)  soon to appear in The Journal of Political Institutions and Political Economy, “Epidemics, Rent Extraction, and the Value of Holding Office,” Sellars used 18th-century data on the cost of holding the political office responsible for distributing grain to show how corruption shaped the response of public institutions to epidemics in colonial Mexico.

“Political scientists have always studied history. There has been a renewed interest in historically focused research in the last few years, especially relating to Latin America. Many of the research questions that we hope to answer may be best studied using historical data, and historical contexts can provide a useful “testing ground” for theory in general.”

Interdisciplinarity is also a characteristic of Professor Sellars’ approach to teaching. In a graduate level political science seminar taught at Yale, “Economics and Politics of Migration,” Sellars integrated perspectives from anthropology and history with works from the more quantitative social sciences. “I am not an ethnographer, but I have learned a lot from reading ethnographic research on migration.”

In the aftermath of the historic election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the Mexican presidency in 2018, Sellars and Professor Ana De La O co-organized a conference, “Old and New Challenges to Mexican Democracy,” where participating scholars shared perspectives on contemporary violence and the war on drugs from a variety of disciplinary frameworks.

Sellars has a refreshingly ecumenical attitude towards combining qualitative and quantitative methods. “Quantitative methods are helpful in documenting systematic patterns in data that might not be apparent in more focused qualitative research. Conversely, qualitative research is often more helpful than quantitative research when examining specific causal mechanisms or processes.”

In both the questions, she asks and the sources she taps to answer them, Sellars’ research shows the intellectual rewards of interdisciplinarity for both teaching and research about Latin America.

Written by Joshua Mentanko, CLAIS Programming and Communications, PhD Candidate, Yale Department of History