Research at the Latin America Institute is conducted by regionally specialized disciplines having in common an emphasis on accounting for global and local change.
From this perspective, modernity is dated from the “discovery of America” 1492 and is associated with the construction of the idea of the New World that, on the one hand, is seen as different and exotic, and on the other, as part of the occident. Such perspectives suggest that Latin American studies offers a unique vantage upon from which disciplinary work might be done and from which critical analysis of the disciplines might be conducted, including, analysis of their limits and suggestions of how they might be changed and restructured. To further this work, students are required to develop a broader perspective on regional studies and develop a more comprehensive approach to this “strange” world.
The attention to multi-layered economic, social and cultural processes associated with globalization followed here involves a criticism of the traditional disciplines, which appear, from this perspective, as comparatively isolated and limited for being based in Western European or Anglo-Saxon theories and methods. The LAI's more expansive research concept views local and regional development in globalized terms and in historical perspective -- as non-European perspectives point out -- closely associated with the emergence and crises of European modernity.
From the Latin American perspective, the experience of Europeans overseas was more specific in its effects on modernity than the traditional notion of European and/or western development project considered in terms of limitless space and time. This is because the discovery and violent colonization of "new world" only incompletely followed the project of European modernity. Different sectors modernized in their own terms, and when viewed over the entire region, modernization is not satisfactorily accounted for by the traditional, isolated terms of social, ethnical, regional, economic or political development. Instead, following the advice of cultural anthropology and more expansive concepts of culture, social processes appear as configurations of perceptual patterns, representations, and practices of actors embedded in multiple relationships to social power and hierarchy. In this way, Latin American Studies is able to develop a more comprehensive framework for the analysis of Indian communities, slums, families and larger forms of social organization: to view them as both responding to larger economic, social and political changes as well as actively contributing to them.
For example, from the 16th century, European cultures encountered a new world featuring considerable variation in pre-Spanish societies, region by region, including organized hunting and gathering bands as well as more complex societies. European attempts to exploit resources and control populations involved sophisticated and complex processes of dominance, submission, resistance, violence, marginalization, and adaptation, including the introduction of Asian workers and African slaves. From then until now, Latin American societies have been increasingly oriented to a larger world and a dynamic one at that: as the world context itself has changed, so have these processes.
The argument for a more adequate inter-disciplinary Latin American studies approach is also supported by a criticism of the European-bound nature of the traditional disciplines. Since the early 19th century, Europe has for the most part been composed of coherent nation states, societies, and formal economies and divisions of labor, but the correspondingly coherent disciplinary codes are challenged when faced with the task of understanding Latin American societies whose borders have been as fluid as most of their populations. For this reason, understanding the uniqueness of this region likely involves the development of cooperation among the disciplines.
Latin American studies is also understood to involve research on very different ways the region, and especially its intellectual productions are perceived and interpreted. On the one hand, Latin American is considered to be part of the Occident alongside Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand; but on the other hand it is considered alongside Asia and Africa as fulfilling only incompletely the promises of economic development and political democratization we associate with “third world” modernization. Latin America is also viewed as part of the Pacific or “Black Atlantic” sphere and embedded in south-south relations. Research includes studies of how, alongside Latin America, perceptions of Ibero- and Indo-America are European cultural constructions reflecting on Europe in much the same way North America, and especially those of the USA, reflect their cultures.