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Max Planck Institute profiles Professor Michele Stephens

Article originally published on August 11, 2017 on the Max Planck Institute for European Legal History. Link to original article can be found here.

Michele McArdle Stephens is a Visiting Researcher from the West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia/USA. She has been at the MPIeR since July and will stay until the end of September.

Dear Dr. McArdle Stephens, welcome to Frankfurt and to our Institute! Where are you from?

M. McArdle Stephens: I currently live in Morgantown, West Virginia, but I was born and raised in New Jersey, about 45 minutes from New York City.

Could you tell us more about your academic career?

M. McArdle Stephens: I received my Bachelor of Arts in History from Rutgers University (New Jersey) in 1999, my Master of Arts in History from California State University, Los Angeles in 2004, and my PhD from the University of Oklahoma in 2011. I am currently an Assistant Professor of Latin American History at West Virginia University. My areas of interest are indigenous peoples of Latin America, especially Mexico; gender, ethnicity, and law in modern Mexico; and the Cold War in Latin America. My first book, titled In the Lands of Fire and Sun: Resistance and Accommodation in the Huichol Sierra, 1723-1930 will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in Spring 2018. It is not a legal history, but an examination of cultural tenacity despite the pressures the Huichols experienced by the Spanish colonial and Mexican national governments. The Huichols are a fairly small indigenous group living in western Mexico, near Guadalajara.

What is your current research project?

M. McArdle Stephens: My current research has shifted to southeastern Mexico, where I am in the process of examining women’s participation in criminal legal cases. My area of focus is the rural regions surrounding Mérida, Yucatán and I plan to examine cases from 1830-1930. Initially I had hoped to work exclusively in the 20th century, but because there is a lack of scholarship on the law, legal culture, gender and ethnicity in the 19th century, it is more prudent for me to begin my work a bit earlier in time. I envision this project, when completed, to span 1820-1920, as opposed to 1910-1960. I also see this as a two, or even three-part study of crime, gender, and ethnicity in Yucatán.

How did you become interested in your research area of Mexico in general and Yucatán in specific?

M. McArdle Stephens: When I was young, I loved writing, I enjoyed the puzzles of history, and a bit later, I had thought about becoming a detective. I realized at university that I had no aptitude for math and science courses, and no real interest in becoming a police officer. I did not relish the idea of working with violent crimes in real time. So, this new project that I am working on allows me to be a detective, studying crimes that occurred more than 150 years ago as opposed to crimes that occur today. Mérida, Yucatán is actually my favorite place to work in all of Mexico, because while it is a capital city, it never feels overwhelming in terms of size and population. It is very safe as well. Plus, on weekends I get to visit archaeological sites, which is important in helping to develop my cultural understanding of Mexico’s past.

You are actually a cultural historian. How do you manage to combine the legal aspects with the cultural aspects of your research?

M. McArdle Stephens: So, this has proven to be really challenging and exciting. Because I’ve focused on culture and society, I am interested in how historians can use legal documents to understand changes in behaviors, attitudes, etc. Did periods of violence and instability lead to increased violence against women? Or did such instability create circumstances in which women increasingly violated the law? There are two periods of significant upheaval in Yucatán, the Caste Wars of the mid-to-late nineteenth century and of course the Mexican Revolution. What can we detect about gender roles/norms, violence in society, and the law during these periods? That’s what I hope to accomplish with this new project. I heard about the MPIeR from friends who are researchers here, or who attended Summer Academies in the past. I have found my time here to be very rewarding despite the colonial focus of most of the Latin Americanists. The conversations I have had with scholars here have forced me to crystallize what I plan to do in this new research project. And of course, presenting my research in July at the Guest Workshop on Legal Historiography was a great way to receive feedback as I move ahead in my work.

Which book can you recommend as an introduction to your field of research?

M. McArdle Stephens: Yucatán is an exceptionally complex place within the overall scope of Mexico. I think the best book to understand the 19th and 20th century is Yucatán’s Maya Peasantry and the Origins of the Caste War, by Terry Rugeley. In terms of criminal law/violence in Mexico in the early 20th century, I’d say Criminal and Citizen in modern Mexico, by Robert Buffington.

Last but not least: What was the last book you enjoyed in your free time?

M. McArdle Stephens: The Horse, the Wheel, and Language written by David W. Anthony. It’s about how Indo-European languages spread throughout Europe and Central and Southern Asia. While it’s a bit technical at times, the author guides his readers several thousand years into the past to help us understand how languages like English, German, Spanish and others evolved over time.