“Research in local archives and the exchange with colleagues led to a shift of my research focus” – 5in10 with Mario Peters

Mario Peters is a Research Fellow in American and Transatlantic History at the GHI Washington. He completed his PhD in history at Leibniz University Hanover in 2016 where he also worked as Assistant Professor and taught Latin American and Caribbean history at the Centre for Atlantic and Global Studies. Before he joined the GHI in October 2020, Mario Peters was a Feodor Lynen Postdoctoral Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and Visiting Scholar at the Social History program at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He is the author of Apartments for Workers. Social Housing, Segregation, and Stigmatization in Urban Brazil (Baden-Baden: Nomos 2018). His current research interests are spread across the intersection of mobility studies, environmental history, and the study of Inter-American relations. In his new project, he examines the development of Pan-American transportation infrastructures between 1870 and 1970, focusing on the cooperation and exchange of knowledge between North American and Latin American experts who contributed to the planning and construction of these infrastructures.

How do you explain your current research projects to your students?

I had the chance to do so last year when I was teaching a course on the History of Mobility in the Americas at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) where I was working as a Visiting Scholar at the time. My current research interests are spread across the intersection of mobility studies, environmental history, and the cultural-historical study of Inter-American relations. In Rio de Janeiro I worked on a project on the early history of automobility in Brazil. This research had three main subjects: the growth of automobility and the social conflicts that accompanied this process; the debates about road building and its impact on the natural environment; and the significance of mobility infrastructures and new means of transportation for hemispheric relations in the Americas. These topics were part of the program of the History of Mobility course and my students and I had the wonderful opportunity to work with primary sources at the Brazilian National Library. The project I am currently working on as a Research Fellow at the GHI Washington is kind of a result of my previous research in Rio de Janeiro. It examines the cooperation and exchange of knowledge between US-American, Canadian and Latin American experts who worked on Pan-American mobility infrastructures between c. 1870 and 1970.

What were academic or personal inspirations that led to your current research?

Since my youth I have been interested in the history and cultures of Latin American countries. I think this was closely connected to the fact that I liked the sound of Spanish and, particularly, Portuguese, even before I started learning these languages. During my time as a student and PhD candidate at Leibniz University Hannover I worked with the research group Transformation Studies and taught at the Center for Atlantic and Global Studies. The interaction with my students and the cooperation and exchange with my colleagues was important on a professional as well as on a personal level. On one hand, my interest in historical Mobility Studies grew due to the study of some really interesting books (see question 4). On the other, it has a lot to do with my experience of growing up in a little village that was completely disconnected from public transport. More recently, working in Brazil I got to understand better what it means to live in a society that is almost completely car-dependent and how automobile dependency can affect one’s daily life.

How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods (interviews, archives, excavations…?)

My PhD thesis on the history of Social Housing in urban Brazil was based on the analysis of a broad range of contemporary sources such as official annual reports, autobiographical material, printed versions of political speeches, articles from local and national newspapers and magazines, construction plans, photos, maps, and wedding registers, all of which I found in local archives in Belo Horizonte. I also conducted biographical interviews with several long-term residents of one social housing project in that city. The sources for my new project on Pan-American mobility infrastructures include reports, surveys and unpublished correspondence and diaries written by engineers and other experts. I will also use documents from international expert commissions and committees, proceedings of the Pan-American Highway congresses, reports and surveys published by the US Bureau of Public Roads, railway engineering journals and automobile magazines.

Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) have inspired you recently?

A few years ago, I read Joel Wolfe’s book Autos and Progress. The Brazilian Search for Modernity (2010) and I think this was where it all started. I continued reading studies on the social, cultural, and environmental histories of mobility in other countries, e.g. Cotten Seiler’s Republic of Drivers (2008), Christopher Wells’s Car Country (2012), which both focus on the United States, and Moving Natures: Mobility and the Environment in Canadian History (2016) edited by Jay Young, Ben Bradley, and Colin M. Coates. Reading these books made me think a lot about the need for more research on mobility from a comparative perspective and also arouse my interest in the history of Pan-American infrastructures. The History of Mobility course which I lectured at the UFRJ, my participation in a research group on environmental history at the same institution, and the 3rd World Congress of Environmental History (2019) were also very important in this regard.

Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?

It definitely does and I think the limits set to our mobility by Covid-19 have made this obvious. Co-working with others, using online conference platforms works quite well, but, in my opinion, it can neither substitute personal discussion and exchange at conferences nor research in archives and libraries. When I first went to Brazil in 2012 to do research for my PhD thesis I had in mind working about favelas (slums). Due to discussions with colleagues from several universities and research in local archives, I changed the subject to lower middle class housing and came to know one housing project that I took as a case study for my thesis. When I went to Rio de Janeiro in 2018, I had conceived of a project focusing on automobility in the post-World War II period from a business history perspective. Again, research in local archives and the exchange with colleagues, particularly at the environmental history research group I mentioned above, led to a shift of my research focus and made me include several aspects I had not had in mind before.

Citation: “Research in local archives and the exchange with colleagues led to a shift of my research focus” – 5in10 with Mario Peters, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 03.12.2020,  https://trafo.hypotheses.org/25779

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