(Hay una versión en español aquí.)

esrc-logoLogotipo_de_la_CONACYTThis project studies activists who are fighting violence and seeking Human Rights-based development in the Central Mexican state of Michoacán.

We understand activism as practices aimed at changing “the rules of the game” to achieve a more just society. In such difficult contexts, activists are themselves often subject to intimidation and hindered by institutional fragility. Despite this, some initiatives demonstrate the potential to achieve changes for the better, if modest. (Please see our Types of Activism page for more information on the groups selected for study.)

This 3-year project is financed by the Economic and Social Research Council in agreement with the Mexican research council CONACyT, via the University of Aberdeen in collaboration with El Colegio de Michoacán, the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, and the Overseas Development Institute.

The Contexteventos-cide (2)

Michoacán is notorious for its high levels of crime-related violence alongside a range of institutional failings, including criminal infiltration. The efforts of government and NGOs to counter this violence have so far proven futile.

As Michoacán is a highly diverse state, geographically and otherwise, our project compares activisms in four regions: the coastal region, the pleateau region, the lowlands, and the central region. For more background, please visit our Key Facts page.

Main Research Questions

  • What kind of activisms arise and under what conditions?
  • In what ways and to what extent are they exposed to and even reproducing the same violence and corruption?
  • At what point are these sources of injustice facilitators and obstacles to activism?

autodefensas (2)

Our Team

We are seven Mexico- and UK-based ethnographic researchers (anthropologists, sociologists, and political scientists) with research experience in risky contexts: Trevor Stack, Salvador Maldonado, Edgar Guerra, Denisse Román, Irene Álvarez, Ariadna Sánchez, and Iran Guerrero.

In developing a policy-relevant approach and analyzing the field material, we are assisted by an additional two researchers and policy analysts, a political scientist (Pilar Domingo) and a criminologist (Sasha Jesperson). For the final four months of the project, we have hired an additional postdoctoral researcher (Catherine Whittaker).

Please see our Team page for biographical information about individual researchers.


We compare in-depth ethnographic data with the objective of evaluating the effectiveness of the different activist groups. 


We began by approaching activists in various regions of Michoacán. By combining techniques such as structured interviews as well as direct observation in meetings and assemblies, we sought to understand and compare their diverse initiatives.

This uniquely systematic comparative ethnographic approach enabled us to generate insights that are at once sensitive to local specifics and generalizable to other parts of the world affected by organised crime, insecurity, and institutional distrust.

Timeline and Outputs

The project runs from November 2016 to July 2019. In 2017, we carried out field work in seven regions of Michoacán. In 2018, we analyzed our findings and began to disseminate and prepare publications. Finally, in 2019:

  • We will publish 3 academic books, as well as participating in academic conferences and organising impact events in Mexico and the UK.
  • We will elaborate a series of policy- and strategy-relevant documents recommendations aimed at social organizations and government agencies.

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