As a Peace Corps volunteer serving in rural Costa Rica in the early 1970s, Mitchell Seligson observed firsthand the social and political attitudes of the nation’s citizens. “I found that the people were intensely aware of what they were entitled to as citizens of a democratic country, and they struggled very, very hard to get the attention of the government to give them what they wanted,” he recalled in a 2015 Vanderbilt interview.
Inspired by his experiences, Seligson launched the first poll in what would become the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP). He realized that giving ordinary citizens a voice via surveys—gathered through person-to-person interviews—would be far more effective than any protest the people could organize. This pioneering research, conducted while Seligson was a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, took place at a time when much of the rest of Latin America was under the control of authoritarian regimes and public opinion polling was prohibited. As democracy expanded in the region, LAPOP grew in scope and size.
When Seligson joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 2004, he brought the LAPOP research with him to the university, which has a long history of academic expertise in Latin America. Today, LAPOP is the premier academic institution carrying out surveys of public opinion about democracy and governance in the Americas.
LAPOP functions as a consortium, with Vanderbilt faculty, staff, postdoctoral scholars and students working in partnership with numerous academic and non-governmental entities in Latin America and the Caribbean. LAPOP collaborates with these institutions, sharing ideas for survey content and working together to disseminate the results to the citizens of participating countries. This takes the form of systematic country reports, comparative studies, panel presentations and media interviews.
The AmericasBarometer, LAPOP’s largest survey research project, is the only scientifically rigorous comparative survey of democratic values and behaviors that covers all independent countries in North, Central and South America as well as a significant number of countries in the Caribbean. Launched in 2004–05 with 11 countries, the AmericasBarometer has grown to cover 34 countries. The latest round of the survey was carried out in 2021 and included more than 64,000 interviews in 22 countries.
LAPOP has a long-standing collaborative relationship with the United States Agency for International Development that began under Seligson, now Centennial Professor Emeritus of Political Science. In 2019 LAPOP received a new $10 million, five-year USAID grant to support the AmericasBarometer and related activities. LAPOP Director Elizabeth J. Zechmeister, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Political Science, and Associate Director Noam Lupu, associate professor of political science, authored the winning proposal.
“The work of LAPOP is significant in so many ways,” Zechmeister said. “It advances scholarship on democratic politics in the Americas; it provides evidence that shapes policy; and it helps train a new generation of political scientists. Through their work in the lab, our students learn that political science isn’t just about theories and data—it is also about connecting what we learn in a classroom or a lab to the world around us.”