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Centre for the Study of the United States

Interview: Visiting Professor Sean Purdy's Journey in American Studies and Latin American Studies

In this interview, we delve into the fascinating intersections between American Studies and Latin American studies with visiting professor Sean Purdy. Professor Purdy shares insights into the transnational connections shaping historical developments in the Americas and his passion for exploring urban political economy, social history, and public housing in the US, Canada, and Brazil. During his time at the Centre for the Study of the United States at the Munk School, University of Toronto, Professor Purdy discusses about engaging with a diverse academic community and contributing to transnational research. 

Sean Purdy is professor of the History of the Americas at the University of São Paulo since 2006. His research focuses on workers' and social movements in the United States, Canada and Brazil in the post-Second World War era. He has published widely in English and Portuguese in historical and social science journals as well as in the popular press. He has translated four books from Portuguese to English as well as dozens of specialist journal articles. 

What initially drew you to your connections within American Studies with Latin American studies, and what specific aspects of this field are you particularly passionate about exploring?

For several decades now, historians of the US as well as researchers in the humanities in general and social sciences have been exploring the diverse transnational interconnections between the United States and Latin America. In part, this was a response to an increasingly globalized world in the twenty-first century, but also an empirical reality in scholarly research. Researchers have come to understand that many historical developments in the US and Latin America share similar influences in a range of areas: ideologies, political developments, racial formation, immigration and so on. I study urban political economy and social history – specifically, public housing, poverty and social movements in the US, Canada and Brazil – and I have been exploring in my research and publications the varied transnational connections, similarities and differences that mark these three countries. I’ve discovered, for example, that many of the same ideological dispositions are displayed by elites, the media and politicians towards what I call “pariah spaces” (poor areas of the city) all over the Americas. Moreover, social movement organizing by low-income and often racialized residents in cities show many similar cultural and political references, strategies and tactics. What excites me the most is that my research helps illuminate many pressing issues that face cities in the Americas today.

As you prepare to join us as a visiting professor at the Centre for the Study of the United States, what excites you the most about this opportunity? Are there any specific aspects of our institution or community that you're eager to engage with?

The Centre for the Study of the United States at the Munk School, University of Toronto, offers a stimulating and highly welcoming environment for transnational research on the US as it showcases both more established and younger scholars in a diverse range of disciplinary areas who explore transnational connections. In addition to research, it regularly organizes fascinating seminars and talks that bring together the academic community in the city, including researchers, professors and students.

During your time here, what specific research topics or areas will you be focusing on, and how do you envision your work contributing to the broader discourse within American Studies?

I am currently studying public housing redevelopment in the United States and Canada. At the Master’s and Doctoral level, I studied the history of public housing in Canada – within a wider North American context – and this new research project caps off the more recent history of public housing which has undergone significant transformations in the twenty-first century. As part of much wider developments in recent public policy formation, urban political economy and social and political movements, my research on public housing redevelopment involves new transnational approaches and intersects with exciting new work in the area by both established and newer scholars.   

As someone with extensive experience in academia, what advice would you offer to students and scholars interested in pursuing research in American Studies, especially those navigating this field for the first time?

My advice would be to read widely not just in a very specific research area but in ample literature in the humanities and social sciences, including developments in other countries. In concert with this, take advantage of the remarkable academic community at the Centre, the Munk School and the University of Toronto as a whole which offers a tremendous range of public events to further our knowledge. Immersing yourself in this community prepares you well for the opportunities and challenges that research in American Studies presents.

As you prepare to spend time here, are there any aspects of Toronto that you are excited to explore or engage with?

I’ve already visited old neighbourhoods where I used to live in Toronto as well as the public housing redevelopments in Toronto which I’m studying. Toronto is a fantastic, world-class city which everybody should enjoy. I’m very pleased that I’ve been able to have this wonderful experience here and want to thank everybody at the Centre for welcoming me.