An Interview with Erwin Luchtenberg, Professor of Sociology at Universidad Austral

Jun 5, 2017 5:30:00 PM / by Julie Ritz

CAPAStudyAbroad_BuenosAires_Spring2017_Elizabeth Withers - Copy (2).jpgElizabeth Withers is an official CAPA blogger for spring 2017, sharing her story in weekly posts on CAPA World. A double major in English literature and history & philosophy of science at the University of Pittsburgh, she is studying abroad in Buenos Aires this semester.

In this week's post, Elizabeth interviews professor Erwin Luchtenberg, who teaches a class about ways to conduct sociological research.


This week I interviewed Erwin Luchtenberg, one of my favorite professors here at Austral University in Buenos Aires.  The interview is below, but I’ll first give some background information about the University and the nature of the course Erwin teaches together with Paola Salgado.

The course is called Qualitative and Quantitative Social Research Methodology, and it provides an overview of the different ways of thinking about and conducting sociological research.  The class has been really informative, and also one of the most fun classes I’ve ever taken!  Our coursework involves a research project about tango, and so Erwin and Paola have taken students on trips to Milongas for fieldwork.

CAPAStudyAbroad_BuenosAires_Spring2017_From Elizabeth Withers Interview 1.pngPhoto: here's one of the Milonga's we attended as a part of my sociology class.  It was in a community center far away from the downtown are where I live, and it was nice to see one of the city's quieter, less bustling neighborhoods. 

Austral University is a private university, with a large main campus in Pilar, 45 minutes outside of Buenos Aires.  I attend a small branch campus in the city center, where many classes are taught in English, and most of the students are international.  With that said, below is a condensed version of my interview with Erwin. 

ELIZABETH WITHERS: What’s it like teaching in a foreign language at an International School? 
ERWIN LUCHTENBERG: Well for me, at first it was a challenge.  I always wanted to prove myself, to do something that was difficult for me.  And when I received the email from the university that was looking for social researchers that teach in English, at first it was for Danish people.   And I thought,  ‘Ok, doing it with Danish people will be okay because they don’t speak English as a mother language, like me, so, it’s okay.’  And it worked.  At the beginning I felt very nervous.  It was like a very hard test, and I finished my classes very tired, with my head burning.  And they were only one hour and a half classes, and for me it was a long time.  But I enjoyed it very much.

EW: What do you enjoy most about teaching?
EL: I love teaching.  It’s been 15 years now.  I always loved the possibility of giving someone else information-- things that I consider are important, or interesting, at least.  And I’ve always loved teaching whatever (subject).  I also teach, for example, photography, and that has nothing to do with (sociology), or at least not in a general way.  And when the topic is more difficult, I enjoy the idea of explaining it because I try to give others something that is comprehensible--something that should be easy to understand when it really is very complex.  So for me the challenge of teaching is to try to put in a simple, easy way, things that are perhaps are hard or difficult. And that’s what I most love about teaching.  And I always try for people to enjoy it.  For example, talking about epistemology is not very funny, okay.  But if we can find the way of doing it more interesting, I enjoy that-- looking for the way through videos or music or whatever.

EW: What are the other aspects of your work in sociology, apart from teaching?
EL: I did research and I was a consultant for schools or groups of research that need advice on-- for example-- how to do a survey, or how to do an interview, or how to process data.  So I usually do that kind of thing, helping institutions to solve problems. But most of what I do in sociology is teaching nowadays.

CAPAStudyAbroad_BuenosAires_Spring2017_From Elizabeth Withers Interview 2.jpg
Photo: here's a picture of free street performance celebrating the re-opening of a famous theater on Av. Corrientes.  As you can see, it was very impressive, with stilt walkers, puppets, acrobatic dancers, confetti, and something like the huge inflated robot model shown here.

EW: What are your interests outside sociology?
EL: I’m a photographer.  I work at a university audio visual team. Most of it consists of recording interviews to specialists, but we had a chance to do a tv program for a very prestigious educational channel here in argentina, Canal Encuentro.  I had the chance to be the director of the tv program, and for me it was very interesting work. I suffered a lot with the deliveries, because we had to deliver each chapter on certain days and we had a lot of problems with producing with not much money, and it was very interesting and challenging work.  And I also film some movies.

EW: Can you tell me about your work with movies?
They usually are made for the web or short films that some friends of mine do. I usually do the photography of the film. Photography means that you think about the light of the movie, which would be the best lens to use-- it would be like the way in which you create the image of the movie.  So it’s very interesting because it has a very artistic importance. You have to work very close to the director to understand what he or she wants about the movie so as to translate that idea to the light.  I would like to start working on movies, commercial movies, for example.  I started doing this a few years ago.  I always loved photography, but I never had the chance to start, and once I was like, ‘Okay, I want to do it, so let’s start,’  I started studying and doing a lot of photography by myself.

EW: When did you develop an interest in sociology?  Do you think it’s related to film in any way?
EL: I started doing sociology when I was 20 years’s the story of my life. I always loved making films, but when I wanted to do it I was very young.  Studying filmmaking here in Argentina is very expensive and I didn’t have the chance to do it when I was very young. So i started studying social communications at UBA, and in the first year doing that career I discovered sociology.  I met sociology and it was like love at first sight. For me it was very interesting to find ways to understand why some people do some kinds of things, to understand which are the rules that we usually follow without knowing-- that kind of thing. Obviously when you are very young you feel like you are like a person who is against society, so you study society and you think that everybody is wrong, like a typical of a teenager.  And then you get serious and you understand that sociology means a lot of things, and that was the way in which I got started.

So I changed to sociology when I was 20, and in the middle I had a lot of different work, and I finished studying sociology when I was 27. Then I went to work at Conicet--that is an institution here in Argentina, very prestigious. But I didn’t feel very comfortable with that job. For me it was a very lonely job.  I enjoyed doing my own research.  It’s very interesting having the chance to do your own research, not to research for others. But still, I didn’t enjoy the idea of doing it by myself, alone.

And I’ve always loved doing films, since I was very young. I did some short films when i was a teenager with friends that were very popular at school. So for me it was, ‘Okay lets do it’. So I  started studying filmmaking.

I think that there is a very interesting relationship between (filmmaking and sociology).  They can work together very well. They fit, because I think that sociology gives us a lot of tools to understand society-- to understand people.  It’s very helpful to write scripts, to think about conflict, to think about drama. That’s filmmaking. That’s cinema.  And so I think that sociology gives me a lot of tools to think about a movie.  Usually, when I teach sociology, I use a lot examples from movies.  I think that movies give us a lot of examples about society, about what people do, what they prefer, about happiness, about sadness.

I like doing comedy within filming.  Comedy, for me, it’s very interesting.  Not the light comedy, but the comedy that has something that makes you feel that perhaps we have a dark side-- that makes us laugh about things that I think, ‘I shouldn't laugh about it, but what happened to me?’  I think that sociology has to do a lot with it because we construct our ‘correct comedy’, and the correct way of laughing, and the incorrect way. And I like to go there, to explore these parts of the human being and to try to use them to do comedy.

For example, I don’t know if you know Alex de la Iglesia, the Spanish filmmaker. He works with these ideas, with giving some kind of humor to things that are very dramatic.  To mix the dramatic parts of life with comedy is very interesting. The problem with this is it’s not very commercial, you know. For me, the interesting thing about comedy is when we are capable of laughing about things that are very tragic. That’s the way I enjoy comedy.

CAPAStudyAbroad_BuenosAires_Spring2017_From Elizabeth Withers Interview 3.jpg
Photo: here's a picture of Teatro Colon, known as one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world.  I got to listen to a fantastic free, public performance.

EW: Favorite directors?
Here in Argentina there are couple of friends ‘Cohn & Duprat’.  They do this kind of comedy that is very uncomfortable, you know. You laugh and you say ‘Why am I laughing about this? I shouldn’t.’ But we laugh, why?  Well, I think sociology has something there to explain why we shouldn't, because society tells us not to. That's interesting. Alex de la Inglesia, and then there’s another spanish director, not very well known, and for me he’s incredible, Javier Fesser. He works with absurd comedy, with something that is not very realistic.

EW: Favorite movies?
EL: Alex de la Iglesia has two movies ‘Dia la Bestia’ and ‘El Crimen Perfecto’ (It’s like a play on words, like a ‘ferpect crime.’)  It’s a very interesting movie. And then from Javier Fesser one of my favorite movies, very funny, is ‘El Milagro de P. Tinto’ (In English it would be, ‘The Miracle of P. Tinto.)  It’s ridiculous, the universe he creates. And I love the Coen Brothers, ‘Burn After Reading’ and ‘Fargo.’  The Coen Brothers would be like the American version of the kind of cinema I like.

EW: Your class is very fun, and gives students a chance to participate in and experience tango.  How did you come about choosing this topic?
Because we started doing this course in a very theoretical way. At first I started alone and then Paola joined me, and I thought, ‘’s very boring.’  I tried to do my best but still it was very boring.  So when I started working with Paola-- I knew her from our master-- I asked her to join me and we started thinking about how to do it in a more concrete way. We thought, ‘Well let’s research. If we are talking about researching, let’s do real research.’  So we started thinking about which would be the best fieldwork, because you have to choose your fieldwork and it’s not so easy, much more so if you’re not from Argentina. So for our students we had to choose a fieldwork that is popular, is typical from Argentina, or interesting, in a place that we can access very easily.  People usually love to talk about what they do..and in this case with tango, lots of people dancing tango talk English.  So we gave the idea to Marcelo here, and he was always very open to new ideas and doing things that are not very traditional. And he saw that the proposal was very serious, and very solid-- that this was a real proposal about doing research, and we thought, ‘Okay, let’s prove it. Let’s see if it works.’  And it worked very well from the beginning.

EW: What is it like teaching a class together with another professor? Had you done that before?
I had never done it before.  In this case it happened that we had a lot of work, each of us, so we couldn’t keep the course only one of us, so I asked her to join me because we had a very good feeling working together in our masters. We think in a very similar way. Its very important because we have to share this knowledge and, as you may know, there are a lot of people thinking very different things about methodologies and about social sciences. It’s not maths, (Or perhaps my idea of maths), where you can say, ‘Okay, 2+2=4.’  In this case we have a lot of different political statements or ways of thinking about methodology. So I asked for Paola and we started working together and it was very good from the beginning. We never had any problems about what to do, how to share the topics.  But it demands a lot of time talking on the phone, and emails, and meetings.

Thanks Elizabeth!

Elizabeth's journey continues every Monday so stay tuned!

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Topics: Interviews, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Buenos Aires Interviews