Robin LeBlanc, professor of politics at Washington and Lee University, has received a Fulbright Research Grant for Italy to investigate how communities in Japan and Italy prepare themselves for decline.
LeBlanc is the third member of Washington and Lee's faculty to receive a Fulbright grant this year. Renee Pratt in business administration and Josh Fairfield in the School of Law both won Fulbright awards to study in Germany. This is LeBlanc's third Fulbright grant. She received a Fulbright Research Grant in 2002 and a Fulbright Graduate Research Fellowship from 1991 to 1993, both for study in Japan.
The current Fulbright will support four months of research that LeBlanc will undertake in 2013 while affiliated with the University of Trento. She will also receive funding for her work from a Washington and Lee Lenfest Sabbatical Extension Grant.
The formal title of her study is "Housing Decline: Shifting Images of Community in Low-Fertility Societies."
LeBlanc has conducted her scholarly work on Japan for the past 20 years, focusing on the role of gender in the political system. She is the author of two books and numerous articles in the field.
After making several visits to Italy, she became intrigued that the country was facing many of the same issues as Japan.
"Japan and Italy have similar demographic challenges," said LeBlanc. "Fertility rates are very low. If you discount immigrants, both countries have declining population plus rapidly aging population. Both countries have economic stagnation and high unemployment, particularly among youth, and they have policy stagnation without new leaders to step into the breach of the failed leaders."
Despite those similarities, LeBlanc said, the two countries have very different built environments, with high-rise condominium housing far more prevalent in Japan. "I've wondered how people, given these spaces, either can or cannot engage in public life," said LeBlanc. "Are they subjects of these larger trends, just trying to get by, or are they finding ways to adapt their communities?"
Among the key challenges facing both countries, LeBlanc said, is a rising number of communities where the elderly are living by themselves, raising questions about how they are cared for, especially when government resources are not expanding.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are challenges in engaging the younger generations that are struggling to make a start. "They are unable to get jobs that are anywhere like the jobs that their parents had and are, therefore, struggling with new ways of living," she said. "Both countries are very patriarchal, and the husband has always been the breadwinner and the wife the homemaker. That worked fine when the husband's salary was enough to support the family. That's not true any more. So both countries are trying to adapt to families who have these new ideas."
LeBlanc believes the ongoing economic crisis in Italy and the rest of the European Union will help her research in an unintended way.
"When I visited Bologna earlier this month, there were people literally standing in the middle of the main piazza arguing about the situation that Italy is in," she said. "I hate to talk about a terrible national crisis as a benefit to a researcher, but in the sense that it is sparking this open debate, it may be beneficial."
As a political anthropologist, LeBlanc is interested in how people experience and describe their experiences within the context of their public lives. Her research methodology in Italy, as it has been in Japan, will comprise formal and informal interviews through a process called "snowball sampling."
"In past projects I have joined volunteer organizations or have joined the staff of candidates for office and listened to what people have to say," she said. "For instance, there is evidence that there is a housing bubble in Italy, and there is a think tank in Bologna that is tracking that housing situation. I'll contact that think tank and talk with the people there but also find out with whom they are working and talking.
"'Snowball sampling' means that you interview one person and and ask if they have another person you can meet. Your sample grows like a rolling snowball."
A member of the Washington and Lee faculty since 1998, LeBlanc is a graduate of Berry College and received her Ph.D. in political science from the University of Oklahoma.
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs