I became interested in the topic of ethnic parties during research on constitutional change and ethnic rights in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. Indigenous peoples' organizations mobilized intensely around these constitutional reforms in order to obtain rights that they had been seeking for years through other means. The process of mobilizing around constitutional reform helped to consolidate indigenous organizations in all four countries and to increase public knowledge of and sympathy for indigenous peoples. Having secured new political rights and exceeded previous levels of mobilization, indigenous organizations in all four countries entered the electoral arena with newly formed political parties. Thus, the first area of exploration for this study was the connection between constitutional rights secured in the 1990s and the formation and performance of the new ethnic parties. The second stage of research focused on a closely related topic, party system change, which resulted from or caused the institutional changes of the 1990s. Latin American party systems underwent radical change in the 1990s, altering the context in which indigenous movements made strategic decisions.
The insights of social movement theory guided the final phase of research. While difficult to use as causal theory, social movement theorists point us to a set of variables associated with the emergence and performance of social movements. Since social movements sponsored all of the viable and successful ethnic parties, I suspected that these variables might help explain the decision to embark on a new mode of social-movement struggle – electoral politics – as well as the likelihood of success in this arena.