Daniel Núñez

Daniel Núñez

Daniel Núñez is a researcher in the Global and Territorial Dynamics Research and Projection Institute at the Universidad Rafael Landívar in Guatemala. He is broadly interested in power, culture and violence in Latin America. He has carried out research on vigilante justice, street-gang violence, conflict resolution mechanisms in indigenous communities, and political parties. He earned his PhD from the Department of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh in 2015.


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People, Things, and Our Sense of Self

In this piece Daniel Núñez uses the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away to illustrate Mead and Cooley’s classic theories of how each of us develops our sense of self.

In the hit movie Cast Away, released in 2000, Tom Hanks plays a plane crash survivor (whose name is Chuck Noland) who finds himself in the middle of the South Pacific, stranded in a small, uninhabited island, away from everything he knows and everyone he loves. During the movie, we see how Chuck goes through different psychological stages: from trying desperately to adapt to his new circumstances and almost killing himself in the process, to accepting his fate with stoic resignation and finding new strengths to endure in the face of complete opposition. His experience can be seen as an illustration of the classical psychological response to loss that psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously called “the grief process”.

At one point in the movie, we see Chuck struggling to build a fire, and cutting his hand while at it. His frustration is such that be begins to scream and curse at the world and to throw and kick things here and there uncontrollably. One of those things turns out to be a volleyball, on which Chuck’s bloody hand has left a blurry face-like imprint, with two eyes, a nose, a mouth and what could be dubbed spikey hair (formed from Chuck’s bloody fingers). Chuck begins to talk to the ball and eventually calls it “Wilson,” based on the name of the ball’s manufacturer. Over the course of four years, Chuck develops a relationship with Wilson: he takes care of it, talks with it constantly and even gets into fights with it. (In fact, in one scene, Chuck gets angry with Wilson and throws it out into the sea, only to immediately panic and blast out of his cave to look for it and apologize.) In what is without a doubt one of the saddest scenes in the movie, Chuck is seen sleeping on top of a small raft he has built (with the “help” of Wilson) to escape the island, visibly dehydrated and exhausted. The raft’s design included a small perch for Wilson to sit on, but the sea tide has knocked the poor ball off the raft and it is slowly drifting away from Chuck. Chuck realizes this and frantically dives into the ocean to try to save Wilson, while pulling the raft behind him with a rope. His anxious efforts are clearly unavailing, as we see Wilson disappearing into the horizon. The scene ends with Chuck lying on top of the raft, weeping inconsolably and desperately asking Wilson to forgive him.

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Crime, Morality, and El Chapo

In this essay, Daniel Núñez examines the prison escape of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera using the theories of Durkheim and Merton to illustrate the sociological relationship between crime and morality.

After Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera escaped from prison in 2015, public opinion in Mexico was apparently divided. For some people, El Chapo’s escape represented a terrible transgression of the moral order and the complete failure of Mexico’s justice system to preserve it. In a video addressing the Mexican people after the incident, President Enrique Peña Nieto referred to El Chapo as “a criminal” and to his escape as “a very deplorable act that outrages Mexican society.” For others, however, El Chapo’s escape seemed to have a heroic flavor to it. Many people in the state of Sinaloa, where El Chapo’s hometown of Badiraguato is located, for example, celebrated the escape and expressed their admiration for El Chapo quite openly. The joy was such that only three days after the escape “dozens” of narcocorridos (i.e. celebratory ballads) were already being dedicated to it.

Morality, Crime, and Durkheim

Although there are many factors that explain Mexico’s mixed reaction to El Chapo’s escape, the divide illustrates an old sociological relationship between morality and crime or acts of deviance more broadly. In his foundational and highly influential work, The Division of Labor in Society, published in 1893, the French sociologist Émile Durkheim put forward a rare view of crime that many people might still find striking nowadays. Going against the common view of crime as something that should never happen, Durkheim argued that a certain level of crime was normal and even necessary for a human society to remain “healthy.” He believed that every human society builds inalienable moral boundaries that define what is right and what is wrong, and that these moral boundaries need to be periodically reinvigorated over time.

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