WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Applying the Phenomenological Approach in Researching Mindanao Issues – Parts 1 and 2

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/12 March) – This is a five-part series, taken from the lecture I gave on March 10 at the CAP Auditorium on the occasion of the 2012 Research Congress of the Commission on Higher Education. I feature it here because of the need to define qualitative psychological research apart from the generic “qualitative research” that many academics append as frills to their quantitative descriptive research projects. I observe that we sometimes neglect to underline the philosophical underpinnings of this research methodology that has come to its own in the postmodern world.

But first – and this will cover Part 1 – allow me to be true to the phenomenological tradition and state for the reader’s benefit where I am coming from with this.

I love watching people. As far as I can remember, I love observing what they do and trying to infer why they do it. Somewhere at the back of my mind is the assumption that whatever a person does holds logic for him. I may not understand it just by observing his actions, but maybe if I ask him he will tell me something that I should have seen coming, something that makes perfect sense.

Social behavior is a delight in that way. We may never fully get to know why people do what they do, but we take comfort in the observation made by the Great Malay Jose Rizal that even the sanest of traditions may look ludicrous to the eye of the non-practitioner. It is all right then that we do not comprehend those behaviors that are new to us; but that does not make such any less sane than those we call on from our repertoire of responses to the world as it unfolds for us.

In clinical work, I observe that strict adherence to linear causality or determinism is a potential pitfall in diagnosing disorders and problematic behavior. Oftentimes, we find that there is no one exclusive cause; instead there would be a web of interrelated factors that comes into play in a unique way for individual cases. While many people may end up in the same diagnostic category, how they did so and how they experience the problem are totally unique to each individual case.

In the late 1980s, the Cory government was rocked by persistent rumors of coup attempts. Our opinion makers were quick to direct our eyes to the usual suspects. And while the state soon detained those who were caught attacking Malacañang in 1987 and laying siege to the financial district of Makati in 1989, I found it strange why nobody bothered to explain to us the phenomenon of rebellion beyond political and legal terms. My curiosity was further aroused in 2003 when the Oakwood Mutiny happened.

As a sociologist by earlier training, it was easy for me to see that the very same profile characterizing the military rebel of the 1980s coup held true for the Oakwood mutineers in 2003 – they were young, idealistic, highly intelligent, well-trained for war and prepared to use that skill to repudiate a government that they condemned to be anti-people. However, those homogenizing categories of age, personal values, IQ above 120, specialized training, and intent were inadequate to explain why and how the individual soldier came to cross the line and commit to a collective action.

Back in 2003, I was about to write my master’s thesis. It was to be the first “qualitative research” allowed for MS Psychology in my institution, and I think it was given the go ahead because I would rather push the maximum residency rule and still refuse to go quanti as required. I guess my institution needed me to have that graduate degree.

I chose to study the psychology of military rebellion because I feared that if we did not understand it enough, the aberrant behavior would keep repeating itself. Unfortunately for me, I had limited access to the Oakwood mutineers then. They were sent to a maximum security detention facility while they were being tried for treason. At that point, whatever they had to say on their actions in July 2003 would reasonably be motivated by the need to protect themselves from prosecution.  One cannot get at the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth there when one’s respondent is more likely to invoke the right against self-incrimination.

To better understand rebellion, I turned to those who were reasonably protected against double jeopardy – the rebels of the late 1980s who had already been tried, sentenced, and pardoned after delivering thirty push ups – for their retrospect on their participation in a similar event years earlier. I asked them what had brought them then to rebel, and I did not preset my expectations on what answers they would give me.

It was an adventure to weed through the transcripts of the twelve interviews I did. Ever so often I would find a particular thought or sentiment leaping out and repeating itself in another transcript, and not necessarily in the exact same words. The three weeks I spent coding the transcripts and rearranging my growing number of post-its on the wall was a time of many aha! moments. I got hooked on the adrenaline jolt from those instances of sudden enlightenment; and every social research I would ever be lucky enough to do after that would always feature the search for the meaning people put to their behaviors, their experience, and even their very existence.

Part 2

This paper is supposed to be about phenomenological and ethnographic analysis, both qualitative research approaches that often overlap when applied in fieldwork.

For purposes of defining, ethnographic research is identified with social anthropology, where the objective is often to provide a highly detailed, in-depth description of everyday life, traditions, and practices. While this can be accomplished through participant observation, the behavior in question is described through the external eyes of the researcher seeking to explain the cultural construct underpinning lived traditions. It is about someone from the outside coming in and trying to see from inside. This method was pioneered by Malinowski in the early 1900s, bringing to mind the stereotypical image of white men in safari garb going native in some tropical island off the beaten tracks.

In Mindanao, some of the best ethnographic reports to come out in the last few years were written by anthropologist Gus Gatmaytan in his documentation of Lumad rituals and practices from his immersion in Banwaon communities in Agusan. Ronnie Amorado, on the other hand, used what he calls undercover ethnography to catch by hidden camera how fixers do business in government offices.

Ethnography answers the question: What do people do, how do they do it, and why do they do it that way? It is intended to describe the cultural construction of the behavior.

I am not an anthropologist, and I have not engaged in pure ethnographic research since my days in Subic 25 years ago researching the culture of US servicemen on shore leave.  So that is all I can safely say about ethnography.

Phenomenological analysis, on the other hand, is my comfort zone. It often comes after a description of what people do to explain what meanings they hold of their behavior. It comes most handy in clinical work.

In Part 1 of this series, I aimed to make the reader understand why I do what I do. I gave you the early history of my involvement in phenomenological investigation, as well as my personal philosophy of human behavior which makes the approach particularly appealing to me. In other words, what I gave you was the personal meaning I hold of the kind of research that I do. Such is an illustration of the phenomenological technique.

Surely, if you ask me why I do research, I could just as easily say for the money or for the intellectual exercise. But no, I had to explain myself on the assumption that the audience could relate and would want to understand the layers of nuances to my motivation as a Mindanao researcher. Indeed, we find that individual behavior is seldom trivial and given to reduction. There always is more to it that meets the eye.

Aside from my rebellion paper (The Making of Military Rebels: The Social and Cultural Influences in the Mutinies of the 1980s), I have used this approach – often in combination with other research methods – to understand how battered women engage Republic Act 9262 or the Anti-Violence against Women and Their Children law (Men’s Responsibilities in Gender and Development), how former rebels adjust upon reintegration into mainstream society (The Social Reintegration Experience of Rebel Returnees in Agusan del Sur), how combat soldiers experience war (War Wounded: Combat Stress Sequelae of 10ID Soldiers), and how residents in grassroots villages experience natural hazards and man-made disasters (Tibay ng Loob: The Mindanao Resilient Communities Report).

In all the ensuing reports, I privileged the words people used to speak of their experience, preserving as closely as possible in translation the cadence, the tone, and the emotion the words carried. Indeed, translation is already a form of interpretation on the part of the researcher. In phenomenological research, we privilege meaning-based translation to capture the symbolic exchange of ideas.

In discussing what they said, I interpreted with a very empathetic view, with the intent to convey to the reader my need to comprehend what he meant by what he said. (But first the researcher must fully disclose the data from which his interpretation is based, so the reader can judge for himself whether he got it right or not. Phenomenological research is dialogic in that way. It invites the reader to form his own opinion of the data. Sometimes it is also necessary to disclose where we as the interpreter are coming from. This allows the reader to factor in what we know and what our likely biases are.)

The resulting report had me oftentimes seeing the world through my respondents’ eyes; and that is not always a very comfortable vantage point from which to view the terrifying events they spoke of. It is however only through journeying through someone’s hell that we psychologists could get a grasp of our clients’ difficulties enough to help them help themselves. (Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan’s column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family
Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also editor of Tambara, the university journal. You may send comments to gail@mindanews.com. “Send at the risk of a reply,” she says)