WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Applying the Phenomenological Approach in Researching Mindanao Issues

Part 5

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/14 March) – A phenomenological research report does not warrant a categorical conclusion or generalization. Instead, it usually ends with a short section on implications and specific recommendations on logical courses of action to adopt.

Well-articulated phenomenological research findings can become the basis for practical theory or further action research. Yes, I am aware that some readers think it is the way I write that makes them cry over someone’s hell. Readers sometimes fail to see the rigor that went into my getting the story and getting it right, and how much the process can make my heart bleed five million ways to Sunday.

Such is the power of a person’s story. It can push me to write about it and it can make those who read want to do something about it. Well, actually, I do something about it. Research ethics requires that researchers should follow up on their recommendations.

Military commanders who read my rebellion paper tell me that it helped them adjust the value formation input for in-service training in their units. I would like to think that such also influenced some of the reforms in the AFP in the last six years, as a summative consequence of the individual decisions these commanders made.

An understanding of the reasons for women’s ambivalence to the mandatory ten-day temporary restraining order allowed MR GAD pilot barangays to explore ways to capacitate faith-based organizations to undertake gender-sensitive family mediation of couples in distress which barangay officials cannot do since, under R.A. 9262, government officials may be fined P10,000 for arbitrating for reconciliation during this period.

The Agusan case study of rebel returnee reintegration informed the elements of the Healing and Reconciliation component of OPAPP’s Social Integration Plan during the last years of the Arroyo Administration.

An in-depth view of the psychological sequelae of war participation has caused my host organization, the 10th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army, to send their soldiers for post-encounter psychological debriefing, often delivered by civilian psychologists from the ADDU Center of Psychological Extension and Research Services (COPERS). Just a few months back, the Western Mindanao Command requested COPERS to conduct trauma event management of the survivors of the 19 October 2011 encounter in Al Barka, Basilan. And every time Manila warmongers call for all out war in Mindanao since the book came out, there would be Army chaplains all over Mindanao brandishing my book, demanding the warmongers to read and understand what they are asking of the soldiers.

In the last few months after the Mindanao Resilient Community Project report, we had been exploring more fully how civilian strengths and capacities could be better articulated with local government preparations for community disaster. Thus, we serve in the aftermath of floods to see how local communities actually respond. This summer, we hope to undertake workshops to further synergize the network for post-disaster recovery efforts in the grassroots.

Part 6

This part is devoted to examining some thorny issues in Mindanao research.

Dignifying hearsay. Sometimes, researchers fail to find the respondents who lived through the event they want to study. Instead, they identify key informants who would be willing to talk about how others lived through the event. In this case, the convenient respondents are actually one step removed from the source of data, yet for the careless researcher the information key informants give warrants treatment as primary data.

Another way to dignify hearsay is not to record and transcribe the interviews and for the researcher to insist that he remembers exactly what his respondents said.

Failure to triangulate. Sloppy researchers often masquerade the limits of their primary data by the defensive assertion that that indeed was what the respondent said – no more, no less. They argue that there is no need to question the accuracy of his perception of the events. However, when respondents misunderstand the events they experienced – as people who are agitated are wont to do – to unquestioningly parlay their perception as the unvarnished truth is an insult to the researcher’s intelligence and to the reader’s gullibility. It also speaks of the research rigor that was employed – in this case, the lack of it.

Researchers should always put in context the data supplied in an interview. Verify your respondents’ version of the events from official reports, media and eyewitness accounts, photos, and videos. Many papers I have read about the war experience of local communities neglect to triangulate against crucial military records of combat operations in the area or even just against the records in the barangay logbook, as well as reports of local journalists who covered the event.

Such sloppy research habits render the final report of little utility to policy makers. The body of information provided remains a “stand-alone” because little attempt was made to link it with the background context of place, time, history, and other social forces in which the behavior emerged.

Lack of empathy. Many researchers have been schooled to hold the primacy of empirical data and they were told that the way to do this is to be the objective observer. If that applies to you, better stick to objective methods.

Maintaining an objective distance could position the researcher where he would be unable to allow himself to relate to the respondent. He then runs the risk of representing his subject as the “exotic other,” in which case, the final report would be extremely irritating to some readers who wish to understand the behavior from the perspective of the doer, not from the perspective of textbook theory. For if it be conventional wisdom we need, we can always read up on that. But if it’s a look into how others live, we would want to walk in their shoes.

Pre-set categories. A theoretical framework to guide the interpretation of data is often advised. While well-intended, a theoretical framing could justify the selection of items from the body of data one gets, allowing the researcher to see only what he wants to see; to prove what he wants to prove.

But one can never fully anticipate the range of answers one will get. There is a need to keep an open mind, to exercise a higher tolerance for the range of choices to decisions people make when confronted by a troublesome condition. Data processing involves allowing the themes to emerge, and this process cannot be fully accomplished when the schema for analysis had already been established. Remember that there is nothing to prove. Phenomenological research only intends to describe.

Conclusions that overreach data. In a phenomenological paper, the analysis is the conclusion. I observe, however, that results from focus group discussions and key informant interviews are sometimes taken as conclusive just because the researcher took pains to randomly select the representative administrative unit from the bigger locale where the focused social behavior is manifested.

For example, in studying the war experience of children in a province, the researchers may randomly select the town, barangay, or sitio to represent the province. They may even randomly select the children in that place who qualify to be part of the study. However, the method of understanding the war experience of the children will have to come from FGDs or interviews and should rightfully be treated following a phenomenological approach. Logic will tell you that the children of the province would have experienced war differently in every sitio, because the war did not happen at the same time and in the same way where each child was.

Finally, phenomenological researchers must be very specific about the recommendations to prescribe. Set modest limits and always ground these on the specific findings that the data could support.

Ethics. In everything you do as a researcher, dignify the human person. When a person tells you his story, he gives you a priceless gift of himself. Treat his story with respect. This is not to prescribe that researchers suspend their personal moral codes when they turn up horrors; rather, it is to encourage that when writing the report, always make the effort to contextualize this precious gift in the humanity of the person who, just like you, seeks to make sense of his experience and come to terms with it.

(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 the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to gail@mindanews.com. “Send at the risk of a reply,” she says.)