Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Remains Applicable Today

This was a discussion paper of a Professorial Lecture of an esteemed colleague, the late Professor Dr. Corazon Lamug of UPLB.  I believe the issues raised then remain important today.  I accidentally found it in my old files and I wish to share it.

Comments by
Dr. Lex Librero

(SEARCA Professorial Lecture, UP Los Baños, 14 March 2008)

 Having a discussant in a professorial lecture is not unheard of in the academe, but at UPLB it is not normative behavior either.  Therefore, it came to me as a surprise when Dr. Cora Lamug requested that I serve as discussant for her professorial lecture.  I know that in most universities abroad academics welcome, in fact they seek, criticisms of their works from their peers.  I have been exposed to the belief that this is one of the best ways of improving one’s work.  Unfortunately, this academic culture has not as yet blossomed well enough at UPLB, much less in other universities in the country, even at this rather late age. 

It is, therefore, a very pleasant and welcome opportunity for me to respond to what an esteemed colleague has made of the sometimes confused and confusing research in community-based natural resource management in this country.

Dr. Lamug’s critique of the research designs employed in CBNRM studies, I would like to believe, has dug much deeper than most in terms of comparative analysis of research designs, particularly from the points of view of positivism, interpretivism, critical theory, and action research. 

The first observation that Dr. Lamug made that caught my eye immediately was stated rather lamely when she said “Most review of CBNRM focus on research findings.”  I have always been vocal against this simplistic approach to the review of scientific literature, particularly by our colleagues and graduate students.  Look at any chapter on the review of literature in all graduate theses and dissertations at the UPLB Library and you will find that not less than 95% would just report a litany of findings reported by theses and dissertations done earlier, not much more.  Why do I need to pounce on this right away?  Well, this is not the way to review the scientific literature.

Professor Ivor Davies of Indiana University, in a course that I took under him, once said, “no body will be interested in your findings, but everybody will be interested in how you treated the scientific literature you had access to.”  In other words, the results of your study can only be meaningful if the means by which you arrived at them were subject to scientific rigor.  Outside of that, the results become spurious.  From this point of view, therefore, Dr. Lamug’s decision to look at the research designs employed in the research efforts in CBNRM concerns become very significant if only because we are interested in meaningful new information and knowledge that would hopefully provide insights into how the existing problems in the environment could be dealt with effectively and efficiently.

I am elated by the fact that Dr. Lamug chose to look at the research designs that have been employed in the study of natural resource management in this country.  The classification of research designs into the four paradigms of positivism, interpretivism, critical theory, and action research makes the discourse much more philosophical and academic, thereby elevating a few notches the discourse as it ought to be in an academic community.  However, I shall try to simplify some of my thoughts on these as we go along, at least for the benefit of those at my level who may not always feel comfortable with the isms of academe.

Dr. Lamug has already explained to us what the four paradigms mean, but let us have a quick review.  According to the philosophy espoused by Auguste Comte and the philosophers that followed him, human thought proceeds through three stages: theological, metaphysical, and positivistic.  The first refers to explaining all phenomena as happening because of the direct manipulation of supernatural beings or divine forces as if they physically existed (for example, recall the gods of Greek mythology).  The second is just like the first but that the supernatural beings have become more abstract rather than appearing human like.  The third, positivism,  abandoned the supernatural beings and metaphysical abstractions in favor of naturalistic and empirical explanations.  Put simply, we give meaning to what we can observe or sense.

Interpretivism means that the social sciences should be concerned with providing interpretation of events and phenomena in terms of how people involved perceive and understand their own experiences, not simply quantifying what actually happens in a social phenomenon.   In fact, interpretive sociology  deals with how to find reality through the experiences of individuals involved in the actual social phenomenon.

Critical theory, as explained by Dr. Lamug, may be viewed from two perspectives, namely: literary criticism and social theory.  We are interested in social theory, I believe, in this instance.  From the point of view of the social sciences, therefore, critical theory is concerned with critiquing and changing society as a whole in contrast to traditional theory which is oriented to understanding and explaining social phenomena. 

Participatory action research, or simply action research, has been defined as “collective self-reflective enquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the rationality and justice of their own social practices” (Kemmis and McTraggart, 1988).   Hence, research becomes action research when it is collective activity.  Put simply, action research is actually the Dewey concept of learning, which is “learning by doing,” and it is known by many names like participatory research, collaborative inquiry, emancipatory research, action learning, and contextual action research which are variations of a theme.  In other words, a group of individuals would identify a problem, together do something to resolve the issue, observe how successful their efforts may be and if not satisfied, try again.

Now, let me proceed further into the lecture.  Dr. Lamug reported that 74% of the total number of reviewed research reports employed positivism as research paradigm.  About 7% of the studies employed interpretivism, another 7% critical theory, and 12% participatory action research.  This tells me that our researchers have been focusing too much on simply describing the situation in the environment.  Only 12 of a hundred have focused on explaining and understanding the actual experiences of individuals living in coastal areas.  This is rather small amount of research.   Could this explain why we do not, until now, fully understand the problems of people living in the coastal areas of the country?

Dr. Lamug’s critique, I would like to believe, has dug much deeper than most studies in terms of comparative analysis of research work in CBNRM.  She also had the foresight of telling us that the paradigms of positivism, interpretivism, critical theory, and participatory action research, indeed, are interrelated one way or the other.  Participatory research could be viewed as trying to achieve a clearer focus on a specific group of individuals being observed from the point of view of critical theory, and whose actions may be interpreted either from the point of view of the researcher or the researched and examined within the broad framework of positivism.

Dr. Lamug, through her lecture, has attempted to enlighten us on very serious discrepancies both in terms of our knowledge of and the methods by which we arrive at such knowledge of CBNRM and its effects on people and society.  For so long a time now, we have been doing research that simply scraped the surface of a social problem.  There are few in-depth analyses of the problems of CBNRM.  Most of the studies lack in-depth analysis that should logically lead to a better understanding of why people live the way they do in relation to their environment.

Has it not occurred to our colleagues, for example, that we still need to have a much better appreciation of why our indigenous cousins have a more meaningful understanding of nature and their environment?  At one time in the recent past, I challenged the researchers of Bicol University in one seminar, when I asked the participants “why is it that the wild life of Mayon Volcano understands the volcano much better than the people in its vicinity?”   The wildlife there, including the small lizards and insects, know when Mayon volcano is acting up.  But then again, the people probably know when Mayon volcano acts up but simply disregard it.  Such human behavior is something that also needs to be understood.  There must be a root cause of this problem situation, and that root cause is something we are not sure of.

Going back to issues raised in the lecture,  I ask: do we really understand our environment?  Some would say, yes we do but the difference is that we simply do not give a hoot because our greed is much stronger than our sense of responsibility and even safety.  Now, what then is the connection between irresponsibility and environmental conditions.  It is easy to make motherhood statements, or cop-out statements, but do we really honestly understand what the real relationship is between our own thinking and behavior and the natural order of our environment?  Our indigenous cousins would say, don’t do that because this would happen as a result, and that thing would result in this thing, and so forth and so on.  They have a strong sense of connection with their environment, and they have a deep understanding of how their lives and behavior are intertwined with natural conditions in their environment.  In a way, we can partly understand this phenomenon by understanding the indigenous knowledge system of the place.

If it has not come clear to you, let me try to simplify the message of Dr. Lamug’s lecture this morning.  In terms of research efforts, we simply describe because interpreting is much more difficult to do.  We think that when we have done our description we are done with our task.  Far from it.  The real work of a researcher is the correct interpretation of meaning and potential meanings and implications to our lives of what we may have discovered.  The problem is, when we do interpret to the limits of our understanding, we would certainly have to get out of our comfort zones – this is exactly what prevents us from further pushing our research and intellectual creativity towards innovative ways of looking at things and events.

Scientific revolutions happen, according to science philosopher and historian Thomas Kuhn, because of what he terms as anomalies resulting from discoveries of new ways of doing things.  The new ways of doing things resulting from new interpretations of similar observations unsettle what appears to be a relative calm within the scientific community.  When these new ways of doing things gain greater adherents among members of the scientific community questions are raised and an anomaly arises, and this anomaly would be settled either by accepting or rejecting the newer ways of doing things.  Then another relative calm sets in until another anomaly arises, and so forth and so on.  Of course, this does not happen overnight.  Remember, Copernicus was forgiven by the Roman Catholic religion only a thousand years later after he refuted the then dogma of the church that the earth was the center of the universe and that the heavenly bodies were the ones revolving around it.

As far back as two decades ago, I had already suggested that at least the UPLB-based social science researchers had better start doing synthesis work on the voluminous amount of research done if only to formulate research hypotheses or some other generalization that would lead to some kind of theorizing. 

I am glad that Dr. Lamug has done this critique because it has shown us clearly that many of the many research reviewed may not be as useful as the researchers might have thought initially. 

Echoing Dr. Lamug’s conclusion, I fully agree that our researchers in CBNRM must now try to be much more purposive in their efforts to unravel the complicated nature of social conditions.  A combination of the four paradigms sound to me to be highly useful.  This combination of paradigms could, in fact, provide us a better approach to a clearer understanding of the problem and solution structures of CBNRM issues.  My own take on this, however, is that I would prefer to reduce effort in mere description of conditions and put more effort into translation and interpretation of experiences into lessons and realities that could help us resolve real-world problems.

I now take this opportunity to congratulate Dr. Cora Lamug for painstakingly synthesizing the 74 studies in CBNRM in order to ferret out the lessons that most of us have failed to see.  To many social researchers, the work done by Dr. Lamug would have been daunting.  But I have known Dr. Lamug to be different, one who engages a social issue with intellectual fervor, trying to understand the social phenomenon through the eyes of a seasoned scientist.  As to the quality of the lecture this morning, it is a lecture worth the name professorial lecture.

Congratulations again, Dr. Lamug.  Thank you.

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