Understanding the Philippines
(Keynote delivered during the 2014 national conference of the Philippine Studies Association, National Museum of the Philippines.)
The concept of interdisciplinarity as a methodological approach for harnessing the analytic powers of specialized disciplines toward understanding complex phenomena is presented and discussed for possible applicability to studying and understanding the Philippines.
The Philippines is a complex entity. Physically, an archipelago of 7,107 islands, it was formed by the movements of five (5) tectonic plates across a period of over 50 million years. Each plate has different soil types, landscapes, water bodies and biota so that the archipelago hosts a vast range of biogeochemical diversity both above ground, underground, in its seas and under its seas.
Because of its highly diverse ecosystemic settings the Philippines offers a wide array of conditions for the evolution and development of communities, cultures and traditions. Ethnolinguistic diversity and variations of social, economic and political ways of life are as immediately observable as diversity of landscapes, seascapes and biotic communities across the islands.
In brief, the Philippines is a setting of complex dynamics of diverse geophysical, biochemical and ethnocultural conditions that had created across our islands many different vistas of human-nature interactions. Our complex geosphere had provided the setting for the emergence of a complex biosphere that seemed to have in turn spawned a complex ethnosphere of our islands (Figure 1).
Figure 1. The Philippines as a complex setting of three spheres of observable phenomena
The many different conditions of our lands and mountains (from humid to very humid, and dry and very dry) and waters (from deep to very deep, corraline to grassy, and variably prone to flooding and drying) offer diverse bioscapes where social and cultural life had emerged in many ways. Because we have many kinds of soils, terrain and water resources, we see across our islands different arrays of flora and fauna and other life forms that in turn had nurtured highly diverse local practices and traditions. The foods we grow, glean or eat differ across our islands as do the things we make, what we buy and sell, our faiths, beliefs and myths, our sense of self and history, our sense of peace and unpeace, how we dance and the songs we sing, the musical instruments we use, how we conduct our politics, how we protect ourselves and our endowments, and how we respond to natural and human threats to life and property.
The question before us is this: given the diverse interplays of environment and people across our islands, how might we study (and understand) the Philippines in ways that will ensure optimal balance of internal and external validities of our knowledge of it?
There are probably two options on doing formal studies of the Philippines. The first (rather more common and traditional) is by way of specialized academic disciplines. We look at the Philippines from lenses of theories and evidence that, by long academic practice, have been grouped into departamentalized bodies of knowledge. This approach, rooted in Kantian, Humboldtian and Cartesian models of putting together and classifying knowledge into related areas of interests, lend to scholarly focusing that stress achieving high internal validity (Trompf 2011; Frodeman 2011).
The second (rather difficult to do) is by pooling disciplines into singularities of inquiry. That is, fusing disciplines into “interdisciplinarities” or into cohesive and systematic interweaving of theories, evidence and methods of several disciplines toward understanding a common event or phenomenon of interest (Reyers et al. 2011 c.f. Jantsch 1972, Max-Neef 2005 & Lengwiler 2006). Trompf (2011) sees this as about discovering “a synthesizing principle by which all the distinctive methods of approaching the world might be viewed in interrelationship.” This approach puts premium to achieving high external validity. The analytical range of disciplines are extended and widened through methodological collaboration and complementation with other disciplines (Frodeman 2011).
The power and weakness of disciplinal specialization
Disciplinal specialization has power. It comes from its high focusing of theories and methods for analytical depth. Its traditions of studying and understanding phenomena using tools of inquiry crafted from closely interlocking theories allow for high mutual reinforcement of evidence and findings. The validity of findings are bolstered by mutually consistent appreciation of the conceptual, empirical and logical value and relevance of evidence and information acquired from each theory and evidence (internal validity). But it has a weakness as well. It tends to have low external validity. Disciplinal findings tend to have deep reach but limited relevance across broader swaths of interrelated concerns of groups and people beyond the confines of the discipline. Biology might best give evidence and insights on how birds and bees behave to survive across different moisture and temperature regimes. But it can fall short in providing a theoretical basis for the trade, commercial value and market of birds and bees, or why some of them acquire high social, cultural or spiritual significance to certain people. Or law might explain the nuances of regulations, and anthropology the nuances of relationships, but none, individually, might explain the conditions of when and how regulations give way to relationships, or relationships to regulations, and the calculus, if any, that different groups use to decide if and when it is best and convenient to shift the adjudication of conflicts from one to the other. Frodeman (2011) believes that disciplinal specialization is losing its place as powerhouse of knowledge building in present society. He cites modern information technology, neoliberal education and rising public demand for accountability of researchers, to be pressing many disciplines toward widening their “analytical range”.
The power and weakness of interdisciplinarities
Reyers et al. (2011) refers to a continuum of ways to studying complex objects and events. It starts with “disciplinarity.” This involves studying an object or event using concepts and methods of “monodisciplines”. Monodisciplines are “specializations in isolation”.
Disciplinarity may widen into “multidisciplinarity” representing “more than one discipline being studied or applied without actually integrating the disciplines.” Multidisciplinarity refers to “cooperation [among certain disciplines] with low degree of exchange between the disciplines”.
The continuum ends with “interdisciplinarity”. This involves “cross-disciplinary cooperation feeding back into disciplinary knowledge”. It has the capacity to bridge “disciplinal divides” that seem to always haunt academic specializations.
Interdisciplinarities are described by Reyers et al. as methodological constructs in a four-tier hierarchy of knowledge. “All levels of the hierarchy are coordinated on the basis of an over-all purpose.”
The first tier is the “empirical” disciplines. It includes “the basic life, earth, social and human sciences which use logic as their organizing language and usually claim objectivity” (c.f. Jantsch 1972). “Cooperation between several empirical disciplines” create “interdisciplinarities.”
Interdisciplinarities build up higher levels of the hierarchy. The second level is the “pragmatic”. This “uses the language of cybernetics, the science of regulation and control, as its organizing language” (c.f. Jantsch 1972). It includes “applied or sectoral interdisciplines like forestry, engineering and architecture which are informed by the underlying empirical disciplines, while providing them (that is, the empirical disciplines) with direction and coordination” (c.f. Max-Neef 2005). In this level of the hierarchy, “vertical cooperation and coordination required by pragmatic interdisciplines demand close collaboration between empricial- and pragmatic- level practitioners – equivalent to an interdisciplinary research program of universities, research institutions and sectoral agencies jointly generating knowledge and understanding.”
The third level is the “normative”. This level “uses planning as its organizing language and deals with the design of social systems including policy, planning and law.” This level combines knowledge from the second (“pragmatic”) level. Here, interdisciplines provide the knowledge aggregates with which “humans shape their own and the earth’s future” (c.f. Jantsch 1972).
The fourth level is the “purposive” (or “level of meaning”). It “introduces values into the interdisciplinary structuring of the normative (third level) disciplines.” Here, the “organizing language should be anthropology at its most profound” which Jantsch (1972) says is a “science of creating an anthropomorphic world where humans can survive changing environments.” (Figure 2).
Figure 2. The four-tier knowledge hierarchy described by Reyers et al. 2011
Interdisciplinarity occurs when concepts and information freely flows between “interdisciplines” within and across the four tiers of the knowledge hierarchy. This concept of a hierarchy of aggegations of knowledge lends epistemological and methodological basis for interdisciplinary integration in the study and understanding of complex entities like the Philippines.
The power of interdisciplinarity lies in its systemic horizontal and vertical fusing of disciplinal theories, methods and evidence into wide aggregates of knowledge generation and applications. This makes interdisciplinarity ripe for obtaining a comprehensive understanding of complex phenomena, like the Philippines. It lends to achieving high external validity of findings. But it has a weakness. It is sparse on theories and methods to build up its epistemological foundations. But only for now. Frodeman believes that the rising pressures on discipline-focused knowledge to extend their analytical reach will eventually lead to “integration of disciplinary approaches and discipline-based methodologies.”
So how might we understand the Philippines?
There is a Philippine folk song called “Bahay Kubo”. It describes a small nipa hut amid a garden of many kinds of vegetables. It may have been intended to paint a picture of rustic rural life in the Philippines and of our country rich in natural bounty. It paints a picture of clean, healthy, innocent and uncomplicated living in our islands.
Understanding “Bahay Kubo” through lenses of science specializations involves different levels of disciplinary to interdisciplinary analyses. Its over-all picture of a place where Filipino aspirations are met, of serenity and innocence of life, of things beautiful or plentiful in our land, is fourth level (“purposive”) knowledge. This knowledge cannot be had without appreciating how the plants in the garden had been combined to produce a mix of nutritious foods that are of value to most Filipinos. This is third level “normative” knowledge that is needed to shaping a good fourth level knowledge of “Bahay Kubo” as a meaningful setting for Filipino life and culture.
A robust third level “normative” knowledge of “Bahay Kubo” can be crafted with accuracy and strong empirical basis if derived from solid knowledge of plant and soil ecology, hydrology, meteorology, farming system, economics, and such other knowledge that are directly useful to properly select crops in the garden. These second level “pragmatic” knowledge are critical to informing gardeners on what plants are possible (and desirable to Filipinos) in the particular ecological setting of the “Bahay Kubo”.
Good second level knowledge of ecology, hydrology, meterology and farming systems depend on data and information from first level specialized disciplines. Biology, chemistry and physics are basic building blocks of plant ecology. So are physics and chemistry for hydrology. Meteorology needs knowledge of physics and chemistry. Knowledge of farming systems (how people behave in a place to secure their supply of food) requires data and information from geology, biology, chemistry, physics, sociology, history and economics, among many others. All these require good knowledge of mathematics.
So, as with “Bahay Kubo”, should be our study of the Philippines. Specialized disciplines shall be harnessed to produce highly internally valid knowledge of the geophysical, biochemical and ethnocultural features of our archipelago and produce good and sound understanding of our country’s geosphere, biosphere and ethnosphere. It shall be from these disciplinal knowledge (not from fancy and dreamweaving) that rigorous and systematic analyses of our endowments, capacities and limits to pursue sustainable and productive goals, shall be based. Rigorous analyses of capacities and limits shall be in turn the principal basis for understanding how and why our people has been making certain choices about how to progress as a nation. It shall be from good understanding of our people’s choices (and their consequences) that we may shape a robust, comprehensive and good knowledge of the Philippines as a complex phenomenon. It would be knowledge likely to have high internal and external validity.
Rigorous interdisciplinary analyses might yet make us understand ourselves better. For one, like in Why Nations Fail (Acemoglu & Robinson 2012), which use knowledge aggregates from many disciplines, fusing first level knowledge from specialized disciplines like chemistry, biology, physics, humanities, sociology and history, into second level knowledge of the physicogeochemical and biocultural endowments, capacities and limits of our islands and people. It can be from our knowledge of these that we may shape a more informed knowledge of, say, how our history of widespread cut-and-paste adoption of institutional arrangements from elsewhere (a third-level knowledge), which, in turn, might explain (or not) fourth level knowledge questions like our cultural strengths and weaknesses, the cheers and jeers of our politics, or how we may be succeeding or failing to shape a common sense of “Filipino-ness” across our many ethnicities and aspirations as a people. Interdisciplinarities may improve our abilities to address fourth level knowledge questions like why (if indeed) we seem cursed by fractured politics, persistent poverty, or by convoluted disarticulation of our social, economic and political life, or if, instead of these, we are in fact experiencing a painful birthing of a new national order?
There is certainly sense to doing interdisciplinary studies to better understand our country. Many such studies are actually being done. For example, those to map the complex environmental, cultural and political influences on our people’s health and the policies and programs to improve it. Or those to shape national laws on clean air, clean water and solid wastes. But these are departmentalized concerns and mainly third level knowledge. We need fourth level knowledge of our country as a complex singularity – of who we are, what we are, our common aspirations, our possibilities as a nation. We need, as Jantsch (1972) puts it, a unifying (and unified) “anthropology” of the Philippines.
I believe this is a challenge that the Philippine Studies Asssociation might readily and most eagerly want to take on. I believe it must.
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“Bahay Kubo” (A Philippine folk song). From: http://www.lyricspinas.com/2013/02/bahay-kubo-lyrics.html
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BAHAY KUBO (Tagalog)
Bahay kubo, kahit munti,
ang halaman duon ay sari-sari.
Singkamas at talong,
Sigarilyas at mani.
Sitaw, bataw, patani.
Kundol, patola, upo't kalabasa.
At saka meron pa,
Bawang at luya.
Sa paligid-ligid ay puno ng linga.
MY HUMBLE HUT
(“BAHAY KUBO” English Translation)
My humble hut
may look tiny,
but the veggies around
it, sure are many.
Yam beans and eggplants,
wing’d beans and peanuts,
string, hyacinth and lima beans.
Winter melon and loofah,
bottl’ gourd, squash, et cetera.
There is more, amiga,
radish, mustard, yeah!
garlic and ginger.
If you look all around,
sesame seeds abound!
 Keynote, 2014 Conference of the Philippine Studies Association, 12-14 November 2014, National Museum of the Philippines, Manila; much of the materials cited here are from an unpblished review of 17 papers on interdisciplinary approaches in environmental research and governance presented in the 6th International Conference on Environmental Future, on Inyterdisciplinary Progress in Environmental Science and Management, Newcastle University, UK, July 18-22, 2011.
 PhD, Wildland Resource Science (University of California Berkeley); MA International Affairs (Southeast Asia Studies major in Economics and minor in Political Science and Philosophy) and MA Philosophy (Ohio University); AB Philosophy (University of the Philippines Diliman)
 See: http://sp.lyellcollection.org/content/315/1/7/F1.large.jpg
 Robert Hall 2001 http://www.gl.rhul.ac.uk/seasia/welcome.html
 Attachment 1 (lyrics in Tagalog with English translation)
 It is granted of course that there are knowledge systems other than sciences; see footnote 7
 It might be admitted that actual “Bahay Kubo” scenes in the Philippines hardly use formal sciences and research as basis for shaping the idyllic human-nature settings described in the song. More likely, where these scenes actually occur, they are products of traditional knowledge and practices. But the hierarchial organization of the knowledge may still be there. Example: traditional knowledge of each item of local flora may combine with experiences on local soils (first level knowledge) to shape aggregate traditional knowledge on how different plants grow or thrive in different conditions of soils in a place (second level knowledge). In turn, traditional knowledge of plant-soil-water dynamics may combine with traditional knowledge on health and nutrition to become the basis for local people to plan the plant mix to be grown in their garden (third level knowledge). Experiences with gardens and their value to people eventually become the basis for purposively thinking out a vision of an ideal garden and how it gives meaning to human life in a place (fourth level knowledge). My take is that disciplinary and traditional knowledge may combine across the hierarchy of interdisiplinarity decribed by Reyers et al. 2011.
 The works I reviewed in Newcastle in 2011 include Fisher & Chen (2011) on understanding the fate and effects of marine contaminants as results of chemical and biological processes in oceans and atmosphere; Acevedo (2011) on food security under different scenarios of climate, geologic, economic and social conditions; Ostrom & Cox (2011) on environmental governance; Ommer (2011) on contrasting the social, economic, technical and fishery conditions between the Pacific & Atlantic coasts of Canada; Lele & Kurien (2011) on causes & impacts of tropical deforestation; Agrawal & Benson (2011) on governing natural resources to achieve multiple outcomes; Filer (2011) on environmental governance & policy in New Guinea; and Hecht (2011) on Brazil’s deforestation being linked to a confluence of ecological, political, economic and social events. These are studies of large environmental systems and dynamics that exemplify interdisciplinary approaches to understanding complex phenomena like the Philippines. Other works illustrating this approach include McNeil’s The Rise of the West (1963); Polunin & Burnett eds. Surviving with the Biosphere (1993); the Millennium Assessment (2005); Brussard et al. on biodiversity conservation and food security (2010); Intergovenmental Panel on Climate Change (2007); Carson’s The Silent Spring (1962). There were papers on organizing interdiscilinary teams (e.g., Berkes 2011 & Beder 2011) but this is not included in the scope of this paper at this time.