For the majority of my research career, I was a one-woman show. Except for the services of a research assistant to arrange my travels, make the field preparations and sort the paperwork, I do all of the thinking, from conceptualizing the proposal, implementing the project (including facilitating the focus groups and conducting the interviews) to the final write up. In this solitude, the only intellectual conversation transpires inside my head -- between the data and the literature to which I am hoping to contribute. I have had previous experiences of “research collaboration” but it was rather a short-hand for “I do it my own way; you do yours,” with the tying up of findings falling into my lap. The collaborative aspect has also proven contentious, with serious disagreements about methodology and fashioning a suitable output.
In the past few weeks, I had a taste of what a nurturing intellectual environment and collaborative research should be. In one project, I am part of a select pool of academic-experts on the Philippine military, the military brass and NGOs working on security issues tapped by a foreign foundation to conceive and implement a project assessing the latter’s internal security operations. Four half-day long brainstorming sessions (and counting) in which participants had to be flown into Manila resulted in a frank, policy-driven discussion about security sector reforms. This was “the dream three-way conversation” I had in all those years of solitary trudging in remote army camps and communities affected by militarization. The officers in this group are seasoned field commanders with advanced degrees from the US; the NGO and foundation reps are senior staffers with parallel academic and field credentials. After one meeting, I did my homework, scoured the literature and ended up supplying the framework and operational definitions that will anchor the project. I never had to bite my tongue to honestly tell the honchos of military operations that if they were serious about turning over internal security operations to the police, they should cut back on their size. It was also a lesson on humility. As a case study specific scholar, I did not know much about conflicts in other parts of our country, particularly in Mindanao Islands. While I understood the importance of safety in doing research in a conflict area, it was still sobering to hear that one of my teammates was a kidnapping survivor, and to hear stories about their friends who never made it. All these brought out questions about whether institutions (cookie-cutter contraptions designed by imperial Manila) matter in ungovernable spaces. The military is tired and wants out; the local government is an absentee landlord; NGOs for all their talk are scared to venture in.
I had a different kind of intellectual buzz from another project with a more sedate topic and membership: water governance with high-brow academics from various University of the Philippines units. We are a motley crew of resource and agricultural economists, psychologist, anthropologists, community development specialist, gender expert and political scientist (me)-- published, with a hefty record of externally funded projects under our belt and scientific designations. From a largely email-based project conceptualization process, we had an intensive 2-day inception meeting at bucolic UP Los Banos in Laguna. In between delicious local Tagalog cuisine, Vietnamese coffee and bread from a campus-based French-inspired bakery, I had the most inspiring discussions from colleagues who never have an iota of “I am the greatest” syndrome. We hammered out fundamentals of the conceptual framework, agreed on definitions (resource conflict I found, the economists understood differently!), and began work on the instruments. Water policy being NOT my organic research issue area, I was the most novice of the lot. But I am as excited about this ambitious endeavor-- policy, socio-economic and community interventions, all to be done in 5 years in 10 provinces, 3 major watersheds and 7 replicates. It is the traveling group of accomplished sisterhood (we have some men in the team) very similar to the collaborative API project I did in Batanes in 2010, but minus the ego. In October, we do the scoping in Iloilo, Benguet and Laguna-- mountain and riverside hiking which I look forward to.
Interdisciplinary, collaborative, policy-focused-- these are becoming “lived” concepts as I evolve in my line of research work. Scholarship (and publication in ISI outlets) is the life blood of academics, but more importantly scholarship that is informed by conversation with those who make policies and is geared towards making a difference in communities is the current template. I am expanding my circle of friends among practitioners and men-in uniform, exploring more of Muslim communities in my country and inching closer to my dream of scholarship that matters.