At a recent International Studies Association panel presentation about military mergers, I was asked how I got access to the ex-combatants-turned soldiers in Mindanao with whom I did a focus group discussion. I am often asked this type of question by foreign audiences, and my standard answer is: I have built a considerable personal network within the armed forces and have a decade of field experience in my belt; I know who to call or send text messages to. By comparison, I never get asked this sort of methodological questions by Philippine audiences, not for lack of critical spine, but because field exposure is considered de rigueur in any Social Science research project.
A colleague, who is now Assistant Secretary of National Defense, once told me he likes my work better than another similarly-inclined “strategist” whose conceptual anchor is notoriously rusty and whose data is suspect. He says the empirical data I bring gives an “added value” to my work. In retrospect, this is standard research practice to academics in my University. There’s an emphasis on primary data-- interview, focus group discussions, and direct observations. That this primary data is secured at a heavy cost (think days of fieldwork in remote and inhospitable locations; literal armies of survey enumerators tasked to hop household-to-household; hours of facilitation with bureaucrats to secure FGD participation) is commonplace where I come from. There’s an implicit understanding even about what it takes a lot to earn your “research” wings, including a close brush or two with guns, long hours of trekking (forget about public transportation; there’s none) and a several nights of un-hygenic situations. None has beaten the record of my anthropologist-colleague Dr. Alicia Magos whose pioneering research on the Sulod-nons’ (indigenous people of central Panay highlands) oral tradition of epic chanting required her befriending communist rebel commanders and military officers alike at the height of insurgent conflict in the area in the late 1980s.
My research interest (civil-military relations) makes field research comparatively less interesting, but edgy. I have been accosted by armed militia; conducted an FGD with paramilitaries in a remote mountain-village and interviewed a group of coup plotters in an East Timor prison. From a battalion-size force that responded to a mudslide in Southern Leyte province to a mobile platoon chasing after communist insurgents in central Panay island, I encountered various faces of the armed forces. I listened to stories of losses, despair, courage and optimism among men and women in uniform, ever conscious of my reflexivity and ethical position. I have done fieldwork research in conflict areas in Mindanao, where most of my colleagues fear to tread. I have a heightened sense of adventure but am not reckless, relying on advice by trustworthy local field assistants who have a keener sense of the spatial politics of an area than I do. Where my “Chinese-like appearance” or my foreign-sounding surname may invite kidnapping threats, I don’t go.
But where I can take risk, I will not let others do so under duress or on promise of remuneration. I have been recently engaged as area field supervisor to a handpicked team of 8 to conduct focus group discussions, interviews and community observations throughout the Visayas region for a bilateral foreign aid-funded research project on anti-poverty. During the training for the field teams attended by representatives of the funding agency, I put up a protest over their supposedly randomized selection of field study sites because they did not cross check their selection with the security data of the Philippine military and police. Arguing both from a methodological perspective (how truly representative is their site selection, where poverty is not cross-checked with armed conflict indicators) and from the point of view of my crew’s safety, they finally caved in and changed one study site in Eastern Samar, but not the sites in Negros Oriental tagged by my military friends as “security threatened by communist rebel groups.” A small victory but meaningful, particularly since the overall project leader (a close friend) is even more gung-ho a field researcher than I was! To someone like her who has traipsed across communist front lines in Bicol province, I am a wimp.
I have never aspired to be an armchair academic, not after I had my first field research experience at 21. At middle age, I still have the physical constitution and energy to visit remote places in my country for research. I hope to continue doing this, surpassing even my field-research be-medaled friend Rufa who at over 60 is still running her racket across Mindanao. We belong to the happy sisterhood of indomitable traveling researchers. May our tribe increase!
Rosalie Arcala Hall is a Professor at the University of the Philippines Visayas and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.