The political scientist as citizen

8
ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

This is my introductory opinion piece with The Manila Times, and I thought it proper to begin by making it known to the public where I am coming from.

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As a political scientist, I consider myself as a proud inhabitant of a marginalized space in my discipline.

You see, unlike most of my peers, I do not believe there is a scientific way to study politics. Politics is such a subjective construct that any attempt to make it predictable, as if it follows some natural law, would fail.

We try to quantify the political world by applying scientific methodologies to the study of the political phenomenon. Many of us focus on the observable and the quantifiable, and we try to establish numerical indices of political constructs such as justice, corruption, democracy and good governance. Success is achieved by some when they are able to establish mathematical models, by correlating variables, but most of which are not precise measurements but are, in fact, perception indices drawn from a scale measuring the level of agreement to a statement. The domain within which quantification reigns supreme is in the conduct of political opinion surveys, but even here, what is measured are perceptions. Some studies rely on indicator variables that are easily quantifiable to stand for others that are not, like the number of journalists killed is considered a proxy for the absence or presence of press freedom.

However, and no matter how hard we try, attempts to turn political science into a quantitative endeavor will always be challenged for their social authenticity and mathematical rigor. This is because the political phenomenon is either just reduced to a qualitative perception that is scaled to appear numerical but yet is not precise and, therefore, not reliable. Or that it is just replaced by other variables that do not fully reflect or explain the phenomenon at hand and, therefore, may have validity problems. For example, while the number of journalists killed is an indicator of lack of, or if not a challenge to, freedom of speech, one will be confronted with the case of Singapore having very few media killings, but our press in the Philippines, where such cases would be higher, is seen as less controlled than the Singaporean press.

I deal with this conundrum as one whose undergraduate academic background of Forestry is steeped in the natural sciences, where quantitative analysis occupies a prominent role, but has realized that there is a casualty that goes beyond the problems of reliability and validity in quantifying political phenomena. It lies in the admonition that in order to be scientific, one has to be objectively detached and should suspend one’s biases.

I consider this as incompatible with the political civic enterprise, and with the concept of critical citizenship. It behooves one to ask if it is even possible to suspend our biases. Right now, “bias” has turned into an ugly word. Journalists are being admonished to be objective in the same manner that we in academe are taken to task for expressing our biases.

I have been accused of being biased. Some even went to the extent of writing, anonymously, my University to demand that I be censured, or in the words of the letter-sender, “disciplined,” when I joined David Yap to expose the anomalies in the results of this year’s vice-presidential elections.

Of course I am biased, which is the path traveled by social scientists who are conscious of being also a citizen. I am less as a scientist, and more as a citizen who happens to understand politics from an academic perspective. I even subscribe to the belief that our academic authenticity will be enhanced if we begin calling our discipline as simply “politics,” and not “political science.”

I take comfort in the principle of academic freedom that protects those of us dwelling inside academe, as long as we can support our arguments with our own set of warrants and standards of rigor. After all, I do not pretend that I will produce truth, or report it. I am a political scientist, and not a journalist. I only make a truth claim based on my own biases.

In a world where there is a need for informed yet engaged citizenship, I could not afford the luxury of just looking at electoral fraud as mere data, which a detached, dispassionate political scientist would study. I had to engage it passionately using whatever academic privilege I have earned in my discipline.

Faced with the challenge to be critically relevant, the best I can do is to produce learned and carefully studied opinions, which is exactly what I will be doing in this space three times a week starting today. In a world of political uncertainty and bounded rationality, that would be as good as truth itself.

The author
Dr. Antonio P. Contreras is a full professor at the Department of Political Science, De La Salle University Manila. Born in Buhi, Camarines Sur in 1961, he is a product of a public school for his elementary education where he graduated from Buhi Central School as Class Valedictorian in 1974. He finished high school at the Ateneo de Naga as Class Valedictorian in 1978. He has an undergraduate degree from UP Los Banos where he obtained his BS Forestry in 1982, Magna cum laude. He obtained his MS Forestry degree from the same university in 1985.

In 1986, he was awarded an East West Center Graduate Fellowship to pursue graduate studies at the University of Hawaii. In 1989, he received a second Masteral degree, this time in Political Science, and in 1991 he obtained his PhD in the same discipline.

His fields of specialization include political theory and analysis, environmental politics and governance, comparative politics, and politics of culture. His earlier scholarly interests were on the role of non-state actors in environmental governance.

Currently, he is focusing more on the politics of everyday life, and the politics in non-state domains, such as the mass media and popular culture, as well as in linking science to policy and politics.

He has been awarded a Fulbright Senior Fellowship and was a Visiting Scholar affiliated with the Department of Political Science of the University of Hawaii last Spring Term 2009. He was also Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii in 2000 and at Chiang Mai University in Thailand in the same year. In 2014, he was a Visiting Scholar at Mahidol University also in Thailand. Prior to joining La Salle, Dr. Contreras taught at UP Los Banos from 1982 to 2000.

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8 Comments

  1. Mariano Patalinjug on

    Yonkers, New York
    27 September 2016

    I am a regular reader of the online version of the Manila Times, and have been for many years now. What I have noticed all these years is that most reports, editorials, columns and commentaries in this broadsheet are written in language which even a first-year high school student in the Philippines is able to understand.

    Now comes Mr. Antonio P. Contreras with his first opinion piece in the Manila Times. I have a college degree in Economics and have read hundreds of books on a wide variety of subjects and thus I am in a position to say here that Mr. Contreras’ style of writing, judged by his first attempt, would prove opaque to many if most readers of the Manila Times–and, sadly, it proves opaque to me.

    I would respectfully suggest that he come down from his high perch as a scholar, try to write in English that is understandable to a high school student. That way he will be able to command the kind of readership which most if not all of the current columnists of the Manila Times capture effortlessly.

    MARIANO PATALINJUG
    patalinjugmar@gmail.co

  2. makasalanan na pinoy on

    Antonio P Contreras as a political scientist, also a citizen, and a human being that makes mistakes everyday like everybody else. His educational background is very impressive but his humility is not proportion to his greatness. He is like any other highly educated Filipino that cannot accept mistakes they made and probably criticisms as well. Mr. Contreras can always say he is only expressing and reporting his own biases, such as the time when he appeared on TV claiming that Senator Marcos was cheated in the election return because his analysis on the election return was this and that,— and used dime words to impress the not so educated Filipino voters. His educational accomplishments alone can make him walk on water

    In reality, there was no anomaly in the Vice Presidential election because couple of writers for Rappler, Philippines responded to Mr. Contreras accusations and biases. They recorded the election return every 15 minutes interval and the deviations were normal. Did Mr. Cortreras joined Mr. David Yap or the other way around?
    Former Senator Marcos did not mention or included this anomaly when he filed suit with the PET. Therefore, this anomaly that Mr. Contraras has mentioned was only expression of his biases.

  3. Dr Contreras Sir,

    Where can I find copies of your articles on the roles of non- state actors in environmental governance?

    Would appreciate very much if you can send me an email at joshua2437@yahoo.com?

    Thank you very much!

    Best,

  4. Welcome to the journalistic world Prof. I always like your in depth analysis of the political spectrum. Keep it up. Looking forward to your regular column at MB. Always listen to your DWIC commentaries with the karambolistas. Congrats!