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Home > Virtual Classroom > Required Readings > Development Research (Villegas)

Development Research as Committed Research

By Edberto M. Villegas, Ph.D.
International Conference on Research Methodologies
July 31, 1999
PCED Hostel, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Q.C.


The main concern of this study is research in the social sciences with special focus on development research. At the later section, actual research works I have supervised with my students at the University of the Philippines, Manila, will be discussed.

Qualitative and Quantitative Research

Qualitative methods of research in the social sciences preceded the use of quantitative methods. Before the advent of the social science as an intellectual discipline, the most widely utilized qualitative method to study societies was participant observation. Travelogues were of this category and mention can be made of such works as "The Travels of Marco Polo" depicting the author’s observations of and direct participation in the Chinese civilization of the 14h century and Sir Richard Burton’s travel books and his "Book of Sword", narrating his observations of life in the Middle Eastern countries of the early 19th century.

With the emergence of the social sciences, pioneered by sociology and anthropology in the latter 19th century, "ethnographic" studies or direct participation in communities, particularly what Western researchers called "primitive communities" became in vogue. Along these studies were those of Bronislaw Malinowski and Margaret Mead of Oceania peoples and Ruth Benedict of American Indians. Meanwhile, statistics as study of chance and probability was being developed by Laplace and Gauss and later by the American Charles Sander Pierce. Emile Durkheim, considered by many as the founder of modern sociology, began adopting the statistical method in the study of social events, which he calls "social facts", notably in his research on the trends of suicide in Northern Europe.

It was the American social scientists in the 1930s who became enamoured with the use of statistics as the main foundation of social research. Robert Merton and his followers consider statistics as the basis for empirical studies, which can become the final determinant for the worth of a social research. This obsession of US social scientists with the quantitative methods of statistics was an influence of the positivist school of thought which gave rise to the establishments of so-called behavioral studies in many American universities. Positivism as an epistemological outlook originated in the logical atomism of the German Ernst Mach and the British Bertrand Russell in the early 1900s and which was later developed by the Vienna circle in the 1930s. Positivism takes statements about facts, including social events, as a congerie of observable sense data to be further confirmed or disconfirmed. Thus when applied to man and society, it would be the observable behavior of individuals , including their verbal utterances, that must be given priority in arriving at conclusions about social phenomena. Statistics that works on collected data from the behaviors of respondents then becomes the most reliable instrument to the positivist-minded researcher in social research. However, the behaviorists during their period of dominance in American social science (1940s-1970s) encountered considerable methodological difficulties concerning respondents who lie, because if all that matter is observable behavior, then the possibility of lying becomes an irrelevant epistemological question. Some British philosophers who were initially influenced by the Vienna circle, when confronted with the problem of other minds, were the question of lying comes into the fore, later shifted to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of language as a game. Wittgenstein himself was an adherent of logical atomism earlier in his philosophical career.

The limitations on trusting on statistics (particularly, inferential statistics, e.g. tests of hypothesis) as providing the most reliable source of knowledge for social research is that it affords only a piece-meal view of social reality. This is along the positivist line of thinking that a social scientist must avoid making any statements about the whole system of society, and must only analyze parcels or parts of it. The Vienna school of positivism is anti-systemic and considers as unscientific making value judgements about reality. They maintain that all research must be value-neutral, a perspective which has widely influenced the research stance of many American social scientists and their followers in the Philippines, the Filipino behaviorist academicians. With the rise of systems analysis in US universities in the 1960s, particularly in the field of political science, the hegemony of the behaviorist school of research in American social science was gradually eroded. However, system analysis, like behavior research, still advocates that the role of social science must be descriptive in order to be scientific and must assume value-neutrality regarding social issues.

Starting in the 80s, policy research has made its presence felt in the US which has also been slowly grafted into the Philippine academic scene. But policy research which is more goal oriented and not merely descriptive, still adopts the piece-meal method of positivist research. Heavily influenced by pragmatism, which likewise gives emphasis on observation and the quantitative method of research, policy research’s main objective is the success of a particular project, shirking the question of value as in positivism. For instance, what is considered as a rational approach by a policy analyst is how to accomplish a goal in the most effective and efficient way, which must not bring in the issue of whether this method is morally good or bad. Thus, a rational policy analyst will determine the best means to eliminate a human population based on these criteria, using poison gas for example. Other methods of policy analysis, besides the so-called comprehensive rational method, are incrementalism and scenario buildings.

In the Philippines, there is still a vogue for positivist (behavioral research), specially those commissioned, mostly from the academe, by establishment institutions like NEDA and political parties, e.g. social and poll surveys. Policy researches are primarily conducted within the university classrooms, particularly in UP.

Development Research

Development research eschews the value-neutrality of the positivist and pragmatic perspectives. It advances that researches both in the social and natural sciences cannot by the logic of the research undertaking itself be value-neutral. A scientist, for example, researching on the making of the atomic bomb, may consider his work as merely a pursuit of knowledge. Even in this case, the work has already a subjective value for the researcher. But a research is conducted within a social milieu and thus has an objective aspect. The question arises – who will use the output or the result of the research, a question which has an objective significance. This is the reason why one of the scientists who was responsible for the invention of the atomic bomb in 1944, upon realizing that it was used on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, vowed from then on that he will never work for any government institutions. The objective implication of all researchers, most specially in the social sciences, will bring in the issue for whose welfare will the research be utilized, and thus, a choice of value will have to be considered.

Development research primarily uses the qualitative research methods of participant observation, interviews and of course, archival research. The participant observation in Development Research is involved participant observation, that is, the researcher through his work makes a choice to assist his target group to understand their conditions in order to change them to the better. This is to be contrasted with purely ethnographic qualitative methods of research, which is uncommitted participant observation and is basically descriptive in thrust. Ethnographic research takes the respondents as if they were some exhibits to e studied (an example of this is Oscar Lewis’ Children of Sanchez, a descriptive study of a poor family in Mexico) without the researcher manifesting any efforts to help change what he observed as debilitating conditions of the people he is with. Ethnography and its offshoot phenomenological social researches have never lost its appeal to academics in Continental Europe, particularly in France.

In the Philippines, where poverty and exploitation of the basic classes, peasants, workers and fishers, are widespread, the Development Researcher under my supervision makes a value commitment to side with the poor masses against all forms of social oppression. Development research as I conduct them seeks to benefit the target group with the output of the research. The researcher, while immersing (integrating) himself/ herself in the community of the poor masses also join in the activities of his/ her respondents, in their meetings, in affirmative actions for change like rallies, and in ordinary social affairs like fiestas. But the researcher must avoid romanticizing the poor masses which is an inclination in some methods of research among the oppressed as in Freire’s "Pedagogy of the Oppressed".

Since the researchers, under my tutelage, are students, who mostly come from the class of the petty-bourgeoisie, they are made to become aware before they live with the masses of the possibility of their class background affecting the effectivity of their research. A petty bourgeois intellectual may have the tendency to be didactic among whom he considers as his less educated subjects. Any such negative attitudes are to be countered by imbibing on the researcher that though he/ she can teach the poor masses certain rudiments of research, he/ she can likewise learn from the latter new insights and methods of handling social situations. We agree with Mao Tse-Tung and Freire that the researcher must be both teacher and student in the midst of the oppressed classes. The researcher cannot purport to be a leader for social change among those whom he is researching; his main task is to share his knowledge and unite in practice with the people in their struggle to change their oppressive situations.

While the primary methods utilized by y students in Development Research are qualitative – involved participant observation and interviews, these could be buttressed by quantitative methods of research like non-probability and probability samplings. Though respondents may be chosen through these sampling methods, their qualitative components must at all times not be overlooked. Thus, there must be in-depth interviews of respondents of a random sample chosen from a larger random sample composed of those who answered questionnaires (the use of questionnaires is a quantitative method).

At times my students in order to strengthen their qualitative conclusions, also utilize statistical tests of hypothesis like the chi-square test. Tests of hypothesis come in handy when the differences of opinions of groups of people may be close. However, such tests can never tell one whether his/ her respondents are lying or not. Qualitative research, like immersion with the respondents’ community, can effectively provide the researcher means to identify situations where a lie is being resorted to by his subjects.

Development Research and Historical Materialism

Development research which is change-oriented towards society consequently requires a theory of social reality. In the social sciences, several schools of thought offer particular theories towards social change. Among the most dominant are the dialectical idealist theory of Georg Wilhelm Hegel, the structuralist-functionalist theory of the French school with Emile Durkheim and Levi-Strauss as the more notable proponents, the pragmatist approach, made popular among policy research practitioners by American political scientists, and historical materialism. Hegel’s dialectical idealism which posits an Absolute Mind behind all developments in the world could be considered a metaphysical presentation of social change (some say mythical). Its basic premise of "All that is real is rational, and all that is rational is real" negates human freedom. If every event, including social change, is according to the Reason of the Absolute, then freedom is simply illusory, since all human actions (war, murder, peace, mayhem) inevitably lead to the realization of the Plan of the Absolute. One might as well assume an attitude of resignation, for all events progress towards what is the best for the world.

The structuralist-functionalist theory of society advances that the maintenance of the equilibrium of a social system is the main function (embodied as roles) of individuals and groups composing this society. Any disequilibrium in the functions of the social actors (workers striking against their capitalist employer) calls for an intervention by policy makers to restore harmony within the system. What must be changed or reformed are, therefore, the dysfunctional parts of society not the whole social system itself in order to once again achieve a healthy equilibrium of the whole.

The pragmatist outlook, of which we have already made mention, takes social projects in isolation from the whole social structure. It is reformist in its theory of change and considers the success of the project as its overriding criterion, ignoring all questions of value. Pragmatism rejects all systemic views of social realities, which, thereby, renders it in practice to be a preserver of the status quo as we can also say of the structuralist-functionalist school of thought, the latter a variant of positivism.

Development research in which I have been involved aims to liberate the exploited classes through providing them with a theoretical framework in order to identify the ultimate roots of their oppressions. Historical materialism more appropriately offers this theoretical framework because of its macro/holistic explanations of the exploitation of man by man. Its theory and method of class analysis through the study of the social relations of production of a given society more effectively describes and explains (compared to the other theories discussed) the diverse conditions of social classes. For instance, through a study of the history of the emergence of the social relations of production in a particular peasant community, my students are able to explain to the peasants why they remain poor and lack political power. In one case in Jala-jala, Rizal, the research on the present process of food production among the small peasants and fishers of the place led to the realization by the community that though they are the food producers, they had remained impoverished because of the system of ownership of a cooperative to which they sell their products. The cooperative was largely owned and managed by the elite families of the barrio in conjunction with the government.

Historical materialism in contrast with the structuralist-functionalist and pragmatist schools is anti-thetical to any palliative or incremental solution to the exploitation of the poor masses. Though Historical Materialism (HM) advocates unity with the oppressed classes in their legal struggles, it is in the end revolutionary and not reformatory in direction. In short, HM shows the path towards a comprehensive transformation of the whole social structure towards the emancipation of the oppressed classes in its relating local problems to the national situation. It is only through a thorough-going analysis of the ills of the social system and the determinations of the ways to change it, can the poor peasants or fishers discover their power in society.

The researcher, who has greater time and opportunity to study historical materialism as a theory of social change applied to different social conditions, therefore, has the responsibility to teach his respondents the analytical skills of class analysis while refining such skills through learning from the particular conditions of his respondents. The researcher who is an historical materialist is a dialectician in practice, teaching and learning simultaneously among the people.

Development Research with an historical materialism perspective is never mercenary. Though a researcher may be paid an allowance or a research fee, these are secondary to the main rationale of his/her research --- that is to educate the oppressed classes for affirmative actions. The outputs of his research are meant above all to be used by his target groups to guide their actions towards their social emancipation.

During the research period, our students integrate with the poor community, either living for a month or longer in the place. When they are in a community, the students are asked to bring the barest necessities like clothing and shoes. They eat the same food as their foster parents (they may have several foster parents if they move from one house to another) and must participate in household chores or even production work. Their stays in the communities are facilitated by peoples’ organizations which work with us and which are active in the area or near the area under study. The people in the community assign our students appropriate research tasks needed by the community. These are usually class analyses of the roots of the common problems of the poor classes in the area. Though the students have an initial research framework for class analysis of a community, this can be revised or even changed, altogether based on the peculiar conditions of the target area. The people in the area discuss the framework and monitor the progress of the research with the students. After his/her work, the researcher may opt to either be a consultant of the people if the latter so desire or leave the place. Often in the cases of our students, they come back to the place occasionally after their research work.


It has been the thesis of this paper that the objective value implications of his work cannot be dismissed by the researcher. All researches have a subjective and/or objective value, the latter either known or not known by the researcher. If the objective value of a research is known, that is, for whose service the research output will be put into us, the researcher can either commit himself to this value or simply ignore it. In the latter case, he/she can rationalize to himself/herself that he/she is engaged in the research for the money anyway. If the researcher undertakes his work simply for mercenary reasons, then this is the subjective value of the research for him/her. However, no human action occurs in a social vacuum, and if it turns out that the research that a person was involved in caused the miseries of people, then to shun responsibility for this outcome is like Pontius Pilate washing his hands.

We submit that with the current situation of the world where around 1.5 billion people, according to the UN, are impoverished and starving, what is urgently needed are morally aware researchers doing Development Research as we have discussed in this paper. We submit that it is better to have contributed to the upliftment of mankind than to part from this world with nothing to leave behind but your own mere subjective fulfillment. (end)

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