The researcher as storyteller

by J. Mikhail Solitario, UP MPRO

“I talked to this jeepney driver who told me he had changed his mind about this administration. He was listening to this daily radio drama where one of the characters was a drug addict who got killed in a police operation. For him, it was a turning point.” This is how Assistant Professor Cleve Kevin Robert Arguelles retells a story of one of his interviewees for his research on populism which earned him the distinction of best thesis in his master’s program abroad.

First love: research

Like most Political Science majors, Cleve chose his undergraduate program as a stepping stone to Law. After several Political Science courses, he began to develop an interest in politics and its relatively “non-legal” aspects, such as political dynamics and political opinions. In his junior year, he became a research assistant to Professor Dr. Clarita Carlos of the UP Diliman Department of Political Science. Dr. Carlos mentored Arguelles in a wide array of research projects which he found fascinating. It was the demand to multitask that captured his interest: working with a different agency every day, from the Metro Manila Development Authority to the International Labor Organization.

Prof. Arguelles in an interview at ANC’s Talkback

The decision to teach came a little later, before graduation, when he realized that teaching was something he had been doing both as an activist and a former Regent, by going around UP’s constituent units and discussing UP issues with a big audience. His first applications for teaching went to other state universities in Manila because he wasn’t very confident that he would get accepted in UP. His primary motivation was still anchored on his first love: research. “We produce knowledge, but before we do that, you have to acquire knowledge first,” Cleve adds.

His first years of teaching in the Polytechnic University of the Philippines and the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila exposed him to realities outside UP—small rooms, inadequate facilities, and different teaching styles. Looking back, he was thankful for the experience of teaching in other universities and handling students who were not political science majors. When he finally taught Political Science majors in UP Manila, the transition was not that difficult. Arguelles is currently the Chair of the Political Science Program which entails not just an academic but an administrative workload as well.

He believes UP can excel further by blending research into teaching, which develops not just critical thinking skills but sparks the interest of students for research even in non-method courses. With a research mindset, UP students may be able to transition from being mere consumers of knowledge to producers as well.

Prof. Arguelles poses with a marker in Central European University

A different kind of training

Arguelles finished a Master’s Degree in Political Science in the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Hungary. “I was already doing graduate studies here in Diliman in Philippine Studies first, before transferring to Political Science. However, I wanted to be acquainted with a different kind of training. UP is already the top institution in the country, but in the region and in the world, we still need to catch up,” says Arguelles.

Prof. Arguelles with his graduating class in Central European University in Hungary

He then looked into schools and programs, with two primary considerations: one, a leading institution in his field of interest; and, two, a program which he could manage to take given financial realities and considerations. He ended up getting a yearlong scholarship in Budapest, an Eastern European city which has a standard of living comparable to that of Manila. Armed with his intent to specialize in populism, Hungary proved to be the perfect fit, for it also has incumbent populist political leaders, with CEU’s Department of Political Science boasting of a strong roster of faculty members specializing in the that research area.

CEU is an American university with 98% of its student body coming from outside Hungary and whose home countries may be experiencing challenges in democracy. Classroom exchanges on populism were expectedly vibrant and the exchanges were always unique with fresh perspectives from Russian, Venezuelan, Hungarian, and American classmates.

Cleve says that he has been asked for tips on preparing for studying abroad. He advises prospective students to conduct their own research, ask those who already studied abroad, and check scholarship openings. “It doesn’t always have to be London or Paris or the US”, he says. According to him, there are many good university cities which offer not just academic training but professional development as well. Have your mentors check your application materials, as well, he advises.

A panel discussion with fellow foreign classmates

During his thesis year in CEU, he was given a grant by the university to do research on populist supporters of the current administration. The research grant required a mobility factor which meant he had to work with a Philippine university other than his home institution, UP Manila. This led him to establish connections with the Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU), where he served as a visiting scholar. His award-winning research was hosted in the Development Studies Program of ADMU.

Cleve did research on populist publics or supporters. In media and even in academic literature, this segment of the population, according to him, was always negatively represented as unthinking and monolithic. During his research he discovered that these voters were actually thinking, but were motivated by factors different from those of traditional voters. His research established that the current president’s positions reflected those of his populist supporters in urban poor communities.

Upon submission, Arguelles’ supervisor nominated his research for the award. His qualitative work eventually won the prize which had always been dominated by quantitative research. He is now developing the thesis project into a book. Eventually, he aims to publish other books on Asian populism.

A political science class with Prof. Arguelles in UP Manila

He advises concerned citizens who wish to tackle populism to use emotions, not just facts. He notes that a lot of well-meaning news organizations and civic groups resort to fact-checking and statistics; but unfortunately, populist supporters do not respond to these. Instead, they respond to how these facts and statistics affect their life experiences.

Just like the jeepney driver’s story, an emotional connection was established which developed empathy through creative storytelling techniques. “We need to keep telling stories to humanize these facts and statistics,” Cleve Arguelles argues.